A Man Who Studied Violence
From around 1978-1989, I studied much in the history of violence. My interest in violence was motivated by my religious faith. My own religion, the religion of Jesus Christ, has been responsible for much violence done in his name, in the name of God. I selected the sixteenth century and its wars of religion--when Protestants and Roman Catholics tortured, killed, and drove each other out of their territories, and then, after they had their fill of harming each other, they both united to slay the Anabaptists. I sought to understand what these violent people thought Jesus meant when he commanded, "Love your enemies," and how they could do what they did with that and other related texts, such as "Turn the other cheek. I found the answer, but it not my point to tell that here.
March 2, 1992
In the late afternoon on this day, my brother, Bruce Willis, was approached on the street by a drug dealer who asked him if he wanted to buy drugs. Bruce said no. The man then said, "Give me your money anyway." Bruce had been robbed before, and decided to run. He did, and the drug dealer chased him. Bruce tripped, the man was close behind him, and he stabbed him to death. My brother bled to death in a pool of blood on 16th Street N.W. in Washington DC.
March 3, 1992
It was early the next morning, I was called at the office of the church where I was a minister, and asked by my wife to come home. She had anxiety in her voice, but would not tell me what was wrong. When I arrived at the house, she met me at the door in tears. She said, "Bruce is dead." I asked, "Was he in an accident?" She cried out, "He was murdered." I came into the house and my mind shut down. Tears poured. I literally could not think. All I can remember is a cascade of horrible emotions, but no thoughts. Finally, when I could think again, I blurted out my first words: "I do NOT ask, Why? I ask, Why NOT?!"
There were two reasons for those first words. I already had studied enough violence to know that what happened to Bruce, and what was happening to his family, was not unique, but universal. I later said that the Willises joined the rest of the human race--Innocent Victims--when Bruce was killed. But also as a pastor, I had been with families who had their own tragic stories of chaos. I knew what some people had had to go through, as I went through it with them. And, unlike so many, I was NOT going to ask God, "Why has this happened to us?" God did not kill my brother, a man did. And I knew from many, many years of study that God has allowed innocent people to be murdered, and not even my brother, or my family, was exempt from such horrible events. I was not going to ask God why the Willises had joined millions of others who were victims. My brother was precious to me, but he was no more precious than any other brother ever murdered. Jesus himself was murdered, and his brothers and sisters knew their own pain.
I had to drive to the DC Morgue to identify Bruce's body. My wife sent our 13 year old daughter, Alethea, to ride with me. All the way down from Rockville to the morgue, I was crying, saying what I now cannot remember. When we arrived at that isolated and forbidding place, I told Alethea to stay in the van. I did not want her to see whatever it was I would see. I went in, identified myself, and the man went somewhere for a few minutes, then returned. He showed me black and white snapshots.
I saw Bruce's poor dead face, turned to the side, and blood ran from his ear and mouth. One photo showed his hands had cuts all over them. He had put up his hands in self-defense. For a long time, those pictures played in my mind. I imagined the terrors my beloved brother went through before that knife finally stabbed him in the heart and lungs. I identified Bruce as my brother, and left.
The Next Days and Weeks
I had to call my parents in Kentucky, and told them. I can barely remember all the emotions I heard from my poor Mother and Father, but what I heard was awful. That day they drove to Rockville, and I cannot remember what happened to us when they arrived. Bruce's body was prepared by a local funeral home and I determined to preach his funeral. The church was packed, and I remember how caring and loving all the people in the congregation were, and the many faces of Bruce's coworkers in Alexandria and in Washington. I do not remember what I preached, but I tried to bring comfort to my grieving parents and surviving brother, Robert; to my wife and children; and to everyone else.
Mom, Dad, and Robert, drove back home a few days later. There would be another memorial service for Bruce when they could schedule with their church. Bruce had expressed a wish to be cremated, so we had his ashes in one of those little boxes they provide. In a few weeks, my family and I drove to Kentucky where we went through everything again.
It was a rainy Spring day, and what Heaven was sending down mingled with the tears we shed. We set up a picture of Bruce, had his cremains sitting next to it, and hundreds filed by in unbelief, grief, and consolation. This was good especially for Mom, Dad, and Robert, and for me too. Things like murder still do not happen often in Shelbyville or Shelby County, so the entire story stunned everyone.
I preached again, wanting to be the one who tried to frame our tragedy with all I knew that was appropriate and might provide some consolation. I was not going to sit and hear some preacher say, "God called Bruce home," as if somehow a drug dealer's decision had been orchestrated in the background by a God I surely did not know, let alone love or worship. So I did my best.
