What Are We Watching?

When I first heard of the plan to join ‘The Concert Across America to End Gun Violence’ today, it seemed but natural to shape the service around this terrible scourge. And not just that, but around the epidemic of violence that grips our country and most of our world. So when Steve asked if I had any ideas for a song that the Sound Messengers could play, I thought of U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

The Bloody Sunday mentioned in the song refers to an incident in Derry in 1972 where British soldiers fired on a crowd of protesters, killing 14 of them. The song’s lyrics, however, speak to the loss of life to violence; for instance:

And the battle’s just begun

There’s many lost, but tell me who has won

Trenches dug within our hearts

And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” was originally written in 1982 as a call for peace in Ireland but has evolved over the years to become a call for the end of all conflicts. Its message is backed by the power of the lyrics and music it contains. (Sound Messengers play “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”)

For me and many others, there is one line in this song that always remains in my heart and mind after I listen to it: “How long? How long must we sing this song?”

Probably, and sadly, for a while yet…. There is just no easy, no simple, solution. But there are some places in our lives we can look at and question. U2 hints at one such place with these lyrics:

And it's true we are immune

When fact is fiction and TV reality.

They wrote that in 1982. And what is all over the place now? Fake news and reality TV. So one of the questions I think we need to ask ourselves is this:

What are we watching?

It would be an easy, facile answer to the question of violence in our society simply to blame it on what we are watching. “If there just wasn’t as much violence on television, for instance, we would all be safer.” I don’t know; if this were the case, then the popularity of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘The Voice’ should be the cause of uncontrollable and widespread dancing and singing in the streets.

Another observation that makes blaming television suspect as the cause of violence in our society is the fact that humanity has been, as journalist, Michael Ventura, once wrote, “bludgeoning each other with blunt objects since before the dawn of consciousness.” And we continue to do so in various and sundry, and evermore sophisticated, ways.

If for no other reasons, then, what we watch cannot be the sole cause of violence. Not only that, but I do not think there is a “sole cause of violence.” Like most all human behaviors, the causes of violence are complex and cannot be reduced to any simplistic formula without creating some illusion that we understand it completely and can therefore control it. So if you are looking for solutions in this sermon, you will not find them. I do not have a solution that will forever fix things, and, frankly, I do not know anyone who does.

So with these caveats in mind, I have nonetheless wondered many times over the years just what sort of influence what we watch does have on our minds, our hearts, our souls, and ultimately on our behavior? I remember cautioning my son when he was young about his television watching, that he should be careful about what goes into his brain – operating on the assumption that as what we eat effects our physical well-being in many ways, so what we take into our minds and souls must likewise effect our spiritual well-being in at least some ways.

The question I keep wondering about is, in what way? If what we watch does not solely determine our behavior, then what effect does it have on our behavior and how we view and perceive the behavior of others?

For instance, most of us, I think it is safe to say, viewed the tragedy several years ago at Columbine High School with horror. We were saddened, hurt, wanted to cry, wanted to scream, felt rage, sorrow, numbness, helplessness, grief, confusion. We may have ranted about how messed up things are “out there” that such a thing could happen. — Well, how could such a thing happen? How could children amass the arsenal and the anger necessary for such an assault, apparently and especially without anyone noticing enough to intervene early on? They even kept a video record of their preparations — five tapes worth. What were their parents, and other involved adults, watching instead?

These home videos by the two Columbine students who planned and carried out this attack on their fellow students and teachers, contained a part where they speculated that “[Movie] directors will be fighting over this story.” I have no doubt but that someone is today very quietly doing just that. I have no doubt, because it has happened before with other tragedies that have occurred, be they transformed into “docu-dramas” or “fictionalized accounts.” Eventually, it appears as a made-for-TV movie, or splashed across the silver screen itself, and opening soon at a theatre near you.

And when that happens, when people sit at home or go to the theatre to see it, what are they watching? If you were at home or in the theatre, what would you be watching?

I will be the first to admit that I am squeamish about most movies, or television or videos, that feature graphic violence (and it does not take much for me to consider it ‘graphic’). I have walked out of movies that pushed me over the edge. I use to try to watch Quentin Tarantino movies just to see what all the excitement was about, but found myself getting so knotted up inside, so tight and tense that I finally gave up. I will be the first to admit: I just don’t get it.

I do not see how violence can be entertainment.

Now I do sit through a good number of movies and television programs which contain violent scenes, sometimes many (“Game of Thrones” comes to mind). Sometimes I have to avert my eyes, sometimes I leave the room, but I simply do not watch scenes of ‘graphic violence.’ When we do watch movies that glorify, and perhaps in addition also de-sensitize us to some degree, to violence, what are we watching? And when violence becomes entertainment (as it seems to have done in some movies and programs whose sole purpose is apparently to see how disgusting they can get) — when violence becomes that sort of entertainment, what have we become?

