Tag Archives: tragedy

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The suffocating sense of no safe place to ride and how to breathe again

tyler

Tyler: An exit-door procedure at 30.000 feet. Mm-hmm. The illusion of safety. You know why the put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile, you accept your fate. — Fight Club

The news this week has been awful. It’s awful every week. But this week in particular, for me, because it has reminded me that we exist with what Tyler Durden in Fight Club calls ‘the illusion of safety’… we’re never really safe; and the news this week has so totally robbed me of my sense of safety.

The illusion of safety has been torn from us; and I want an oxygen mask and the euphoric docility it promises. I want to forget the world isn’t safe and to go back to my day to day existence free from fear.

That’s seemed harder this week. First the horrible, tragic, nightmare at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and then today, this horrific, awful, heartbreaking story of a Brisbane bus driver whose life was suddenly and dramatically taken while he was sitting in his bus at the bus stop on the street of a suburb very close to mine. The thing that gets me about these stories is not just the experience of the victims and their families; but the witnesses. And in the bus story — the helpless passengers on the bus not only had to experience the trauma of witnessing the attack, but 11 were treated for smoke inhalation as a result…

I don’t really want to leave my home. My wife and daughter are travelling by bus today, it’s so easy for me to imagine them, or me, being on the bus when that senseless, deadly, act of violence took place. It’s terrifying. And that’s the point. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the passenger seats along with those who witnessed the horror; or in the queue for the ride at Dreamworld… I don’t just feel the shock of grief at the random and pointless destruction of human life; but the fear of witnessing something like that. I don’t want to be confronted with death; I want to stay safe… but more than that, as a parent I definitely don’t want my daughters or son being scarred by witnessing this stuff.

I want to keep them safe.

But I can’t.

I want to ride safely on the bus, or a theme park ride, but I can’t.

Where are the oxygen masks?

When will they drop down to numb this fear; the thing that confronts us when we face up to death and tragedy. I can only imagine the grief being experienced by the family and friends of those killed on that ride, and the bus driver… We can only imagine it, but that is not to say we don’t feel it, the sorrow, the anger, the sense that something is wrong and the world has changed forever through this loss. The imagination is powerful; its how we are able to empathise, but it’s also what makes us feel fear when the world becomes unsafe.

How do we face these realities so that the fear flees? Where do we go to re-capture the illusion of safety? Where’s our oxygen mask? Is there some way to restore the sense that the world is safe, if not make it safe?

The irony is that roller coasters are a sort of controlled environments; or they’re meant to be; a machine made to help us face our fears while being in control. When I heard the story of the tragedy at Dreamworld I had two responses; first, I remembered my one visit to Dreamworld, as a child, and how much our family loved the particular ride. Second, I remembered this obscure interview about how ride designers design rides as stories that I heard on the ABC radio, and this quote about what rides do:

“They are a choreography of movement and emotion. The best coasters know how to pace themselves and pace the rider; not only for the biggest scream, but the biggest highs and lows… Thrill rides are a safe way to do something slightly, seemingly dangerous, even though they’re not. They’re statistically very safe, but they get you close to the feeling of being out of control; the feeling of falling; the feeling of ‘oh no I’m going to die’… Coasters are ‘fear minus death equals thrill’… ” — Dave Cobb, Roller Coaster Designer on 612 ABC Brisbane in January this year.

Statistically very safe. But not totally safe. Sometimes deadly. Sometimes the ride ends in tragedy. Roller Coasters are ‘storytelling machines’ perhaps especially when the statsWhen you get told the risks involved in any medical procedure or activity it’s always ‘1 in x thousand’ and we just write that risk off, but to borrow a line from The Whitlams, if she’s one in a million, then there are five more just in New South Wales.

We live like the passenger on the plane, with the illusion of safety.

And sometimes that illusion comes crashing down.

Well, when we read the news that illusion comes crashing down.

Death sucks. And I mean that both in the ‘it’s terrible’ sense but also in the ‘it’s a black hole that swallows up things that are good’ sense too.