I said that God's son had been murdered; that God understood our feelings; and that scripture promised that, on the Last Day, God would wipe away every tear from our eyes. I said emphatically, perhaps with some anger in my voice, that God did not do this thing, but a man had. And that the Good News included God's love for a world like ours. I knew that Bruce had told me he was an atheist--mostly because of the very horrid behaviors of Christians through the ages, the subjects of my academic studies. We had discussed these things, and I knew Bruce's heart was purer than some Christians I had known. So I left out Bruce's position on God, and told my family and friends that God knew the human heart, and that Bruce was in good hands. And everyone knew that statement was true.
After the service, our immediate family drove to Grove Hill Cemetery. I held an umbrella over Dad, and cried and watched as he cried and took a spade and dug the hole where he would put what was left of his second son. He and Mom had purchased a headstone, put their names side by side, with Bruce's underneath. I gently placed the gray box down into the hole, while Dad watched and cried, then I covered it over. I put my arm around Dad, held the umbrella with the other, and prayed some prayer for God's mercy to Bruce, us, and our suffering world.
We drove back to the house where everyone was waiting, and we had a very painful post-funeral meal. My cousin, Kenny Bennett, was Bruce's age and they were close. I remember him saying, "I think we need to load our guns and drive to DC and kill some niggers." Neither the Willises nor the Bennetts were racist families, but Bruce being murdered by a Black drug dealer brought out the worst. I immediately told Kenny, and the group listening, that this was not a race-crime, but a robbery. And I told them that Black families in DC also were having their loved ones killed every day by drive-by killers and murderers. That seemed to help at the time, and it helped more later. But the N-word would be repeated over the years.
My family and I drove back to Rockville, Maryland, and I went back to work at the church. People in the congregation recommended that I take time off, maybe go to some counseling, but I would not. I would ask, "What am I supposed to do? Bruce is dead. I must keep going." This was a mistake. It would be years before I would look back and see how dysfunctional Bruce's murder had made me, and how it had made this man, who devoted his life to becoming a Peacemaker, into someone who developed a hair-trigger temper and many other dysfunctional behaviors for a Christian minister.
Bruce was Gay and single, so I volunteered to pack his things, and take care of estate matters. I wanted no stranger to do this, and I did not want my parents to have anything to do with it. So I would drive to his apartment and pack. I cried all the way there. I cried the whole time I was there. I drank the liquor he had there as I worked. I cried all the way home. I cried for weeks and weeks when I was home, or when I went back to my church office.
One night, I had drunk Bruce's Stolichnaya, and had been thinking about the man who killed him. Bruce was gentle and never ever harmed a fly. I, on the other hand, was the oldest brother and did not have his disposition. Before I left home on that day, I brought with me a razor-sharp survival knife "for protection." But when I left his apartment to go home, the alcohol fully released my desire for revenge. I went to the van, took the knife out of its sheath, put it up my sleeve, and went into the federal park where the confrontation had occurred weeks before. I wanted somehow to meet Bruce's killer, and then kill him. Bruce may have been a victim, but his brother wanted to kill his killer, if I could.
One by one, I approached men and came up close to them asking, "Where you here on the night of March Second? My brother was killed that night." I stood within a foot of them. My hand was on the hilt of that knife. In my drunken rage, I looked them in the eyes and hoped one would somehow reveal he was the killer. One by one, they said they were not there, they did not know who did it, and turned away. I would walk to another and confronted him. I remember seeing people begin to move away from me. I did this several times, then gave up. I walked back to my van, drove off, and began to cry again. I began to think of my four sweet children, asleep at home, and what I almost had done. I asked myself, "What if I had killed someone? My children would have no father. They would have their Dad in prison."
I had no thought at all that I might have killed an innocent man, or of any guilt at wanting to take the law into my own hands. I surely took no thought that what I had done was improper for a minister. All I could think of was Bruce's horrible death, and that I wanted to suspend everything I had learned to avenge his death. The vodka had unchained my worst emotions, and unhinged my morality. Worst of all, I also realized that Bruce, a gentle and kind man, never ever would have approved what I had set out to do. He did not have a violent bone in his body. He would have corrected his big brother, though he would have understood and hugged me for my real motivations, made so insane by his own vodka: my deep love for him, and my grief he had been taken away so horribly.
