Recognizing Our Common Humanity

By Rachel Revelle

This year is coming to a close with a heavy weight. The nation is mourning the horrifyingly unnatural end to the lives of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Indeed we are devastated for each of the 26 families who lost loved ones, and the gaping void that collectively they create in their community. That this could happen to such small children shocks us. That yet another massacre in a public space has taken place on the heels of the Aurora, Colorado shooting seems inconceivable. The circumstances of the event draw us drastically to attention.

In a piece that has resurfaced this week about naming the experience of losing a child, Karla Holloway presents the Sanskrit word “vilomah,” meaning “against a natural order.”  She recognizes that “grief leaves a melancholy and sometimes nameless company,” and therefore goes about identifying survivors’ loss. It is absolutely against the natural order for six-year-olds to be killed in their kindergarten classroom, and for their parents to have to bury them. Unfortunately, as Holloway points out:

…these days can give us ways and means abundantly to grow accustomed to a vilomah. A parent whose child has died is a vilomah. Watch the evening news and you will see a vilomah. Scan the news on the web and you will read about a vilomah. Walk through your neighborhood, there are homes with vilomahs inside.

This statement leads me to a burden that has been weighing on me this week—the burden of vilomah on families of homicide victims here in Durham, in my home county in North Carolina, in the places of which any of us are integrally a part and yet often do not recognize the vilomah. Does it take a massacre of 26 people to get us to pay attention to the news, or to have homicide at the forefront of the news? Do the families have to look like ours for us to be able to truly empathize?  I’m afraid for many of us it was just too easy to picture our own kindergarten classroom or that of our childrens’ and break down in tears over the thought, “what if it had been here?”

But can we place ourselves in the shoes of the family of Kaaylon Pamplin, a 17-year-old from Durham who was killed by gunshot in October?  This story ran on Saturday, in connection with the Connecticut shooting, but I can’t say that I was aware of it in October.  How about the other homicides in Durham this year, or the city that you call home – did you notice them? As Brady Campaign statistics make clear, there are too many deaths, too much violence, too many instances of vilomah.

I’ve become more aware of them in Durham because of an organization called the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, specifically after reading Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, which is part of a book series by the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. Their mission is “to prevent and rectify the injustice of violence that segregates our city and diminishes our humanity.” Originally founded in 1992 to address gun violence through policy and legislation, the model shifted to one of relationship building with both the victims and perpetrators of gun violence, fostering compassion and reconciliation.

The country is ringing with discussion over gun legislation and yes, the discussion needs to be had. Many Duke professors have been in the news with valuable commentary. Kenan’s Kieran Healy has been cited repeatedly for his statistics on violence in America, which he posted to Crooked Timber after the Aurora shooting, and explained further this week on his blog. His two main claims are hard to reconcile with each other: the U.S. is much more violent than other OECD countries, and yet the rate of assault deaths per year has been in decline since the 1980s. So while we desperately want to enact policy in the wake of a crisis, there is a bigger picture to consider. We should be careful of drawing hasty conclusions, as Peter Ubel explains in an interesting comparison to other regulatory arenas. Violence in this country must be addressed, but I hope it will be in a holistic light that takes into account our full society.

And that brings me back to the work of RCND, and how we as individuals may think more holistically about violence in our communities. RCND recognized long ago that while legislation is battled, implemented, and sometimes reversed, communities remain tarnished by violence, and should respond collectively in support. RCND, therefore, hosts prayer vigils at the sight of every homicide that occurs in Durham, gathers for community luncheon roundtables, and partners with newly released prisoners in a reconciliation and reentry ministry. Perhaps hardest of all is considering the humanity of the perpetrators of violence, but they too are a part of our communities and a part of the path to a greater whole.

One of the things I like most about RCND’s model is the proclamation that there is not a place or person outside of our community. Everyone can contribute in some way, whether lending their expertise in the policy arena, or lending a shoulder for a neighbor who is grieving. Vilomah is something we hope we will never have to experience too personally.  But we can join in empathy, in solidarity, in recognition of a common respect for humanity that hopefully leads to fewer instances of vilomah going forward.