So what do you do when life confronts you with this news; when it feels like it is rubbing your face in it; when you open your browser to your favourite news site and are confronted with death at a theme park, or the senseless killing of a public servant in the middle of a busy suburban street?

Where do we go to feel safe? Is that even possible?

Where are our oxygen masks?

I think there are two real options. Three if you count denial; but I’m not sure empathy really allows that; the sense that it could’ve been me, or I could’ve witnessed it… if we aren’t eye witnesses any more then the media, and social media, is doing a pretty good job of making it just as though we were there; inviting us to relive the moment and take part in a digital post-mortem. There’s CCTV everywhere — and of both incidents. But there are two options. There’s the Tyler Durden option, and there’s the Jesus option.

There’s another pretty big moment in Fight Club where Tyler Durden is training; and breaking; his anarchist recruits. This speech plays over the montage.

“Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart. This is your life. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else. We are all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world. You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes that we wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car that you drive. You are not your khakis. You have to give up. You have to know that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.” — Tyler Durden.

This is Durden’s version of the oxygen mask. It’s meant to buy him an army of soldiers willing to face death in order to ‘live life to the fullest’; at least as his vision of the full life requires; the life lived free from the fear of death, and free from being defined by your possessions; free to experience unfettered pleasure in the moment before death hits.

This is the approach so many of us modern people take; we’ve cut ourselves off from a sense of meaning beyond the material, and beyond ourselves, which means the only way we can face death is pile all the pleasure we can into the moment we have.

Or as Paul puts it, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’…

That’s probably the best chapter of the Bible that points me somewhere safe; an oxygen mask if you like; when it comes to witnessing the suckiness of death and realising that we’re never really safe from its grasp, it could happen any time, even on experiences that are ‘statistically safe’… this is the Jesus option, the one where death doesn’t have the last say.

This bit of the Bible is a good one to turn to after you’ve read the news.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… — 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

It’s that he believes the truth of this message that allowed Paul to stare death in the face, and to pen these famous words that help us face our own death without the same fear.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:55

Death still hurts. It still has a massive cost for us; and especially for those most proximate to it. We’re not meant to turn a blind eye to the enormity of it, or to its wrongness; the Tyler Durden approach might feel true but it ultimately leads to us being totally disconnected from the tragedy of death in the lives of others… which is why ‘members of Project Mayhem don’t have names’… and where the Narrator rebels from Tyler’s design by insisting that Robert Paulson does have a name; he’s not quite ready as his alter-ego to buffer himself off from the reality of death. Being confronted with the reality of death doesn’t mean simply accepting it and embracing stoic fatalism, but finding ways to grieve with and love our neighbours — perhaps especially as we’re grieved by death together — because we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with death. We should lament, but we should also offer the real oxygen masks because death doesn’t have to have the final say.

That’s why Paul is motivated to share the news of life with people; because we have an answer to the scourge of death.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58

We’re handing out real oxygen masks; and the safety offered through Jesus isn’t just an illusion. The promise of death’s defeat is caught up with the promise of life without death, and with God. This is the vision of the good life held up by the Bible and the cause we live for in response to death; Tyler had project mayhem a project designed to strip the ‘illusion of safety’ away; leaving us with chaos. We have project re-creation; the opportunity to point people to real safety.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:3-5

The prayer of Christians facing death has been the same since he left, promising to return; the words the Bible finishes with in the book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

It’s a prayer that recognises the awful suckiness of death; that it is a broken version of reality and that we are right to hate it and feel its awful weight, but that also recognises that God has an answer to death and he gives it to us through Jesus; the one who died and was raised.

Come Lord Jesus.

Not just to bring the illusion of safety; or the acceptance of our deathly fate; but to defeat death and truly make us safe from its touch. Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and John in Revelation, stake the whole of Christianity on their testimony to the truth of this message. This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you witness or read these news stories, or anything that rips the illusion of safety ripped from your grasp, the place to find it again is in the empty tomb of Jesus and the promise that it is the start of something new happening in the world. Jesus is your oxygen mask, but he doesn’t just offer the illusion of safety; it’s real. I’m betting my life on that anyway.