DC was infamous at that time for being the "murder capital of the U.S." and every day had news of someone being murdered. For months after Bruce's death, our family would see the crying, grieving families on camera, and I would start crying. I knew how they felt. And my mind would go over again all the details of Bruce's pictures in the morgue, the thoughts of what he went through in his last minutes, and all my love for him. My wife and children would comfort me, and I remember their hurt faces as I went through those times. Never, ever again would I see another news report of murdered people and their families as I had before. Only victims know what it is to be a victim.
Bruce's Killer--The Enemy
I have said that my PhD dissertation concerned Christian violence in the sixteenth century. Its title was, "'Love Your Enemy': Sixteenth Century Interpretations." I was invested deeply, intellectually and emotionally, in the historical cycles of religious people committing violence against others. I had learned that some people used and manipulated their faith and the scriptures for violence, while others actually were taught, and drew upon, theological paradigms for violence in the scriptures. The Jewish Bible provided paradigms for physical violence. The Christian Bible provided paradigms for rejecting heretics and expulsions from congregations. Later Christians had combined both Jewish and Christian traditions to do what they did, willfully manipulative or in what we still oddly must call, good faith.
The man who killed Bruce was a drug dealer. He surely was not a religious enemy of mine. But he had become my enemy by slaying my brother. Through all the days, weeks, months, and years afterward, in the natural sense, of being a person who harmed by kin, he was my enemy. This never was lost on me and I thought about Jesus' command to love my enemies, and how Jesus had commanded me to do many things as his follower: love, do good, pray for my brother's killer.
During the first days and weeks, I was in constant contact with the DC investigator in charge of the case. I asked if I could help find the murderer, and was told I could not help. Weeks went by. I then began to call every week. Months went by. I began to call every few weeks, and finally, just occasionally. In the first days after Bruce was killed, I tried to prepare my parents that the killer never would be found. I said, "DC is a jungle and they never will find him." At that time, DC was the infamous "murder capital" of the nation.
Close to the first anniversary of Bruce's death, Mom called me and asked what was happening to Bruce's case. I reminded her of what I had said at the beginning, that we ought not expect ever to find the killer or have justice. She said, "I think it is awful that I have lost a son and do not even know what is happening. I want the name of someone to write a letter to." I found the name of the Inspector of Homicide and gave her the address. Several weeks passed, and I got a call from the detective assigned to the case. He said Bruce's case was being assigned to the Cold Case Squad.
Months passed and I got another call. The detective said they had re-interviewed all the witnesses and potentially had a break. He said I had volunteered to help and now they could use me. He asked me to go to the DC Jail to speak with an inmate who knew the killer. I immediately agreed. I later went to the Jail to meet that man. They had him in a small interrogation cell and had given him a hamburger, fries, and a soft drink. He began to tell me his friend, Eric Hill, was a crack dealer who carried either a knife or a gun. Eric, he said, was a crack-head, and liked to threaten people. He had warned Eric, "One day you are gonna hurt somebody." He said, a few days after Bruce had been killed, Eric had told him, "You know that white guy killed in the park? I did it and it's tearing me up."
Eric Hill had committed an armed robbery a month after he killed Bruce, and was serving twenty years for that when he was charged with capital murder--murder with a deadly weapon. More months went by. Every time there was a hearing, I drove down to DC alone. None of my family would go, so I went, crying and feeling dark clouds within me as I crossed over the DC line on 16th Street. I drove by the place where Bruce died, on my way to the court building. I would sit alone in that courtroom when they brought out this handsome African American man who did not look like a murderer. He wore an orange jump suit, came out in chains, and sometimes looked at the lone man in the seats.
The family wrote victim letters to the judge before sentencing. We asked for the maximum sentence. Eric had been diagnosed with AIDS and medical care was better in federal prison than in the DC Jail. So he agreed to tell everything that happened, if the judge would place him in the prison at Lorton, Virginia. He said he did not premeditate Bruce's murder, but he flew into a rage when Bruce had the audacity to run from him. So the charge was reduced.
On the day set for sentencing, Mom, Dad, and Robert, had come from Kentucky to hear the verdict. My wife attended with them. We sat together and and cried quietly. I remember seeing a very distinguished-looking African American family--Eric's family, I guessed--sitting in another area of the room. They brought him out. He spoke to the judge. He turned and apologized to us. Then the judge sentenced him to another twenty years, concurrent, without parole. He would die from AIDS in prison.