If you are not convinced by the cinema or cable TV alone that violence has become one of the leading entertainments of our time, then turn your attention to video games, “games” wherein the object is to blast your virtual opponent into a vast array of bloody pieces so you “win.” I wonder, as we watch advertisements for even more “sophisticated” and technologically dazzling games, what are we losing? Have we indeed become immune? Have we become a nation of watchers? a nation of watchers who, for the most part, do not see? There have been any number of jokes about “couch potatoes,” but are we not, in many ways, cultivating this very crop we then make fun of?

I wonder: Is watching the only thing that people are doing these days? Watching the World go by? Watching as we become more and more technologically sophisticated and less and less psychologically aware or spiritually concerned? Watching as we search for more and more ways to plug in, but not engage in? Watching and longing for a remote control for Life, so when something happens that makes us uncomfortable, we can simply change the channel, move on, and keep Life as remote as possible? Are some people who have the leisure to do so beginning to view life as a selection of programs: if you don’t like what you’re watching, simply change the channel?

What are we watching? Are we watching Life pass us by, feeling frustrated and angry and helpless to do anything about it? Many of the responses of some people to these feelings have been to lash out in more dangerous and violent ways.

We are watching an increased amount of violence in our culture – people wielding guns and other weapons in both specific attacks against individuals, in random public attacks, and in attacks that are racially motivated. Even some of our police have been increasingly quick on the draw, killing black men in the street with apparent impunity.

What is going on? Is this violence in some way a response to an ultimate sense of nihilism? a despair, a fear, that it just doesn’t really matter? an anger that people’s lives lack the opportunity for real meaning and making a difference in the world?

Michael Ventura suggests that we all want an answer to all these questions that vex and perplex us that is both definite enough to give us direction and open-ended enough to give us a sense of meaningful choice.

And so it is. And there are many ways we can answer these questions, many ways we can address the problems that are so pervasive these days. And as I said, I do not believe there is any one answer that will make it all better. I do believe there are other questions we can be asking that have the potential to move us in a more positive, creative, and humane direction. One of those questions is simple, but I believe can have profound results.

“What do you love?” — And I mean, love. What gets you up in the morning and keeps you going and holds you up when things get really tough? It is a question that must be answered within ourselves, and then, answered with our lives. “Let the beauty we love,” taught Jelaluddin Rumi, “be what we do.”

To know what you love, to keep what you love alive, and keep the thing in you that loves alive, this is what each of us can and needs to do. To know the unique way in which the creative, creating, and transforming Spirit of Life flows through you, this is what each of us can and needs to know.

To know the ways in which that Spirit molds your life into an essential and meaningful part of the greater Life around you, this is what each of us can and needs to do.

To nurture that Spirit within and moving through us with words and experiences and services to others that are encouraging and strengthening, this is what each of us can and needs to do.

Doing this, nurturing what we love and keeping the thing in us that loves alive and vital is really nothing novel; it has been called many things over the centuries: Jesus called it seeking the Kingdom of God; other teachers have called it salvation, enlightenment, following the Tao, cultivating wholeness, following the Way of the Great Spirit.

Finding and nurturing and sharing what you love is nothing new; it has been the message of Religion over all the ages. Finding that which gives Life meaning, finding a faith which fills it with meaning, finding that which sustains us in the midst of all that would drain meaning and leave behind only despair – this is the core message of Religion over all the ages.

I know a lot of people with rather narrow views of Religion who make rather loud vocal advocates for the presence of their one, particular version, their particular interpretation, as the panacea, as the ultimate and only salvation of us all. And I know that liberals, for the most part, reject such narrow interpretations and their advocacy. But we err if, because of this, we reject all spiritual approaches to the pervasive challenges of Life. We err if we do not keep a liberal spiritual voice in the public dialogue. We err if we abandon what our religious ancestors once spoke of as “the liberal gospel,” for in such error, we do violence to our own heritage.

Knowing what I love, for me, is one and the same with knowing what I hold sacred. A renewed sense of the sacred is, at least in part, what I believe we all need. Poet Mary Oliver, as unorthodox in her faith as one can be, once wrote:

To believe in the soul — to believe in it exactly as much and as hardily as one believes in the mountain, say, or a fingernail, which is ever in view — imagine the consequences! How far-reaching, and thoroughly wonderful! For everything, by such a belief, would be charged, and changed.

This is not a solution in the sense we usually think of solutions: as formulas to apply to problems that will result in their immediate resolution. It is instead a more subtle, and in the long run, more effective approach. It is a change of attitude, it is a Way of Being that can transform how we relate and interact with one other and with our world.

For when we truly and deeply see Life as sacred, the way we see it and the way we relate to it and the way we respond to it is “charged and changed.” Violence does not and will not go away completely (for to a degree, violence is a natural part of Nature, as the recent, deadly storms in the Caribbean attest). I would suspect, however, that such an attitude, such a love, such a faith, would significantly lessen the incidence of violence as an entertainment and as the solution to human frustration and confusion.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

To know what you love, to keep that love inside you alive, this is as profound a spiritual practice as one can have. Find the way to nurture it in your life and then live it into your world.

How long can we sing that song? I say: let’s find out….

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