Anonymous v Westboro: Unappointed arbiters, justice, and the dangers of repaying evil with evil

In the past, Anonymous, the anonymous group of hacktivists, were reportedly set to lock horns with Westboro Baptist – the hatemongering group who protest at the funerals of dead soldiers and the victims of tragedy, shout slogans outside concerts around the US, and target other churches. They also recently appeared on Russell Brand’s TV talk show.

The problem with being an anonymous group is that you’re pretty easy to imitate, and the group initially denied targeting Westboro – but claimed they were watching, and then hacked their website for the lols.

Now. Anonymous is getting serious.

After Westboro announced they were going to picket the funerals of the victims of the Newtown school shooting (note – not a particularly Christian response to tragedy), Anonymous acted. Circulating contact details for the members of the church around the internet, and posting this ominous video on the Westboro website.

Just be warned – there’s a pretty shocking high pitched noise at the end of the speaking, that might make you jump.

Anonymous – Message To The Westboro Baptist Church from @kyanonymous on Vimeo.

Here’s a snippet of the script – which you can find in full on the Vimeo page.

“Your pseudo-faith is abhorrent, and your leaders, repugnant. Your impact and cause is hazardous to the lives of millions and you fail to see the wrong in promoting the deaths of innocent people. You are self-appointed servants of God who rewrite the words of His sacred scripture to adhere to your prejudice. Your hatred supersedes your faith, and you use faith to promote your hatred.

Since your one-dimensional thought protocol will conform not to any modern logic, we will not debate, argue, or attempt to reason with you. Instead, we have unanimously deemed your organization to be harmful to the population of The United States of America, and have therefore decided to execute an agenda of action which will progressively dismantle your institution of deceitful pretext and extreme bias, and cease when your zealotry runs dry. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to terminate in a short period of time. Attrition is our weapon, and we will waste no time, money, effort, and enjoyment, in tearing your resolve into pieces, as with exposing the incongruity of your distorted faith.”

Anonymous may or may not have orchestrated this petition to have Westboro’s tax exempt status withdrawn by declaring them a hate group (perhaps a more useful petition than the bid to build a death star). That petition has passed the threshold required for a response from the White House.

Part of me really wants Anonymous to succeed. I love the idea of hacktivism, especially when it’s directed at such an insidious group who do real harm to people, and to the gospel of Jesus.

It’d be nice to have the power to do something when tragedy strikes. When there’s someone who is clearly in the wrong – be they directly involved, or a parasitic third party.

But another part of me worries about a society where censorship is dictated either by the consensus of the majority, or the activism of a powerful, and hidden, minority.

It presents another dilemma – given that Anonymous is anonymous – and completely not accountable to anybody but themselves – unlike duly elected representatives of the state – this classic dilemma, is expressed in this manner in Latin:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or “who watches the watchmen?”

Who watches those who appoint themselves as gatekeepers for society? The moral arbiters? Especially if they’re vindictive, and have something that approaches unlimited power to wreak carnage.

The society anonymous seeks to prevent, at least if it’s really channeling V for Vendetta – which the Guy Fawkes mask they own as their own would suggest, is a totalitarian society driven by tyranny, where opposing views are silenced.

There’s something disturbing and ironic about Anonymous appointing themselves as the totalitarian regime, potentially enabling lynch mobs through the publication of contact details of a widely hated group.

There’s a tension here. Words have consequences, and speech is never really free. There’s a problem when “free speech” means you can say anything to harm anybody without the fear of consequences. But there’s an obvious problem, too, with preventing people from speaking because you disagree with what they’re saying.

I hate what Westboro do. I hate that they stand outside funerals and compound the grief of the grieving. I hate that they claim to do it in the name of Jesus. But I’m not called to hate the individuals who make up Westboro. I’m called to love them. I’m not called to silence them. I’m called to speak truth to them. With love.