There was some sense of relief after the conviction and sentence. But I still thought about Jesus' commands regarding enemies. I frankly neither rejected my duties, nor did I live up to them. I lived for some time in a kind of middle place, where I knew what I was told to do and where I was unresolved to do it.
One day, and I think it may have been around three years or more after March 2, 1992, I had a sense of peace about Eric Hill, and a desire to reach out and write to him. I think part of my motivation was Jesus' command to love my enemy. But another part was the realization, which had come more and more over time, that Eric Hill once had been a little boy before he became a killer. He had been raised by a family who loved him. There had been a process by which he had left his innocence and turned to drugs. And then there was that night he killed Bruce. I really knew nothing about Eric Hill. What he did to my brother was a wicked thing, but I had come to realize he was a man like me. And a single wicked thing does not make a wicked man, not necessarily. And he had told his friend, "This thing is tearing me up." Eric had had a conscience.
I resolved to write to him at Lorton, to say to him what I had in my heart. I contacted the detective in DC. He gave me the address and inmate number. I wrote a short but sincere note to Eric in my office at the church. I will try to reproduce it here as I can recall it.
"Dear Eric: I am the man you saw sitting in the court room when they brought you out at the hearings. Bruce Willis was my brother. I want you to know that I forgive you. I do not speak for my family, but myself. I am a sinner as you are. I am a minister. I encourage you to turn to the Lord, seek forgiveness from God, as you live the rest of your life. In the Love of Christ, John D. Willis."
I never got a response. I am unsure now if I expected one. Perhaps if he had written back, I would have visited him in prison. I know I had that in me. But all I had was silence, and I felt I had done all I could. Over the years, I checked the federal register of inmates. The last time I checked Lorton, there was no Eric Hill, but there were several by that name scattered over the United States. By this time, perhaps he has died of AIDS, I do not know. But I take no pleasure either from the fact he may be dead, or that he had to suffer, if he did, with such a horrible wasting disease. I do sometimes wonder, however, whether or not my little note was welcome, for it may not have been--since I did not know him, perhaps he was a hardened and mean individual. But it was sent to him in genuine cleanness of heart, with good intentions, and I have prayed from time to time it did some good.
I can say I did not write that letter with some sense of religious duty, as if that was what I had to do to please God or have a clear conscience or "bring closure." For some reason, I really had love for Eric Hill as a human being who once had been a little boy, raised by loving parents, and yet a man who had made a series of bad choices. He did use drugs, and his mind surely was as clouded with temporary insanity as the night I had drunk Bruce's vodka, whether or not he was high that night or not. Eric really was a man like me. Any number of times in my life, when I had considered doing bad things but for some reason did not, I might have made choices with horrible consequences.
So my love for him was real. And my feelings against him were gone. Yes, I still had those memories of those photographs, of standing and looking at Bruce's bloodstain on the pavement. But there was no more misery and grief in me, just a pervasive feeling that the Willis and Hill families had been brought together by an entire series of bad choices, including that Bruce himself had chosen to live in an area where violence was known to be prevalent.
My Mom, Dad, brother Robert, and everyone else in the family, continued to grieve and suffer for many years. Bruce's death aged my parents and took years off their lives. When the subject of Bruce's murderer came up, and it regularly did for a long time, they would alternate between grief and hate. I tried to help them appreciate that Mom's letter had resulted in Hill being convicted. I told them that many victims never ever had any justice, only loss and questions. So I said we had to be grateful for what we had, all due to a grieving mother's hand-written letter. My years of academic reflection and years of pastoral experience were of great help to my parents and brother, Robert, though he was angry for far longer than I was. For a long time, Mom and Dad were unhappy, stressed, and unable to have any joy. Then came a time several years later they they began to smile and even laugh at the antics of their grandchildren.
I never told them I had written to Eric Hill. They never forgave him. I knew they would not understand, appreciate, or accept that such a note was right. They would have seen it as a betrayal of Bruce. They neither had studied what I had learned, nor had they seen what I have seen as a pastor, and their own Christian faith was more undeveloped. Some people may say I did the wrong thing, that I ought to have encouraged their faith, their capacity to forgive, their reliance upon God to enable that capacity. But I continued to say things to them about Eric Hill that I wrote above. I reminded them his father was a postal worker, that he had come from a good home, and that he may have been high the night he killed Bruce. And they finally came to nod their heads in agreement. They finally saw him as a person, not just a killer.
