A Complicated Grief: Why Public Policy Must Reflect Our Social Conscience

A Complicated Grief, written by The Rev. Robert A. Franek, is a part of Politicus Policy Discussion, in which writers draw connections between real lives and public policy.

These past weeks and years really, have been filled with too much tragedy. Too many lives lost to various forms of violence. Too many single and mass shootings for the heart to handle. Too much fighting over whose lives matter. Too many terrorist attacks around the word to number.

Whether a mass shooting in a place of worship or a shopping mall, a male white police officer shooting a black man, or the horror of a massive truck plowing through a crowd of people celebrating running them over, the response seems to be the same. Shock. Sympathy for the suffering. Thoughts and prayers from everyone who holds public office or has a Twitter/Facebook account. Pleas for something to be done are countered by solemn statements that this is not the time. No policy would have prevented this. Memes and town halls cry for change, understanding, and a new coming together across divides. The stories of the dead and grieving are told with the hope that they did not die in vain and that this grief will inspire a new unity for our collective humanity. If there is time the stories fade, the memes are forgotten, the profile pics lose the avatar collective identity, and the thoughts and prayers of our collective concern return to our individual needs and lives.

Back to normal as they say. But there is no going back.

Sadly, and with growing frequency, this return to normal if it can be called that doesn’t happen. One tragedy fades into the next. All news is breaking news. One horror story after another. Broken lives and hearts broadcast for the world to see. Hearts break open with love and compassion. Makeshift memorials, candlelight vigils, and prayer services help us all cope in the midst of our collective sadness and fear with promises and glimmers of hope. In the midst of this cycle of tragedy as the stories of the dead are told, I can’t help but the think of all who die each day because of poverty, hunger, homelessness, civil unrest, disease, gang violence, and religious belief in all parts of the world. All whose stories will not be told with hashtags and candlelight vigils. My heart breaks too for all these lives too. And more for the systemic brokenness in our institutions of power.

Electoral politics and partisan posturing over policy dominates the airwaves in between violent tragedies. And this is the greater tragedy, that will we collectively rally around the horror du jour, while largely ignoring the lives of millions who are directly impacted the the policies of our government. It is hard to put faces and stories to the statutory mountains of legal writ. It is something advocacy groups try to do. Recently, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), posted a story about 3-year- olds having to represent themselves in immigration court. Gasp! Still, these stories are not featured in mass media and don’t draw the attention of many beyond their email lists.

My heart yearns for these stories to be told, for our country to face the painful reality of systemic oppression of people we will never meet, because their lives matter too and they also are holy to God.

The United States desperately needs the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a serious injustice that needs to remedied before the next traffic stop ends in murder. But before anyone utters “all lives matter” one more time in retort, I challenge them to think long and hard about that all. It seems currently this slogan is used as a platitude of self-righteous comfort for the denial of caring for real particular lives, especially the unseen lives of those who suffer in the shadows and on the margins. The nuance of public policy does not fit nicely on hashtags. It requires critical thought and deep engagement. A social conscious with an ethic of neighbor love is needed to prevail against individual gain so that the common good is our common goal.

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword both in injury and domination and in healing and hope. So while we grieve high profile shootings and terrorist attacks, may we also give our thoughts and prayers and hashtags for action to the millions who have been shot by policy pens. Instead of taking up arms let us ink the justice for all humanity into being.

Fred Rogers said, “It helps to be loved in order to work in this life.” Perhaps that is the moral question to help guide our policy. How does this legislation express our collective love for the neighbor, especially the neighbor in need? Then in the midst of present evil and all our complicated grief we can risk the terrifying challenge of Dr. William Orr and bring hope for an end to all suffering. He counsels, “There is one thing evil cannot stand and that is forgiveness.”