Thoughts on the New Zealand massacre from a counselor

Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.

I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in 2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?

I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.

One day my client came in complaining about, and even mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like this.

Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.

My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.

I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.

Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.

I couldn’t not speak. I questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.

I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.

So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?

Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?

We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?

A new tagline; a clarified mission

My best friend and her wife were in town this weekend when we had the happy coincidence of a big, gnarly snowstorm holding us all hostage in our house. This meant we were trapped inside with them, forced to play multiple games of Carcassone and Sequence, eat copious amounts of cookies, cook hearty Southern food, and talk shop about the Enneagram. I know. Rough times, right?

Having them around gives me the chance to have long conversations about topics of interest to me (I love my husband dearly, but he’s more of a doer, not much of a conversationalist…). One realization I had (am having) is the surprisingly little amount of insight I sometimes feel I have into myself. For instance, although I know the Enneagram pretty well, I have the worst time knowing (or staying on) what type I am. I’ve been very good at persuading my listener that I am really a certain type, only to change my mind a couple months later. What that means to me is that sometimes I identify so strongly with an idea of what/who I am, that it is hard to step back and see the stable, unchanging Self that lies underneath all the preconceptions I hold about myself.

In that same vein, this weekend I realized that the tagline I had for my blog is misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but rather because I thought it was what I was about – or what I was supposed to be about. My tagline was “thoughtful explorations of spirituality, psychology, and their intersections,” as you may recall. After all, I’m a counselor, and I feel myself to be spiritually inclined and want to write about it. So that’s what I do, right?

Actually, no. When I take a cursory look at the podcasts I listen to, the books I gravitate to (currently just dived in to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), and the things I often write about on here, I have a different inclination. I unabashedly enjoy writing about theological issues. I particularly enjoy looking at those issues through a lens of culture: both our modern culture, and the culture in which ancient texts were written.

I have a passion that cannot be extinguished (at least it hasn’t been, yet) for the urgency of not letting constricting theologies and religious views lead society around like a bull on a nose ring. My heart quickens when I think about helping free an enslaved Christendom from its patriarchal, colonial, xenophobic, unbridled capitalistic chains, and help restore it to the justice-for-the-oppressed, freedom-for-the-enslaved, dividing-walls-broken-down, grace-filled emancipator that Christianity was meant to be.

Retrieved from Stock Photos

That is what I feel called to write about here. Sure, I might say things that some perceive as polarizing, or too political, in ways that writing about psychology would not have me do. But look at our world around us. Is the time not an urgent now?

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt you were “supposed” to do one thing but realized your heart was drawn toward another? Have you ever realized your conceptions of yourself were really misconceptions – and humbly chose your new way? Have you ever felt you must speak, but were afraid to, but maybe you did it anyway? My heart extends toward you, anonymous you, because I know your struggles to do so are probably greater than mine. This is no easy work. My hope is we push toward truth and emancipation together.

May we courageously step out into the unknown.