Category Archives: Social Responsibility
Pastor Mark McWilliams (no relation to me) was shot and killed in his home church, Starrville Methodist Church, last Sunday morning. Starrville is a small, rural community approximately 15 miles northeast of Tyler in Smith County, TX.
Upon entering the church and preparing for the morning services, McWilliams, his wife and another church member opened the bathroom door and found a young man hiding and holding the church bank bag. According to authorities, the young man had been the focus of an unsuccessful police pursuit and man hunt the previous night.
According to the arrest affidavit, upon finding the intruder in the bathroom, McWilliams, who was armed, started telling him to leave and pulled out his handgun. The intruder lunged at McWilliams, and a struggle ensued in which the intruder seized the gun and shot McWilliams. He also shot at Mrs. McWilliams and a third man who was approaching the church after hearing the gunshots. She was not hit, but the third man was shot. The intruder fled the scene in a truck belonging to one of the victims. He was caught later in the day by Harrison County deputies and returned to Smith County where he was treated for a minor injury and booked into the county jail on numerous charges including capital murder.
When I first heard about the shooting, I was shocked that something of this nature could happen so close to home and in the sleepy little community of Starrville. I began my teaching career 50 years ago in Winona just up the road from Starrville. Many of my students had lived in Starrville. I was saddened by the pastor’s death and the loss for his family, the church family, and the community. I felt sorrow for the intruder, undoubtedly a troubled young man. Yes, a terrible thing happened!
As I considered the incident more, my thoughts began to dwell on the gun. If there had been no gun at the scene, there is a very good probability that the pastor would still be alive, the third man would not have been shot, and a young man would not be facing a capital murder charge. Granted, it was not a good situation, the young man had committed a crime for which there would be consequences, but the presence of a gun compounded the danger and contributed to a tragedy for all involved.
I can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when carrying a gun was an oddity, an exception to the accepted norm. Carrying a gun to church while worshiping the Prince of Peace was never considered a possibility! Today, our society seems to be enamored with guns – concealed carry, open carry, shooting ranges, and long guns slung over shoulders while walking down the street. Yes, such a tragedy!
I just wonder what might have happened if the pastor had approached this troubled young man as the Prince of Peace, the Christ of turn the other cheek — in peace, with grace, love, and compassionate confrontation. Maybe something we all might want to think about as we keep all involved in this terrible thing in our prayers.
In my recent reading of My Beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, I halted at this statement:
Was it so hard to see himself in the other man’s shoes? I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.
As an elementary school counselor, I read How Do I Stand in Your Shoes to my third-grade students. I introduced the story by presenting the children with an assortment of shoes and allowing them to speculate on who might wear each shoe and what their life might be like. The room always filled with “Oooh’s” and “Wow’s” when I pulled out my uncle’s size 16 house shoes. The lesson was not about shoes, but about empathy and how we can learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes and try to understand and feel how they are feeling in any given circumstance. Sotomayor had her revelation in 1969. I was teaching my third graders in 2001-2010.
It is 2020, and Sotomayor was correct in her understanding of 51 years ago. Our society seems to be breaking down, if not already broke. Why? We don’t seem to be able to, or refuse to, empathize – to imagine someone else’s point of view and understand their feelings as if they were our own. If we can’t empathize with someone, then we can’t feel or even identify with how they might be feeling. The “Golden Rule” – we are to treat others the way we would want to be treated – is often asserted as the guide for our actions toward others. But if we can’t put ourselves in the other person’s situation and feel what he/she might be feeling then how can we be expected to discern how we would want to be treated in that situation and act accordingly.
Without empathy, we have lost our guide in making just and compassionate choices in our behavior. Without empathy, we become susceptible to indifference, apathy, and lack of concern for others’ well-being. Without empathy, the spark that informs our humanity is snuffed out. Without empathy the bridges needed to traverse the chasms of race, culture, religion, and nationality for the enhancement of our greater good are absent – simply not there. Our sense of community is based on empathy, and without empathy our communities crumble. Our communities are the foundation of our nation.