There should be consequences for Westboro’s hate speech. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say what they want to say wherever they want to say it (namely, outside funerals). But if they want to preach their abominable gospel from their abominable pulpit, and from their website – then they should be free to do it. We get into dangerous territory if people can silence views they disagree with, rather than simply having equal opportunity to speak against them, and let the market decide.

But the Anonymous campaign goes further than that – it aims to silence the group.

They say:

We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.

Everyone is equal.

They mean everyone is equal – except Westboro. It’s all very animal farm – and they’re the pigs. Again, a subversion of anti-totalitarian literature…

There’s a little bit of recent form for this – Anonymous also targeted the advertisers who were prepared to continue advertising with 2Day FM after the recent tragic outcome of a prank call. Blaming the network for the unfortunate, and unforeseeable, outcome of the broadcast. YouTube has canned the videobut you can still see it at The Australian (you may need to google it to get behind the paywall).

“We have studied the facts and found you guilty of murder. You have placed yourself in an untenable position. You have placed your advertisers at risk – their databases, their websites, their online advertising.

We are Anonymous and hereby demand you terminate the contracts of Mel Greig and Michael Christian. We will not listen to any more excuses. We will not let you escape your responsibility. You have a funeral to pay for. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We are amongst you. Expect us. This is not a prank call; this is no laughing matter. This is your one and only chance to make amends. You have one week to do so.”

They’re Judge. Jury. Executioner. Pretty totalitarian – the separation of powers is one of the checks and balances modern democracies use to prevent something of the situation we’ve seen in the past.

Westboro’s idiocy, their evil, their hate – it doesn’t dehumanise them. It just makes them stupid, evil, hatemongers.

My inner idealist would just like to see people continue to be able to sustain the distinction between Westboro and the rest of the people in the world who call themselves Christians, without the need to even talk about them when they do stupid stuff. But their hateful message is powerful because people are always on the look out for an other to hate, and a cause to belong to. We have skinheads. Gangs. Anonymous web terrorists.

I can’t help but think that a much better – particularly if you’re a Christian – response to Westboro (and to Anonymous) is to respond with unexpected love, bizarrely – this is just what Russell Brand did. And what Mars Hill did when Westboro came knocking at their church doors.

Doing this properly requires two things of us.

First, we’ve got to believe that there’s a just God waiting at the end of time to punish wrong doings, and judge justly. The sins of Westboro will not go unpunished. No wrongdoing will.

And this takes the need for us to act as judge, jury, and executioner out of our hands. Leaving us to love. Romans 12 says it best:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That’s the first bit – and already it takes some of the wind out of the sails of the Anonymous campaign (and it’s something Westboro should be taking note of too – but they’re not particularly adept at reading the Bible).

The second factor, perhaps more important. Is to remember that not only are we Anonymous – wanting to run things our way. To decide right and wrong for ourselves, and judge others by our standards. We are Westboro. We are the radio DJs whose poor judgment spiralled out of control. We are sinners. We are subject – by right – of judgment, by a perfect juror, and the execution that comes as a consequence.

Only, if you’re a Christian, Jesus took that judgment for you. Who are you to judge, if this is the case. The (potentially apocryphal) story of the woman at the well is a story worth heeding at this point, from John 8.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

At this point Anonymous finds themselves in the dangerous position of being the Pharisees – those opposed to Jesus – who miss the spirit of the law, and the true nature of humanity – rather than the righteous. They’re not claiming to be Christians – but they are claiming to be the righteous judges who serve a higher calling than mere mortals.

But what do I claim? What can I claim?

I am Fred Phelps. I am a hater. I am a sinner. My heart is a factory of pride, and my pride always comes at the expense of others. I need Jesus to step in for me. How can I do anything but offer love and grace to other sinners?

That’s the most worrying thing about Anonymous taking control – not only did we not choose them as the moral police, not only do they lack any of the accountability required stand in judgment over other sinners, they seem unprepared to treat those they oppose as humans. With love.