Mom is dead now. Dad is weaker. I visit him a few times a week and cook meals for him. We still talk about Bruce, laughing about good memories of that good-natured boy. But occasionally Dad will say a harsh word about the man who killed his son. I remain silent most of the time, for I am not a father who lost his beloved son, only another son who never can fully understand what a father can feel. Robert lives not far from me and he still has very hard feelings about the man who stole away his brother's life. I still try to help him understand what he will hear, and sometimes get through, for a time.
I have written that, after Bruce's death, I refused to take time off or seek counseling. Looking back now, that was a bad mistake. I began to become more impatient and harsh with some difficult personalities at the church. I began to have a more easily triggered anger. There is no doubt I did not respond appropriately to various stresses in my ministry in Rockville. A fraud occurred there two years after Bruce was killed, and I fought the perpetrators nearly on my own for four years. I look back now and see how, had I been healthier, I surely would have treated those people with more compassion, not the vitriol to which I subjected them.
I had one more ministry, reported an abusive foster parent to the State of New York, the children were pulled from the home, then I was asked to leave. Yet I wonder now whether I acted too quickly, or whether the emotional damage I had in me made me less able to see better solutions. That was my last ministry. My family and I returned to Kentucky where I resolved, regardless of God's will, to serve congregations no longer, I stewed in bad memories, and went downhill spiritually and emotionally.
Eight years after Bruce's death, my wife and I divorced. Our marriage had serious troubles throughout our many years. We had considered divorce after our first three months of marriage. Yet the birth of our children, and constantly serving people in congregations, kept us together as a team for many years. After I left the ministry, I surely was less of a Christian man, had acquired more impatience, and was less loving. She had her own personality dysfunctions, but I know for sure they were aggravated by the fact she had a more difficult man to live with after Bruce's death. So I still believe Bruce's death, and how I refused to accept the advice of good people in seeking psychological assistance, contributed to the issues I brought to our divorce.
My commitments to understanding violence and human conflict continued, for they are part of me, my nature, my calling. I enforced civil rights law for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I created and administrated a masters degree in conflict resolution for a university. In designing a course to prepare students to understand their personalities and triggers, so they could be more neutral in working with others, I studied much in personality theory, and many mental disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That phase of my career was a revelation for me. I began to see how Bruce's murder--followed by a fraud in a congregation--had changed my emotional processes. So I began to study more in neural processes, emotional trauma, and went deeper into the dynamics that had poisoned me, as I then saw and see.
I will never know how things might have gone differently, had I sought healthy ways to cope with Bruce's murder. All I know for sure is that this man's high religious commitments and intellectual development were insufficient to keep me from being human, from having completely human responses to a horrible event. I also know certainly that my original response, of seeking to be strong for my family, of refusing psychological resources, was a grave mistake for which many people have had to pay. Yes, I know that other people I have met in my life, since Bruce's death, have brought their own personality and behavioral problems with them, as I have had to deal with them. But the sad but true fact is, they also had to deal with a man like me, who has a good heart and intentions in his core being, but who has within him emotional and behavioral scarring and dysfunctions only a murder victim's surviving brother can have.
Learning From Life for the Academy
I have not written this true story, with all its admittedly subjective interpretations and assertions, for catharsis, healing, and self-help. I feel no relief, no added benefit, at least for myself, in this narrative. One wise thing I did do, from the beginning and throughout all these years, is that I always openly talked about how I was feeling, thinking, and behaving. Whatever perspectives I have offered are not new to me, and none have arisen in the course of writing.
It is the world's present condition for which I write. I have taken the time to record my painful journey in the hope that some reader will find something of personal value towards better coping, healing, if needed. I know there are many victims out there in the world. There are not just victims of murder. There are victims of rape, robbery, domestic violence, child abuse. There also are millions who have experienced emotionally traumatic life events where no hand held a knife and stabbed the life out of a loved one. There are emotional knives, nevertheless, that just as surely stab and inflict mortal wounds within the psyches of people who then go through life unaware of the emotional damage they carry entombed in their heads.
One thing I have learned about emotional trauma. It may or may not be related to a physically violent event, but emotional violence always creates an entire spectrum of intrapsychic reactions below the level of consciousness. Victims continue to be victimized by their own natural defense mechanisms--hormonal reactions in the brain, altered neural functions--which, if untreated or unhealed, become pathological penalties for as long as they operate unabated. The truth is, most people in the world have no access to professional psychological care, and the kind of care related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is long-term and expensive. So I see no use in hoping for interventions which will not occur.
