This morning at 11:00 Central time, Trinity Cathedral in Omaha joined Episcopal churches across the nation in tolling their bells 59 times, once for each person who was killed in this week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. This shooting is our most recent horror, bringing us once again to place of national grief. For some, that grief bleeds into despair as we ask what we can do not only to remember the dead and give the moment the solemnity it requires, but also to stop this progression of violence that threatens to numb us to the possibility of living any other way.
As the bells at Trinity Cathedral began tolling, groups of birds — primarily pigeons and starlings — flew up from treetops and rooftops in downtown Omaha. Murmurations of startled birds turned in the wind, navigating away from the clangs of the bells. After several tolls, though, many of the birds settled back onto the trees and roofs, and at the end of the fifty-nine tolls, groups of the remaining birds flew back into the area, leaving the distribution of birds on the trees and rooftops of downtown Omaha much as it had been before 11:00.
Our news in the United States in recent weeks has brought one startling story after another, stories of extremely destructive hurricanes, stories of racism, stories of war and threats of war, stories of interference in our political process, and stories of gun violence. Some of these are new developments of very old stories and some are new, but each new story of something way out of the ordinary momentarily startles us much as the beginning of the 59 tolls startled the birds in Omaha. After the initial shock, we move into action, whether to simply find out more about it or try to do something constructive in response. Some of us settle back to our normal routines and places fairly quickly, while others wait until the “news cycle” has moved onto something else. People who were deeply concerned about relief efforts in Puerto Rico a couple of days ago had their attention shocked away from that by what happened in Las Vegas.
Unlike the birds, though, we have the capacity after the initial shock has worn off to choose to remember what happened and to remain concerned about the issues that underlie these news stories. We can reflect on what happened and work on figuring out better ways to live with one another. We can realize that each new shock is connected to the others, and that all those directly affected by each new horror are connected to us. No event and no person stands alone. We can realize that all the issues we treat as isolated are interconnected: our failure to address climate change is tied to our acceptance of racism and violence and dysfunctional governance. Whatever we choose to forget and ignore still affects us, whatever we choose to passively accept as some twisted new version of normal is going to affect each of us as the perversion of God’s kingdom that it is.
And perhaps we can remember and understand the words of John Donne:
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.