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Answering the “why” of tragedy and the “who” of stopping it…

This is the first American school massacre since I became a father. I don’t know if that alone made my heart sink further when we woke up to the news of 20 young lives lost this morning, and the six adults, but holding my daughter as I digested the news brought home to me the sort of range of emotions the parents of these children on the other side of the planet must be feeling.

gun control

Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

I remember writing an essay at uni, back in 2004, about the process the mainstream media moves through when covering a tragic news event like this – from reporting the facts, and just the facts (who, what, when), to reporting first hand accounts (who, how), to “experts” dissecting events and looking for deeper answers to “why” questions. This process has accelerated. Dramatically. Thanks to the internet – such that the facts are available almost immediately, and the democratisation of punditry means that we all have an opinion on the “why” question, and we can all jump on our platforms to not just answer “why bad things happen” but “how this should be fixed.”

The most obvious solutions are pretty obvious. They’re superficial.

We fix shootings by tightening up access to guns. There are secondary solutions – less obvious, and a step or two back on the causal chain – we should fix mental health so that potential perpetrators and sociopaths are identified, and loved – or fixed – or removed from society (and especially from access to guns), before they can lash out.

Some suggest we should stamp out violent video games and change the violent culture that spawns the sorts of people who do this sort of thing. Which seems pretty appealing. Except that this sort of violence predates television, it predates the newspaper, it predates anything that we could meaningfully ban in response.

Sure. Gun control worked in Australia – we haven’t had a shooting massacre since Port Arthur. And it’ll go some way to solving the problem in America. But my Facebook wall is littered with people calling for gun bans, as if that’ll completely solve the problem.

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

That’s cliched. With reason. Cliches become cliches because they describe something true – something that needs to be said often.

We can ban all the guns in the world – but people will look for ways to hurt other people. People will respond to generations of hurt – carrying the baggage inflicted by poor family decision making, absent or abusive parents, generational or systemic mistreatment of people, injustice, bullying, all sorts of pain inflicted by others… People will snap. Will make bad decisions. Will take drugs. Will do all sorts of mood altering things that leave them with a low empathy threshold, or a willingness to inflict pain on others for their own pleasure.

The world is broken.

People in our world are broken.

And giving those people less guns – because you recognise the brokenness is a wise response – but it’s not a solution. 

The only meaningful way to change human nature is to restore it to what it was meant to be before it broke. It broke when we turned away from the God who made the world. The world broke then too.

People were meant to be children of God. Children of God who didn’t turn on each other out of rage or anger. And yet, as Genesis tells the story, almost as soon as people turned away from God – brother knifed brother – you can bet Cain would’ve shot Able if he were able.

The only way for us to stop killing each other is to start not just recognising that we’re all valuable because we’re made in God’s image – and so, shouldn’t be killed by one another – but to start recognising that we’re all, to steal another cliche, family…

And the only way for that to be true is for all of us to turn to the perfect child of God – who not only models being a child of God perfectly, but enables us to become children of God – where our present lives, and future hope, reflect a view of the world that rules out events like this morning’s events.

This future hope makes the present tragedies a little easier to stomach – not easy – because suffering sucks. Tragedies suck. The emotions we experience, even vicariously, in these situations as parents, and siblings, and children of other people – are real. The emotions the victims and their families experience during, and after, the inflicting of horrible human on human tragedy are real – and we can’t play this down. But how can we explain events like someone turning a couple of semi-automatic weapons on children without looking to shortcomings in human nature? Shortcomings described best by the very first chapters of the Bible… And how do we solve them without looking for solutions – solutions described in all the subsequent chapters of the Bible as God began his rescue mission that culminated with the horrific and tragic death of an innocent – Jesus.

