Friday, March 16, 2018

Unhooking from the Reactvity Train

We will call her “Nancy.”  She was a key leader in one of my churches and was chair of a committee and on a church board.  She, like is sometimes the case, was one of my best and one my most challenging church members.  She was bright, cared about the church, and brought good expertise to her work in the church.  On the other hand, she would be critical of other people and react negatively to proposals before there had been any real discussion or thought given to them.

She often would steer a board meeting in an unproductive direction, infecting all of us with her reactivity.  I was one of those who got swept up.
I knew she was harming the work of the board and reducing my effectiveness, yet I didn’t know what to do about it.  I came up with a mind game that set me free.  Every time “Nancy” got up a head of steam, I would envision her as a steam engine building momentum as she went down the rails.  I cast the board members as train cars being pulled along behind her; I was the last car in the train.  I would visualize reaching out and pulling the pin connecting me to the train.  I would then in my mind watch the board roar down the track pulled by “Nancy.”  I would roll to a stop as the train steamed out of sight.  This did not stop the board, but at least I was not going on the journey of reactivity with them.

One day the chair of the board and I were talking about a recent meeting, and he expressed frustration about the dynamics of the group.  I shared with him the mind game I played.  At that point it occurred to me that he, as chair, was the first car in the train.  If he could disconnect from the engine, perhaps the whole train might roll to a stop with him, sending “Nancy” down the track alone.

When the chair and I freed ourselves from “Nancy’s” reactivity, we were in a better position to free others and salvage the meeting.
To this day when I feel I am being carried away by someone’s reactivity, I envision myself pulling the pin.  I go on fewer unplanned trips that way.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mass Shooters Don't Arrive from Mars

My first pastorate was in Philadelphia.  From time to time people shot one another in that city, thus the unkind insult “Kiladelphia.”  Most of these shootings were not mysteries; we knew why they happened.  The victim had something the shooter wanted.  The shooter was afraid they were going to lose something they wished to retain.  The shooter knew and was angry at the victim.  The shooter felt the victim to be in some sense a threat.  These were tragic deaths, but there was little mystery to most of them.We realized this violence was part of a larger cultural system.  This did not excuse the violence, but we knew that conditions in the lives of both shooter and victim played a role.  We knew that if we worked on reducing poverty, improving education, and increasing economic opportunities we could mitigate some of the violence.

We also knew that Philadelphia was part of a larger regional cultural system.  We knew that the drug trade in the city was driven in a significant way by young men driving in from wealthier suburbs in their mothers’ Buicks, buying their drugs, and getting back on the Schuylkill expressway to return to their neighborhoods.  The violence did not arise unrelated to this broader context. 

Systems theory teaches us that we all play a role in shaping one another’s behavior.  This does not exonerate people; it simply suggests to us that to some degree we co-create one another.  To address the violence in the city, we needed to look at the whole system.  We had to look at the city itself and the role people living in the suburbs played in shaping life in the city.
Mass shootings, unlike urban shootings, are usually inexplicable.  Why would someone shoot strangers with no apparent benefit to themselves for doing so?  We are quick to talk of mental illness as a way, perhaps, to minimize the discomfort this puzzle breeds.

Mass shootings do have something in common with urban violence.  Mass shootings occur in a cultural system, and the shooters are a product of that system.  This does not excuse them; but if we want to reduce the prevalence of these tragedies, we would do well to look at the culture in which they are spawned. 
In the 8th chapter of John's Gospel, local leaders bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.  Jesus responds:  “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The woman is guilty; Jesus is not condoning her choice.  Yet he sees that she, although guilty, is part of a larger community that has shaped her.  Perhaps if the community had lived out their common life together in a different way, the woman would have been less prone to sin.  This does not exonerate her; it does suggest that you cannot extract her from the sinful cultural system in which she lived.  She was part of a larger drama. We are constantly co-creating one another.

This might be a good thing to keep in mind as we sort out what we can do in our communities and our nation to reduce the prevalence of mass shootings, or violence in general for that matter.  None of this excuses mass murder, but it does remind us that these murderers do not arrive at the scene of the crime from Mars, untouched by the broader culture in which they were nurtured.

Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State