“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen
It is the season of Advent, of course, and the Winter Solstice is upon us. And given all the dark things happening in the world, it makes sense to want to turn to the light. We think of winter being a dark time, but really the short days begin in the fall. The winter solstice is the shortest, darkest day of the year, and afterwards the days grow just a tiny bit lighter and longer. For me November and December are the times I struggle most mightily, as each day gives a little less light. I tend to perk up in February, despite the usual bitter cold and snowbanks, because the light finally gets noticeably stronger.
In the Christian tradition the light is spiritual, embodied by the birth of the Christ child. Whether you are celebrating the spiritual or physical light, getting through these dark days is what this season is all about. It’s about routing around in the dark corners, literal and figurative, trying to find our way until the light returns.
It goes without saying that the corners are pretty dark right now.
On Sunday we went to see The Hobbit. When I was in 4th grade my teacher, Mr. Waldeier, read us a chapter every day after recess for several weeks. On a really good day he would read two chapters. I re-read the book several times during my teens and twenties, and settled into the movie expecting to be transported. I was not. I found it an extremely violent interpretation, to the point where I lost count of the beheadings. I know, I’m a 41 year old white lady, my middle age is showing. But really: they took a beautiful, magical story and turned it into a slasher flick. Totally unnecessary, and disappointing. Granted, there were no semi-automatic weapons in Middle Earth, but still. After a couple of days of seeing traumatized children pass by on the television screen, it was a little hard to take.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It can’t be about selling tickets – with all the big names involved, and the long-awaited anticipation of the movie, it was a given to do well at the box office. I suppose to some extent they might be pandering to their anticipated teenage boy audience, but that begs a whole other question about why we think it’s okay to expose our boys to so much violence. Let me be clear: it’s not that I think playing violent video games or watching violent movies is going to turn us all into mass murderers. I do, however, think this stuff desensitizes us to the real, actual violence that goes on in the world. The Vietnam conflict was the first time where photos from the battlefield were broadcast on television, and everyone was shocked. We’re at the point now where so much violence dances across screens that shooting up a classroom of six-year olds is what it takes for us to be collectively appalled. The truth is, those children and their teachers are just 26 of thousands of victims of violent crime this year. Poor, black inner city kids get shot all the time. (In one section of Boston alone, 19 people have been shot this year.) Why are we not outraged all the time?
The truth is, we can talk about gun control, mental health reform, and school safety until we’re blue in the face. It’s not going to change anything. Our problems run much deeper than public policy.
(That said, if you think the answer to guns is arming elementary school teachers, you clearly haven’t spent much time around six-year olds lately.)
Some have suggested that this is all because we’ve taken God out of the equation. Personally I think we’ve taken humanity out of the equation. Somehow we’ve forgotten that we’re all stuck on this fragile little blue planet, twirling all alone around a sun destined to one day burn out. We live in a country where it is perfectly acceptable for the CEO of McDonald’s to make over $8 million a year while employees are NOT GETTING BY on minimum wage. We flock to big box stores to buy cheap stuff made in other countries, sold by people who don’t qualify for health insurance but *do* qualify for food stamps. And then we complain about how high our taxes are. We don’t want to subsidize birth control or abortion, but we don’t want to pay for day care or pay a living wage to working parents. We’ve spent billions of dollars protecting ourselves from foreign terrorists, but none of that was able to stop someone from shooting up a public school.
We scream “socialism” at the slightest notion that maybe, just maybe, we are in fact our brother’s keeper. That we may have some shared responsibility for one another. And then we complain we’ve taken Christ out of the picture.
In a piece about the Advent season, Kathleen Norris writes about the necessity of dark times:
It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without.
“Take up our share of the cross”. Even for an agnostic like me, that’s a pretty powerful concept. Whether it’s Jesus that’s doing the asking or not, I think we are all being called right now to figure out what parts of this darkness we can own and change. Some of this is simple, like the 26 Acts of Kindness started by Ann Curry, and, y’know, maybe not fighting over mall parking spaces. But then there’s the hard stuff. And we’re not so good at the hard stuff. We don’t much really like looking under the hood. It’s easier to blame a crazy person than to reform mental health care. It’s easier to say guns are the problem than to admit we foster a culture of violence in our country. It’s easier to tell people to get off welfare and get a job than it is to ask ourselves if something is fundamentally wrong with how our service-based economy works. It’s at the point where we simply cannot afford as a country, as human beings, to ignore these hard questions. Now, more than ever, we have to grab our collective flashlights – literal and spiritual – and make our way out of the darkness.