He suffered. For the sake of securing a future – for himself, and for those who are in him – as his people. His children. The whole world is waiting for this future. From Romans 8…

17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groaninwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We stop tragedies like this by becoming like Jesus – the true child of God. And while this doesn’t properly happen any time while we’re still this side of heaven, the process begins with following him.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Following Jesus means beginning the process of reversing the human nature that leads to tragedies like this. It conforms and transforms us.

It seems trite. It seems like little comfort to those grieving the brokenness of our world. It seemed a cold comfort to me as I sat nursing my almost 1 year old, imagining a future where something horrific happened to her… but the more I think about it the more I yearn for, and honestly desire the future described in the closing chapters of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, where events like this don’t, and can’t, happen.

21 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Here’s the guarantee from Jesus himself, the closing words of the Bible… They’re what provides real hope, and a real solution, in times like these – when the tragedy of broken human nature strikes…

22 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

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A prank call, tragedy, the blame game, and the power of forgiveness

Wow. What a gut punch. The nurse who took a prank call from an Australian radio station, where staff pretended to be the Queen, and Prince Charles, has, it appears, taken her own life.

There seems to be a pretty strong causal link between the call, and this outcome.

So the blame game begins.

Plenty of people have responded by condemning the Australian pair. I read someone suggesting they should be charged with manslaughter. That is, frankly, ridiculous.

Playing the blame game in a tragic situation like this is ridiculous.

Blame is not the appropriate response to tragedy. It just makes tragedy worse.

It’s a tragedy. A mother of two. A wife of one. And surely a friend to many… lost. It’s awful. Indescribably awful. There are no winners in this situation now. None. But there are people who are going to feel this loss, and their grief is going to be preyed upon by  a hungry and vicious British press, feeding a bunch of people who want to see blood. Everybody is voicing their shock on social media. Because it’s truly shocking.

But words have consequences. Even unintended consequences. The consequences become bigger as the words are given more importance – and in this case some relatively harmless words have become harmful because they’ve been amplified.

The futility of the blame game

It would be easy to point fingers at just about anybody in this situation, but establishing agency and causation is almost impossible. What follows is an exercise in futility. It’s particularly fruitless, because already, once the chain of events kicked off the way it did, there weren’t any winners, just victims – well, except the one group who wins either way…

The prank callers – sure, if they hadn’t called anybody then this wouldn’t have happened. They’re now under siege from all over the world, and people are saying horrible stuff about their responsibility for events. Give them a break. They couldn’t possibly know this was going to happen when they sat down and sketched out a pretty funny prank concept. But they were doing their job…

So we could blame the radio station – sure, for pushing comedy based programming, but people love prank calls, and this one was mostly harmless – and the callers were expecting to be hung up on immediately. The British press is having a field day dragging out stories about Kyle Sandilands. They sure do love controversy… but then so do their listeners…

So we could blame Australian culture – we listen to, and love, commercial radio comedians, and their audacious prank calls. But we’re a world away from the events in England.

We could blame the hospital – but the administration has been incredibly, and publicly, supportive of the nurses involved. They blame the callers. And blaming the hospital goes mighty close to blaming the victims… the nurses – one of whom has now become, tragically, the biggest victim.

We could blame the royals, for not immediately hosing down the event, and refusing to comment. But they’re under constant scrutiny, and even in this most private of moments are suffering from media attention. And suggesting what might have been – an immediate statement of forgiveness, laughing the whole thing off – would have produced better results is an exercise in the hypothetical. It may have resulted in thousands of copycats. Prince Charles seemed to think it was funny.

We could blame the culture clash – It’s, on the surface, an awful example of two cultures with a lot in common not quite sharing the same sense of humour. The prank was funny. Most of us are incredulous that it worked the way it did. That’s how pranks get laughs.  The British weren’t amused. Turns out a common love for irony, not shared by the Americans, doesn’t extend to a common love of taking the proverbial out of their royals.

The British press – they’re the only winners in this situation. They’ve got a controversy to inflame, victims to profile, royals to protect. They turned the prank into a “cruel international hoax,” and blew away any sense of proportion. So, now the story serves to demonstrate the power of a rabid and angry British media. The same British media that protects the royals when it suits them, and publish naked pictures of the same royals, taken with a telephoto lens, while they’re in a private place, on a holiday, when it suits them.

