The Weight of Violence

On Easter morning, I woke up in Ohio. The spring rain coated the verdant grass, the bursting bulbs, and buds on trees that have yet to bloom. I went downstairs, where I’d left my phone, to help prepare brunch, a mainstay in my family on birthdays, Christmas, and Easter. To my surprise, I was awake and ready before everyone else with just the rain and morning birds and coffee pot to keep me company. In the silent, fresh morning, I checked the news. And my heart sank.

Nearly 300 people had died in Sri Lanka in systematic suicide bombings in hotels and Christian churches. 500 more people were injured. The symbolism of so many wounded and killed on Easter Sunday, the representation in Christianity of resurrection, restoration, renewal, was sickening.

Like the terror incidents that have occurred in places of worship in recent memory, New Zealand, Pittsburgh, Charleston, among others, it is a terrifying reminder of the world we live within. One in which hate and discrimination violate places of sanctuary.

As I scrolled at the images of the devastation in Sri Lanka, I felt a heaviness gather around my heart. Tears gathered in my eyes. While Sri Lanka may feel far away to many, it does not to me. I could imagine Sri Lankan families gathering for Mass, the same Mass my family and I would be attending in a few hours. I could see us in them, and them in us. Not only because of our shared religion, but also because of the contours of their faces.

I spend a great deal of time explaining my race to strangers. In response to their highly unoriginal and offensive questions about my ethnic ambiguity, like, “What are you?” I often just say, “I am biracial.” Or “I am Asian-American.” Or “I am half Indian.” But the truth is, my family’s cultural and racial lines are more complicated. Half of our ancestors are from the southernmost point of India, and we are part Tamil, an ethnicity unique to Southern India and Sri Lanka. The faces splashed across the news yesterday evoke the faces of my family photographs. I felt a sort of unexplained kinship and some sort of love sparked by the recognition of sameness across the borders country and culture.

Violence is paradoxical in this way. It is particular and yet universal. The nature of hatred shifts form based on context. In one country, Tamils are harshly discriminated against and Christians are in the minority. Where in so many others, white supremacy wields violence in so many multilayered ways and births racism and anti-semitism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, and xenophobia. Bearing these particularities in mind, violence wrecks the same havoc upon bodies, communities, and families. Violence is violence. It always destroys what is sacred, what is good, what is loved. It is always unjust.

When we witness something of ourselves in the community affected by a violent event, we tend to emphasize the markers that make us like them. It is, perhaps, exactly how it should be. There are particularities of the human experience that we uniquely understand. It is a part of witnessing, and to speak truth to this particularity is to say this, too. Ideally, through empathy we find ways to bridge our experience to the suffering of others, so that we share grief, indignation, the work of healing without collapsing difference.

When we relate to one group because of our origins or religion, we should allow that to breathe. We should know that our soul recognizes something deep about the terror of being human. We must learn to let insight build our capacity for compassion.

What are we to do when we bear witness the suffering of others far away, with or without this sort of poignant recognition? For me, in the spirit of Easter, I return to prayer. Thomas Keating says of prayer, “Prayer is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing—closer than consciousness itself.” Prayer is the conscious act of opening oneself up and making one’s life that stands in opposition to violence and that seeks the awareness that makes compassion possible.

To grieve together is holy. To send love to those suffering repairs where the fabric of community has been brutally torn. I refuse to believe that is insignificant. It may be intangible, but it is the offering up of our heartbreak, our brokenness, our pain, our confusion, our hope our love, the offering up of what we have witnessed, the sign we are paying attention.

Today, the images of destruction, of grief, of devastation are heart-wrenching. Just like after Pittsburgh and Christchurch and Charleston. This morning, I came across an image of a Sri Lankan woman draping her body over the casket of a loved one. Another woman, in the picture, lies on the floor in apparent anguish. I was broken open at the sight of their loss. I see and feel their pain in my own body. I will not turn away.

I prayed for the families who are enduring unimaginable loss today. My day and all the love I can express to those within my reach will be dedicated to them. It may not be everything, but it is something. In the days to come, I will carry them and their healing in my heart.