Bishop's Writings Archive

The Wound of Violence and Revenge

This is the third in a series of articles by Bishop Weisenburger on the “Five Wounds of Secularization” to be published during this “Year of Faith.”

"They hurried away from the tomb half-overjoyed, half-fearful. … Suddenly, and without warning, Jesus stood before them and said 'Peace' (Mt 28: 8-9)."

These days it is easy to feel battered and broken by the news: school shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, war and wounded warriors.

In 1999, shortly after the world was battered by news of the tragic murders at Columbine High School in Colorado, Archbishop Charles Chaput (then the archbishop of Denver, now of Philadelphia, but born and raised in Concordia) visited some of the students at the school. Of those conversations, he wrote in the April 21, 1999, issue of the Denver Catholic Register:

“The young Columbine students I listened to, spoke individually — one by one — of the need to be strong, to keep alive hope in the future, and to turn away from violence. Despite all their confusion and all their hurt, they would not despair. I think I understand why. We’re creatures of life. This is the way God made us: to assert life in the face of death.

“Violence is now pervasive in American society — in our homes, our schools, on our streets, in our cars as we drive home from work, in the news media, in the rhythms and lyrics of our music, in our novels, films and video games. It is so prevalent that we have become largely unconscious of it.

“The causes of this violence are many and complicated: racism, fear, selfishness. But in another, deeper sense, the cause is very simple: We’re losing God, and in losing him, we’re losing ourselves. The complete contempt for human life shown by the young killers at Columbine is not an accident, or an anomaly, or a freak flaw in our social fabric. It’s what we create when we live a contradiction. We can’t systematically kill the unborn, the infirm and the condemned prisoners among us; we can’t glorify brutality in our entertainment; we can’t market avarice and greed … and then hope that somehow our children will help build a culture of life.

“We need to change. But societies only change when families change, and families only change when individuals change. Without a conversion to humility, non-violence and selflessness in our own hearts, all our talk about ‘ending the violence’ may end as pious generalities. It is not enough to speak about reforming our society and community. We need to reform ourselves,” Archbishop Chaput wrote.

As challenging as it is to recognize the roots of violence, it may be harder to know what to do about it. Archbishop Chaput suggests that we might each begin to look at ourselves and how we treat the gift of life, a gift understood to come from God.

As powerful as Archbishop Chaput’s experience was, I actually had my own. It began to unfold on April 19, 1995, when I was in my office at the Oklahoma City Chancery, talking with an industrial plumber about a new water line for the facility. Suddenly the building shook hard. I didn’t realize until about 10 minutes later that a bomb, miles across the city, had blown a semi-circle into the downtown federal building.

The actions of a home-grown terrorist took 168 lives, including 19 children in the day-care center and one rescue worker, and wounded more than 500. The fact that it had happened in my home city was unbelievable. I was working full-time in the Chancery at the time, and so it was easy for my archbishop to assign me, along with three other Oklahoma City priests, to serve as chaplains at the bombing site. We each worked a six-hour shift every day for about 10 days.

The memory of those days lingers with me. Experts in many fields were suddenly everywhere: firemen, engineers, handlers with dogs that could sniff out survivors, every kind of medical personnel, and so many others.

In a world that uses the word “hero” far too easily, they were the real thing — all of them. As the initial days after the bombing passed, they continued to work frantically, driven by the goal of helping.

Despite these men and women being everywhere and focused on their tasks, there was still an overwhelming sadness that hovered in the air. As the days and weeks went by, this bottomless sadness seemed to be replaced with frustration and eventually a slow-burning anger that turned to rage. The horrific violence that had touched so many seemed, according to the standards of our world, to demand an equally violent response. Of course, those who know their history know that our society did indeed exact the world’s revenge on Timothy McVeigh, the man who caused so much senseless violence, death and destruction.

But it was not the execution of Timothy McVeigh that brought healing to my soul. Indeed, revenge (violence for violence) seldom brings real healing. No, what brought healing and hope to me was the example of a man by the name of Bud Welch. His daughter Julie, a young woman in her early 20s and a very faithful Catholic, was one of the victims of the bombing.

The senseless and violent loss of his daughter was a horrible ordeal for Bud, as it would be for any parent. But even in the midst of his grief, when Bud saw Timothy McVeigh’s father on television, it dawned on him that Mr. McVeigh was also a father who was suffering an unspeakable loss. And no doubt Mr. McVeigh’s loss was accompanied by an overwhelming shame and sadness.

With time, Bud Welch actually befriended McVeigh’s father — the father of his own daughter’s killer. Bud’s choice to bring something of the Gospel’s radical call to healing in the midst of violence brought the words of Jesus to life for me. It both comforted and challenged me to know that there were those who could respond to such hatred and violence with love. It comforts and challenges me still. If a man like Bud Welch, who was so deeply wounded by such horrible a violence, can respond with Gospel love, then surely I can do better in forgiving the far lesser insults, slights and acts of violence in my life. Indeed, as Archbishop Chaput pointed out, violence will be overwhelmed by Gospel love one person at a time. It must begin with me; and it must begin with you.

There is no human being who has not experienced in his or her life some taste of injustice, hostility or even violence. While I have not had to experience the depth of pain that Bud Welch has, lesser injustices, sufferings and violence have touched my life. Before seeing the Gospel enfleshed in Bud Welch’s response, I was probably less than fully attuned to the Gospel’s radical call to forgiveness. But I believe God worked through Bud, and not only for me but for many. The result is that I am now far more committed to the Gospel. I find I meet the challenge to forgive more frequently, and while I’m not always perfect in my response, I pray that with God’s grace I might be growing more Christ-like.

And so, in a culture saturated with violence and a lust for revenge, how would we respond to the eternal, hypothetical question, “Is there anything sweeter than violence and revenge?” The world screams a deafening “No, nothing is sweeter.” But the lives of the saints of every age reveal a different response. It is the response of Jesus, which is a resounding “Yes.”

It seems that the lives of true Christians in every age bear witness to the truth that mercy is sweeter, love more powerful, forgiveness more joyful and the resulting peace in our hearts far more lasting … than the sting of violence and the fleeting, hollow response of revenge.