Even a cursory glance at today’s news headlines – our racial and cultural divisions, our divisive political atmosphere, our petty bickering over issues that should not be argued – illustrate how we, as a society and nation, are breaking or broke. Granted, there is the occasional oasis – oasis whose foundation is empathy – imagining the other person’s point of view and understanding how they are feeling. We have seen teenagers organizing food deliveries for seniors, a 12-year old play his trumpet for weary medical workers, nurses volunteering to serve in Covid hotspots, and moms and grandmothers joining peaceful Black Lives Matters protest.
This gives me hope! Hope that these and others of us showing empathy, modeling empathy for others, and nurturing empathy in others will be the incubators for more empathy among us all and the glue that holds our beloved world — breaking or broke — back together.
As our nation struggles to manage, mitigate, and survive the initial outbreak and the current devasting spike in COVID-19 cases, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place. We are at the “bottom of the heap” globally due to our leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. In the midst of this public health crisis we seem to have lost our focus on who we are, or proclaim to be, as a people and a nation. We are floundering, failing, and flailing at one another! We have allowed our ideological idiosyncrasies – be they political, economic, religious, cultural, or racial – to overshadow our moral judgement and truths which our founding forebearers espoused to be “self-evident.” This is no more evident than in the current bickering, backbiting, and bad behavior associated with the face covering issue.
It would appear that the science and medical advice purports the benefits of wearing a face covering in lessening the spread of the virus, and thus, “flattening the curve” – a vital step in re-opening our economy and returning our social/community life to some semblance of a “new normal.” So why has wearing a face covering, or not, become such a flashpoint for debate, argument, and even violence. The face covering issue has become politicized. Perhaps this is subsequent to our President and his supporters refusing, against all medical advice, to wear one. Regrettably, and shamefully, the face covering has become one more wedge in our abhorrent practice of divisive politics.
Also, those opposed to wearing face mask often justify their position claiming rights of liberty and freedom. I get that! We Americans are a gritty lot, forever exalting our independence and railing against any intrusion or interruption thereof. But lest we forget, there are limits to our liberty. In his 1859 essay “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill defined liberty as “the limits that must be set on society’s power over individuals.” That’s good! Likewise, Mill also reminds us that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
So, given the science and the medical advice, is it reasonable to infer that our government entities issuing orders to wear face coverings are well within the bounds of their responsibility to “prevent harm to others.” With this being the case, the refusal of some of our law enforcement agencies to enforce the face covering and penalty order would seem to be in direct opposition to their duty to uphold the rule of law and protect the citizenry from harm. What does it reveal about our society when individuals refuse to obey a lawful order, and when our law enforcement refuses to enforce that order? A governor’s executive order, though not a duly legislated statute, does carry the weight of law. Does a blatant disregard for the law border on anarchy?
Putting political, liberty, and law questions aside, what is the bottom line to be considered when we are making the decision to wear, or not wear, a face covering in this time of global pandemic and monumental surges in the number of COVID-19 cases. Let’s remember the words and concepts found in our Declaration of Independence. Counted among our Creator endowed “unalienable Rights” are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s not get hung up on liberty and happiness because, frankly, neither are viable options without life. Imagine rounding second and third base, heading for home plate, anticipating a homerun, but failing to tag first base! Again, science and the best medical knowledge available to us indicates that in our current situation wearing a face covering is fundamental to lessening the risk of spreading the virus.
In wearing a face covering, we are choosing life – ours and our neighbors. In doing so we are practicing our belief in the self-evident truth that life is an unalienable right for all man(kind). In choosing to wear a face covering, or not, we are revealing a basic personal truth, not about politics, liberty, or the law but about the value, respect, and regard we have for life – all lives. Our truth is written all over our face — covered or not!