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“A Bugle Call for Artists”

In reflecting on the recent horrific events at Sandy Hook elementary school, I recall here a portion of my essay from my Refractions book. Now that “Ground Zero” has been extended to include even a sleepy New England town of Newtown, turning a Christmas tree into a candlelight momorial of the lost. As we are forced to recken with this present darkness, artists are called to lament with those whose lives will never be the same. May our responses be generative. A generative response will mean that we reflect deeply to cherish what we love, and lament for what is lost. Art has a greater role to play today to help grieve and attempt to capture the “groans that words cannot express.”

(Our Ground Zero journeys) leave visible scars in culture. The battle is about the imaginative territories of hope against fears, the sacrifice of love against a misplaced devotion, the anger of revenge against forgiveness. It is a battle that rages in the minds of youths as they negotiate the labyrinth of a techno frenzied universe, sharing a communion of broken promises. When the manifestation of such collateral damage ambushes us, like in the pastoral Amish landscapes, or in Littleton, Colorado in 1998, in a high school named after a delicate wild flower, we are astonished.

John Hewett, then the development director of the N.E.A., and who also happens to be an ordained minister, told me a poignant story recently. When the evil struck the sleepy Amish community near Lancaster, when a gunman/milkman systematically shot girls one by one, there was a hidden story, in what he called “A Miracle Nobody Noticed.” He wrote:

“I’m convinced most of us get through most days without thinking about God much. I was having one of those days a few weeks ago, until I heard about Marian and Barbie Fisher, two of the ten girls in the West Nickel Mines Amish School. Marian, the oldest, was 13. Her sister Barbie, who lived, is 11. When it became obvious what was about to happen that ghastly morning, Marian turned to the killer and said, ‘Shoot me and leave the other ones loose.’ ‘Shoot me next,’ Barbie said. ‘Shoot me next.’”

Two children willing to lay down their lives for their friends. Wonder where they got an idea like that? That’s another miracle nobody noticed.”

Perhaps a new renaissance will be birthed out of the “mouths of babes” like these: “shoot me and leave the other ones loose.”…The girl did not complain that “this is unfair,” or argue, “this is unjust:” she just said “shoot me.”

Such fragile, but heroic, voices in the face of violence can easily be ignored, or simply not audible with our doomed ears. It certainly did nothing to stop a milkman from unloading his anger by pulling the trigger. Perhaps such otherworldly gestures look as pathetic, or beautiful, as the string quartet that played on as the Titanic sank. But I submit to you that here, in a miracle nobody noticed, is a bugle call also directed towards us artists. It begins in a belief that our lives are to be lived for others. Arts should let “the other ones loose” from the bondage of decay, apathy and loss. To the extent we are able to do that, to that degree we will see a new language of expression that is not self-centered, but self-giving and generous. Yes, I believe that art can, and ought to, exist apart from wars and violence. But in only place where this has been the case in the history of the world, a place called Eden where a poet named Adam dwelled, is today hidden inaccessibly beneath, or above, the rubble of Iraq…

In Jesus’ realism of “these things must happen,” he was also reminding us that our sacrifice, either for just or unjust reasons, would not be the last word. Our efforts, however noble, will not end the cause of injustice. But we are all given a call for self-sacrifice nevertheless. None are exempt, not even a pacifist thirteen-year-old secluded as far away from Iraq as humanly possible. And Jesus knows, first hand, what it means to die an unjust death without picking up a stone, or a spear. Instead, he continues to breath life into us in our funerary songs…

Our path back to Eden is blocked, but there is a way in to the feast of the selfless. Only in these words of forgiveness, utterly stripped down to the core of faith, can echo the Timeless, or the Time-ful, promise of an Easter morning. That is our true Homecoming. Even if the condition is unbearably chaotic, or simply cruel, these authentic voices refracts in our fear dominated cultural landscape, mediating how we can choose to face a new day, and breathing certain hope into our stricken hearts.

From “Operation Homecoming - An Epistle of Injury,” December 2006, “Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture”