By John A. Ostenburg
A few months ago, members of various faith communities in Park Forest began to gather on the first Wednesday of the month in a prayer vigil for peace. The impetus for these prayer vigils was the shooting and killing of a young resident of our town.
It wasn’t the first incident of that type, albeit Park Forest suffers from such acts of violence far less frequently than do many other locations. But for our relatively quiet suburban community it was a shock to many of our citizens that a young person could be slaughtered right in his own place of residence. The monthly prayer vigils were seen as a way to call upon divine intercession for more peaceful conditions in our region, but also as an attempt to bring more public awareness to the threat of violence on our streets.
Sadly, in the time since the first of the monthly prayer vigils was held, other shootings and killings have occurred in our community. Most recently, such an incident resulted in serious life-threatening injury to one of our police officers that left the perpetrator dead and the 24-year-old officer in a serious condition that will require months of therapy as a result.
Growing out of those prayer vigils, and the subsequent acts of violence that have occurred, was a decision to conduct a monthly discussion of violence, its causes, and its potential solutions. The format established for these discussions was to have a speaker make a presentation and then to conduct dialogue on the ideas offered by his/her remarks. I was honored to be asked to be the kick-off speaker for this endeavor. What follows are the remarks I gave for that gathering at St. Irenaeus Church in Park Forest on May 19, 2016.
THE SPIRITUAL BATTLE AGAINST VIOLENCE
Mayor John A. Ostenburg
St. Irenaeus Church, Park Forest, Illinois
May 18, 2016
Is violence an isolated matter? Do the acts of violence that have occurred in Park Forest stand alone? Or are they part of a larger pattern of violent behavior that appears to have overtaken our global society?
Statistically, we know that far more acts of violence have occurred in the city of Chicago, for example, than have in Park Forest. For the first four months of this year, 190 persons were shot and killed in Chicago, plus an additional 1,056 who were shot and wounded. If you add the homicides where guns were not involved, the number for January through April is 214. That’s more than 50 killings per month right at our doorstep.
Violence on the streets may be more prevalent, but it is mass shooting that seems more certain to arouse public outrage. Consider how the public reacted during 2015 to fourteen dead and 21 wounded in San Bernardino, or three dead and nine injured in Colorado Springs, or nine dead and nine injured at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, or five dead and three wounded at a military recruiting station in Chattanooga, or nine dead at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.
And what about acts of terrorism? Two thousand, nine hundred, ninety-three killed and 8,900 injured on 9-11, three killed and 264 injured at the Boston Marathon, 144 dead and 368 injured in Paris, 35 dead and 300 injured in Brussels.
We cannot forget acts of genocide either. In the current era, 6 million Jews and 5 million others were exterminated by the Nazis from 1941-1945, 3,000 Albanians were killed in Kosovo during 1998 to 1999, and 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered in Rwanda during 1994.
Indeed, violence is not restricted – horrible as they have been – to the relatively few deaths than have occurred here in our community. The truth is, we have become a very violent world.
Most often when groups of citizens gather to discuss violence in our world, the conclusion that’s drawn is that we need tougher laws, more enforcement actions, more stringent penalties. But those are reactions to violence. Sure, they may mean that some persons with a penchant for violent behavior will be removed from society – at least temporarily – and will be limited in the harm they can do others. But is reactive behavior the answer? Wouldn’t preventative measures be more effective?
I’m reminded of the words of the social activist Dorothy Day, who once asked “Why is so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place?”
Consider, for example, the reality that acts of violence most often occur as outbursts by segments of society that are economically and/or socially depressed.
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that during the period from 2008 to 2012, persons residing in households below the Federal Poverty Level were victims of crime twice as often as those residing in high-income households.
- A Chicago Reader study in 2012 showed that for Chicago’s five poorest neighborhoods at the time – those with an average poverty rate of 47.8 percent – the average number of homicides in a year was 45.2; however, among the five least poor neighborhoods – those with an average poverty rate of 5 percent – the average number of homicides in a year was 3.6: less than one-tenth as many.
- But, contrary to commonly held opinion, race does not seem to play the role in this regard that too many people assume. For the Bureau of Justice Statistics also reports that the rate of victimization among poor urban blacks is virtually the same as the rate of victimization among poor rural whites; thus, clearly, it is poverty – not race – that is the culprit.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that acts of violence seem most often to find their genesis in the wide divide that exists between those who have and those who have not as regards adequate jobs, housing, education, health care, and other basic human needs.
As regards jobs, for example, Science magazine reported in 2014 that a study conducted among comparable Chicago youth showed a 43 percent reduction in arrests among youth who had received summer employment versus those who had not.
The effect of inadequate housing on crime is supported by a report from the Office of Policy Development & Research of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development that stated, “Poor physical quality of housing is a strong predictor of emotional and behavioral problems in children,” and further found that “concentrations of multiply disadvantaged households and concentrations of crime and violence” are overlapped with one another.
And, as relates to education, a 2003 study on the effects of schooling on criminal behavior found that increased education significantly reduced the potential for incarceration and that educational attainment was shown to be responsible for a 23 percent difference among persons who were incarcerated.
Related to the connection of social deprivation with crime is the effect that mental illness often has on violent outbursts. While It has become convenient for society to blame acts of mass violence on mental illness, professionals show evidence against that claim, proving that the overwhelming number of persons suffering from mental illness never engage in any acts of violence at all. As the American Psychiatric Association has pointed out, “The vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.”
Nonetheless, those same experts correctly maintain that cuts in programs that provide assistance for those with mental illness can result in violent outbursts by some.
According to Mark Winstanley, chief executive officer for Rethink Mental Illness, “Thousands of people, including children, end up in police cells each year because they can’t get the treatment they need.”
In the same vein, the Treatment Advocacy Center reports that “There are approximately 1,000 homicides – among the estimated 20,000 total homicides in the U.S. – committed each year by people with untreated schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” The Center further reports that untreated mental illness has been reported as the key factor in 12.3 percent of killings of spouses by spouse, in 15.8 percent of killings of children by parents, in 25.1 percent of killings of parents by children, and in 17.3 percent of killings of siblings by sibling.
So while mental illness is not a significant cause of violence in itself, society’s failure to provide needed assistance to those with mental health needs clearly exacerbates the problem of violence in our communities.
Looking at the more global acts of violence, terrorist actions seem most often to be perpetrated by those who feel – rightly or wrongly – marginalized because they perceive that their segment of the population has been taken advantage of by others – by persons, businesses, or nations – who have usurped resources for personal gain.
Even as conservative a radio talk-show host as Dr. Michael Brown has drawn this same conclusion. “America’s wars in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan are considered to be Western intrusions into the Muslim world,” he has said. He described those wars as viewed by the people of those nations as “power-grabbing moves aimed at world domination, sometimes motivated by greed (=oil), always motivated by a sense of the superiority of American democracy.”
According to Qasim Rashid of Harvard University, a leading authority on relationships between Muslims and westerners, it is a minority of Muslims who have negative feelings toward America; but, he says, “Our image in many Muslim majority nations is that of a people who support dictators when convenient for oil and economic gain and overthrow them when not.”
And Politico magazine offers the explanation in a recent report that home-grown terrorists often have their roots of hatred in an all too prevalent “Islamophobia” within the west, especially in the U.S.
So while the actions of terrorists are not justified, we nonetheless can attain a better understanding of their acts by looking more closely at these root causes.
From a spiritual perspective, it is only by recognizing the worth of others that we can avoid doing them harm in any form, and that includes engaging in verbal abuse and psychological abuse, as well as physical abuse. And where can we find the basis for that intrinsic worth?
Let us consider for a moment a basic principle that has been articulated by such spiritual masters as Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and others, that each of us has a deep internal presence of the Spirit – or God – within us. Each of these spiritual masters has made the same point: if God is present within me, then he is present in every other individual also. If I do harm to others, therefore, then I must be doing harm to God himself, for as Eckhart teaches, everything is secondary to the internal presence of God.
Why, though, if God is present in everyone, do some people behave in abusive ways? Perhaps the answer is found in St. John of the Cross, who teaches that God is present to everyone, but that it is only the spiritual person who reflects God to others. The less spiritual an individual is, the less he or she will reflect the presence of God. The next question, then, is what’s the pathway to creating greater spirituality in every person? I think that answer might be found in the words of the Dalai Lama: “If we wish to change the world, first we must improve and transform ourselves,” or in the prayer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Give me such love for God and men as will blot out all hatred and bitterness.”
A logical conclusion, therefore, is that concerted efforts must be employed to teach every person his or her intrinsic worth in order to make him or her aware of the intrinsic worth of others.
Again, the spiritual masters seem to have acquired such a state. Thomas Merton’s well-known story of his “Fourth & Walnut” mystic moment characterizes this recognition of worth in others as a follow-up to his already acceptance of self-value provided by the ever-presence of the divine Spirit within himself.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut” – he wrote – “in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like awakening from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation, in a special world.” He then added, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race…If only everyone could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
It was a similar realization, no doubt, that led the Dalai Lama to say, “We should never forget that even in the most perverted and cruel of human beings exists a seed of love and compassion which will one day cause him or her to become a Buddha.”
Or brought Meister Eckhart to observe that “You carry all truth essentially within yourself…God is in the soul with his nature, with his essence, and his deity.”
As a spiritual people, our understanding of the root causes of violent behavior compels us to put forth the necessary effort to overcome those root causes – making every effort as Christians to right wrongs and to give equal opportunity for basic quality-of-life needs to everyone. At the same time, though, it also is our obligation to demonstrate our recognition of the indwelling of our God in each of us and to influence others to do the same. Our best defense against the horrors of a violent society is to demonstrate that each of us – individually – has an immeasurable value that comes simply from God’s choice to indwell in us. That, I believe, is among the most necessary steps for minimizing violent outbursts in society.
Knowing that we are temples of God – those of us who are Catholics most often say “temples of the Holy Spirit,” but the Holy Spirit is God – and recognizing that each of our neighbors also is such a temple of God, should curb our tendency to engage in violence. It should lead us to
- control our tempers,
- refrain from divisive speech, and hurtful comments to others,
- avoid actions that have negative psychological impact on others,
- and, most certainly, never engage in any physical acts of violence toward anyone.
Probably every one of us would say without hesitation that he or she never would strike another person or otherwise cause them physical harm. But can we say the same about character assassination caused by gossip and other harmful talk? Can we say the same about discriminatory behavior that denies some others an equal opportunity to share in life’s benefits? Those also are acts of violence. If our aim truly is to have a non-violent society, then we must eliminate those elements of violence as well as the street killings that offend us so greatly.
Two statements by Thomas Merton put much of this into perspective: “Each one of us has to unlearn an ingrained tendency to violence and to destructive thinking,” he once wrote in an essay on “Peace and Protest,” or – as he put it in his commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict – “If we do not hunger and thirst after justice and righteousness, the desires of our own selfish satisfaction and the gratification of the flesh will overcome us.”
Therefore, as we consider some very basic steps toward the achievement of our goal of making the world a safer place, let us contemplate for a moment that admonition of Dorothy Day that I mentioned previously: why do we do so much after harm has been done and so little to prevent it? In seeking to answer her question, several items must be considered.
First, while it would be unrealistic to think that all causes of violent behavior can be eliminated from society, we nonetheless must make a commitment to doing more as regards those causes that are manageable, such as by creating more and better jobs, better housing, improved educational opportunities, more effective health care, comprehensive mental health treatment, and so forth. The costs associated with such programs are minimal by comparison to the loss of one life, or to the millions of dollars spent each year on the incarceration of wrongdoers.
We should support efforts such as the one being put forth at present by Congresswoman Robin Kelly, legislation in the U.S. Congress to create what she calls the “UP Initiative,” seeking to foster urban progress by job creation, increased education, and similar programs that focus on populations where crime is more likely to occur. Or support Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer who has introduced a County Board ordinance on the creation of more jobs for youth with much the same focus.
Right here in our own community, we can support the St. Irenaeus/Catholic Charities Food Pantry and the Rich Township Food Pantry as they provide assistance to families that have need, thus creating an atmosphere that encourages giving rather than taking.
We can avoid speaking disparagingly of such programs as the Affordable Care Act, housing vouchers, and similar programs at the national level, that are designed to create a more level playing field so that fewer and fewer families face the despair and desperation that so often finds its only release in violent outbursts.
Secondly, when tools of violence are identified, society at large has a moral obligation to control the distribution and use of those tools.
We all must support sensible and strong gun-control efforts in order to minimize the number of weapons on our streets, especially automatic weapons that should be used exclusively for police and military purposes.
We should support international efforts to eliminate the marginalization of various populations, avoid scapegoating and generalized categorization of peoples, such as branding them as enemies because a handful of their number have done us wrong.
And, finally, for all individuals, we must cultivate a more prayerful personal life, one that recognizes our own intrinsic worth and helps to spread a like-cultivation of the virtues of intrinsic worth in others. We must set an example for peaceful living by reflecting to others our own grace-filled and peaceful existence.
To do so, we would do well to learn from St. Francis of Assisi. I’m sure you all have heard the story of how Francis demonstrated his principle of teaching by example. Perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, but the story goes that Francis asked one of the other friars to accompany him while he went out preaching the gospel. The pair visited the sick, a prison, other people in need, and then returned to the friary without giving a sermon. The other friar said to Francis, “I thought we were going to preach the gospel.” Francis’ reply was, “We did.”
Stop for a moment and think about someone you have known who set an example for you that you never will forget. For me, it was a gentleman I met in 1968 when I was in my early twenties. His name was Dr. John Forbes and he was a professor at Blackburn College in downstate Carlinville and was a Quaker. We were working together on the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Dr. Forbes would drive up to Springfield each day from Carlinville to work the National McCarthy Farm Desk. One day he walked into the office accompanied by someone who could be described only as a “knight of the road.” The individual was a bum in the truest sense of the word, even having as a belt a piece of clothesline rope and having all his belongings in a shopping bag. Dr. Forbes moved through the office, introducing him to every one of us, person by person, identifying him as “Mr. Such-and-Such.” You could tell by the person’s response that no one had called him “Mr.” in many a year. Dr. Forbes had picked him up on the road, had taken him to lunch, brought him around to meet all of us, and then gave him a handful of cash so he could get some lodging before being on his way.
Now that was an example of Christian behavior that has remained with me for almost 50 years now. Dr. Forbes taught me that all is good and it’s only the absence of good that is evil.
Some may feel it’s far-fetched to think that good behavior can be an antidote for violent outbursts, for criminal activity and killing on our streets, but I think elsewise. It is with great faith that members of some Park Forest churches gather here in this sanctuary, or outside on the front steps, on the first Wednesday of each month to pray for an end to violence. Is it any more far-fetched to speak with the God who dwells within me, asking that others also become aware that he dwells in them too, than it is to ask God’s intercession as part of those monthly liturgical actions? I have faith that both can work to bring peace and harmony to our world.
John A. Ostenburg is in his fifth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is an active member of committees of the National League of Cities, the Illinois Municipal League, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association, and also is serving as SSMMA president for the 2016-17 term. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at JOstenburg@aol.com.
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