Trillions of galaxies each contain billions of stars. A unified field of gravitational waves, black holes, and dark matter ties the vast enterprise together. Out of this furnace of process churning through billions of years of evolutionary time our earth emerged, then biological life, then self-conscious human life. This universe we inhabit is shot through with utter mystery.
We are also mysteries to each other. For the moment at least, the motivation of Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas remains as mysterious as the workings of a black hole. So mysteriously meaningless was the slaughter that we had no recourse but to find a crutch of ersatz meaningfulness in the many acts of selfless heroism among the victims and first responders, as we reel helplessly toward the next incident of mass murder that inevitably lies ahead.
The motivation of Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, is almost as mysterious as Stephen Paddock’s. Is it money? He is paid very well indeed, approximately a million dollars a year. Is it willingness to shamelessly serve the interests of the companies that manufacture guns and ammunition?
To demonstrate the sacredness of LaPierre’s vaunted Second Amendment, one need only point out that out of 200 countries on earth, only three (the U.S., along with Mexico and Guatemala) constitutionally enshrine the right to bear arms. The idea of the deterrence of tyranny by constitutionally protected caches of privately stored weapons distracts from what truly inoculates against the bacillus of tyranny: not weaponry but more active civic participation, in the context of all we share beyond our illusory differences.
The motivations of our political leaders are also shrouded in mystery, from our narcissistic president on down to Mitch McConnell and friends, proud of the enormous political power they wield, and yet placidly content to remain the weak and willing pawns of Mr. LaPierre.
In fact I find the nation of which I am a citizen to be more than a little mysterious. Who are we? We often mouth platitudes about the exceptional breadth of our freedom and prosperity, where in reality our exceptionalism seems to cluster around our unique level of bellicosity, our absurd tolerance for mass violence both domestic and international, and our willingness to countenance spending trillions for newer and better nuclear weapons when the far greater threat is human-caused climate change.
We have recently been presented with an elaborate 18-hour retrospective of the Vietnam War, outlining the historical ignorance, corruption and treachery of our leaders, the lies that resulted in years of unnecessary death on all sides, while we seem to have learned nothing from this historical experience that might apply to our present endless and futile wars.
There is a further mystery that provides one possible antidote to the mystery of all that our country refuses to admit about itself— the redemptive mystery of black spirituality. Whole peoples were forcibly brought across from Africa in chains to our young nation, which then built upon their backs our prosperous economy, a history which truncated the possibilities of African-American citizens at every turn right to the present day. The mystery of the indiscriminate use of weaponry that is endemic to our culture is an all-too-terrible part of their story as well.
By all precedent blacks in America should have long since risen up in a paroxysm of destructive rage equal to Mr. Paddock’s, and of course at acute moments some have. But, in a mystery complementary to the mystery of violence, this tyrannized people as a whole have not taken refuge in nonsense like the sacredness of an amendment written long ago by people who could not imagine our nation awash in automatic weapons, but instead in healthier particulars of our constitution that enshrined black rights to full inclusion and to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course for whites Martin Luther King Jr. is the most renowned representative of this black non-violent spirituality, but there are ranks upon ranks of others, dead and alive, whose spiritual depths, born of undeserved suffering (including the actual worst mass murders in American history), we Americans can draw upon as we gradually shape ourselves into a less violent culture.
The late Vincent Harding comes to mind, a gentle, loving moral giant who helped administer the freedom schools that initiated voter registration campaigns in the South. Harding also helped write Martin Luther King’s great 1967 speech at Riverside Church taking on our country for its intertwined addictions to racism, militarism and materialism.
Or the very much alive social activist Ruby Sales, whose vision of American life acknowledges race but reaches beyond it to a healing vision that includes all in our country who are hurting—the unemployed coal miner in West Virginia as well as the education-deprived black child living in a high-risk precinct of Baltimore. Perhaps her instinctive inclusiveness comes from the fact that a white seminarian died blocking a bullet meant for her.
Or the eloquent polemicist Ta Nehisi-Coates, heir to James Baldwin, whose challenging essays and books demand that whites look in the mirror to find the ultimate source of deep structural and institutional violence and prejudice in our country.
These leaders and teachers point us in a direction in which we really do have the potential to become an exceptional nation, less fearful, therefore less armed to the teeth at home and abroad, less bellicose, therefore more willing to choose diplomacy and humanitarian initiatives over war, more understanding of the “other,” and therefore more willing to reach out and see even our worst enemies as having a humanity equal to our own.
In spite of all that science allows us to understand, we live, move and have our being in a context of mystery, and it isn’t going away any time soon. We can approach it in isolated fear, or in wonder, gratitude, and humility—humility in the spirit of Job the prophet of old, to whose laments of undeserved pain a mysterious God replied “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Board of the War Prevention Initiative.