But blaming the press isn’t really all that worthwhile, you can’t blame them without blaming the people who consume their products – the audience dictates what the commercial press prints. So do the advertisers. So do the people who buy the advertisers products.

Essentially. We’re all to blame. And we’re all victims. Victims who have to live in a world where horrible stuff like this happens.

The power of forgiveness

Now, I don’t want to make mileage from this tragic set of circumstances. That’d be ghoulish. This really is awful. And as a guy, behind a keyboard, thousands of kilometres, and a cultural jump away, I’m feeling only a small amount of the grief that those closer in proximity will be feeling at this loss of life. Every time I think about that poor husband, and those poor kids, I want to yell at someone. Blame someone. And I’m pretty detached from the circumstances. The best I can do is pray for that family, and, given the above – pray for our world. The kind of world that creates the environment for this sort of thing…

But imagine a world, for a moment (channeling John Lennon), imagine a world where, say this prank call still happened – because it’s not a perfect imaginary world – imagine it happened, and the mistake was made in receiving it… imagine if the first victims acted in forgiveness immediately. Imagine if they had immediately spoken out to forgive not just the nurse, and the hospital, but the callers. That would have robbed the story of its sting. The press couldn’t be indignant about a story where there’s no victim, the nurse would have nothing to fear. The story would’ve fallen off the middle pages of the paper within days, if not hours.

Imagine if the press was forgiving. Imagine if, given the tragedy, we didn’t just band around the family of the nurse, which is good and right, but around the radio presenters who I can imagine, as humans, are now suffering incredibly deep feelings of remorse and regret, questioning their own agency in proceedings, and blaming themselves…

Imagine if there was a royal who, when persecuted, forgave the masses who perpetuated the persecution. The clamouring crowds, baying for blood. The feeding frenzy of a public who just want to see a spectacle – with no real regard for justice being served. Imagine a king who when misunderstood, who is suddenly the centre of attention, all eyes on him, as he is nailed to a cross – killed for simply being who he is – called out:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Imagine a world where more of us, in more circumstances, followed that king. Imagine if, even when tragedy happened, we didn’t look for who to blame, but for who needs love and forgiveness – and we offered it, even if they were doing us wrong.

Imagine if we acknowledged that we were in the wrong – rather than looking to blame others – and we went after forgiveness, from the victims – but also from Jesus, the king, who was put in the above circumstance by us too – the crowd baying for blood 2,000 years ago, the crowd baying for blood (and cheap entertainment via the media) now – we’re part of both of them. We’re to blame. We need forgiveness. We’re participants in this culture that creates victims all over the place.

I guess that’s my biggest prayer, and the point where I can take the most action in response to these circumstances, and this world. I really want people to know Jesus because modelling that kind of forgiveness, and that kind of willingness to turn the other cheek, actually stops tragic events like this happening.

Unmitigated soppiness

This post should potentially come with some sort of gag warning. But I’m sure all my female readers will appreciate it – and single guys can probably learn something from it…

We watched the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo + Juliette this afternoon.

Now that I’m married I enjoy romantic tragedies even less than before.

Speaking of which, we had our two year anniversary this week (on the 22nd). And my wife is still wonderful. I don’t normally go for soppiness online – it falls into the category of sharing information people don’t really want to read (oversharing).

I do love my wife very much though, and I’m happy for this fact to be published.

Gittins on Disaster Reporting

The discussion on the reporting of Disasters goes on, here on my post, and elsewhere. Ross Gittins, the SMH’s chief economic reporter, has an interesting piece on it from an insider’s perspective. It’s worth a read. I’ll admit I’ve played devil’s advocate a little in discussions on my post. I think there’s a need to cover disasters and coverage can be helpful to highlight the plight of people suffering as a result of the event. And I think the bushfires are a big deal. The biggest disaster we’ve had to confront on our soil. I stand by those comments. But I also agree with Stuss and Amy that the coverage has gone too far and for too long.

Here’s Gittins’ thesis:

“But media coverage of this one’s gone way over the top. And it’s served to strengthen my suspicion that the community’s reaction to natural disasters is exploitative, voyeuristic, unfair, self-gratifying and even pathological.”

Here are some gems from Gittins thoughtful piece:

On why we watch

“Our emotion-driven caring is highly selective. People with problems get wonderful treatment provided their problems make good TV footage and for the 15 minutes they’re in the media spotlight. People with chronic (old-hat), unphotogenic problems get ignored.”

“Modern city life leaves us with weaker connections to our extended families and neighbours, so whereas once we could let our emotions loose on the misadventures of people we knew, now we need the mass media to provide our emotional exercise.”

On why they broadcast

“Our preoccupation lasts a week or two before the media senses our waning interest and turns away, waiting for the next natural disaster to get excited about.”

“But don’t blame it all on the media. They do what they do because they know it’s what their audience wants.”

“They want the media to give their feelings of sympathy, sorrow and grief a good workout.”

On why we give

“But I also suspect that feeling sympathy for the victims of disasters and rushing to make donations is intended to make us feel good about ourselves.”

“Why does ABC Classic FM carry ads “urging” its listeners to donate? Because management wants its listeners to think well of the station. Why does a bank take out full-page ads announcing all the concessions it’s prepared to make to its affected customers? Because it wants to improve its battered image. I wonder whether the cost of those concessions will come out of the bank’s profits or be spread between its other customers.”

On politics

“Politicians want to be wherever the TV cameras are trained on something exciting. They want to be seen as always on the job, demonstrating their humanity by expressing their profound sympathy for the victims and acting like generals who lead from the front.”

“Like so many things, natural disasters advantage the political incumbents over their opposition. But politicians also act out of fear – fear of the criticism they’d attract from know-all talkback jockeys should they fail visit the scene, or should government agencies be judged to have bungled their response to the tragedy.”

On the shelf life of the coverage

The reason I’m cynical is that I know how fleeting all the professed concern is. I hate things that are fashionable, where everyone has the same opinion and does the same thing at the same time.

But like all fashions, it never lasts. Our preoccupation lasts a week or two before the media senses our waning interest and turns away, waiting for the next natural disaster to get excited about.

Black mark on green movement

While the green movement are trying not to jump up and down screaming “I told you so” when it comes to climate change and the fires/floods covering parts of Australia at the moment, and the loony “Christian” fringe is out blaming abortion laws, the right wing of the Australian media is lining up its ducks and preemptively declaring it open season on the green argument.

Arch conservative Herald columnist Miranda Devine – the paper’s attempt at providing “balanced” coverage – has weighed into the debate early. Blaming the green movement for the fires. I’m unsympathetic to anyone trying to advance their ideologies on the basis of tragedy. And giving air to this just “fans that flame” so to speak. Perhaps a poor choice of words…

The Herald ran this story alongside a piece on a resident who became an environmental vandal hero – after illegally clearing trees on his property to create a firebreak.  Perhaps the Fairfax group has decided inflicting “earth hour” upon the whole world wasn’t enough to give their environmental credentials any credibility next to News Ltd’s “One degree” committment. Maybe they’ve decided to throw out the centre left contingency and pitch to the Telegraph’s established right wing core… but here’s some of what Miss Devine had to say (readers from Townsville should note that she’s the columnist who said people who live in the tropics shouldn’t get cyclone aid because of their choice to live in a cyclone zone)… She’s shaping up as the Germaine Greer of the right (funnily enough she’d consider Greer as a nemesis in the true sense of the word).

“It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.

So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of “prescribed burning”. Also known as “hazard reduction”, it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.”

Scarily, Devine actually makes a bit of sense regarding what is a stupid green policy. It’s just not the right time to be launching ideologically motivated political attacks.