My real motive for writing, therefore, is For the Sake of the One, that unknown reader who may stumble upon this story and find something good and healing in it for him or her. I post this on the Internet, and pass it along to my friends and colleagues in conflict resolution in that hope that they, or someone they forward it to, or some stranger who stumbles across it, will gain something for understanding and healing. In that sense, what I have written comes out of my core being as a man who still wants to do something good with what he has learned and suffered, for the benefit of others. This comes from the minister of Jesus Christ still left in me.
When I began earnestly to study the sixteenth century wars of religion, I tried not to see them only events related to differences in doctrine and the dynamics of politics. I read victims' stories, like Theileman van Braght's Martyrs Mirror (1660). But I had read, and later continued to read, victims' accounts from the history of Anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisitions. I wanted to read history from the victims' side, as well as the victors' side, the latter perspective from which so much history is written. The effect of these studies was a deep and grave sorrow. Perhaps I developed even a kind of disposition of grief, as I saw a world so full of "man's inhumanity to man." Yet all the vicarious empathy that grew within me, it was not until Bruce's murder that I would experience the conditions for real empathy: lived experience.
Now I have read, and still read, many true stories of how people all over the world have been tortured and murdered. I am a realist in that I know that Bruce's terror and and death lasted only maybe twenty minutes, if that is how long it took him to bleed to death there on the pavement. He was not flayed alive, or buried in an ant hill. Still, his terror and his horror were real. And the relatively short time he experienced them do not diminish what he felt, or that he is dead, or that his family and friends continued, and continue, to experience the traumatic impacts of March 2, 1992.
But as I look at the world today, I see a virtually complete ignorance and disinterest, concerning the general public and concerning nations, in what violence does to victims. There are primary victims who suffer what they do. There are secondary victims, like survivors, who love their dead, but who go on to live dysfunctional lives, creating another class of victims, what I will call tertiary victims. I am a secondary victim, but have created a number of tertiary victims.
I know how I felt, with or without vodka, towards Bruce's killer. I know what pain and suffering did to a man with deep religious beliefs, a man serving as a clergyman, a man filled with technical knowledge about violence, but also a man who was a brother, who knew the victim for who he was, not as a statistic for the news. I know feelings of blinding grief, desires for revenge and justice--which are not the same. I know, at least in my case, that my religious and moral sanity returned and I had the capacity to forgive from my heart.
Yet I understand, and will not condemn, someone who seeks revenge. I know how they feel. To desire to take revenge is, for most of us, rather human. But I can say from personal experience that had I taken revenge on the night when I was intoxicated with both vodka and hate, even if I had found Eric Hill himself and he bragged to me about what he had done, I would have been wrong to have killed him, even if a court ruled me innocent of murder. I do not believe my parents or brother would agree with me.
I think now of the possibility that one of my children or grandchildren could be murdered. I fear such an experience. I know what is latent within me. But I also have lived long enough to see other people with horror stories of their own who have managed their grief better than me. There are those Amish families whose five girls were shot several years ago by Charles Carl Roberts IV. There are those many people who agreed to go through Truth and Reconciliation commissions, first in South Africa, and then elsewhere. There are millions of people who have refused to allow pain, grief, and tragedy to drive them to seek personal revenge. And the world has taken note and learned, though surely not as much as is needed all over the globe.
The desire for revenge is natural. It is based in love for the lost victim. It is based in anger from pain. It is based on a desire for justice, to punish the wicked. Yet violence unleashes the deepest mixture of irrational and rational motives, and it almost always drives good people to want to do bad things. Our minds are filled with pain and turmoil, we think of our loved ones lost, we think of what happened to them, and we want to lash out for the old, ancient law, the lex talionis, the Law of Retaliation.
In my case, my religious faith had motivated me to walk, for decades, in the valley of the shadow of death, filling my mind with blood-soaked information to I might have the tools to become some kind of peacemaker. My intellectual development was both religious and moral, with good purposes of understanding and prevention. Yet the murder of my dear brother, Bruce, dragged me from vicarious suffering into personal suffering. There was no way academic studies on Jesus' command, "Love your enemies," could prepare me for what I eventually would live through.
I am thankful to write this story from within the framework of one who is healed, and who desires even more to be a maker of shalom, of deep inner spiritual peace with God and others in the world. Yet because of my personal experience, such as it was, incomparable though it is with some of the worst horror stories in the world of survivors, I now understand how important my religious, moral, and global concerns are.
Some Americans literally called for using nuclear weapons and killing all the people of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. Some Muslims were involved in that horror, and now millions more seek to kill the innocent, because Americans and Westerners generally are disinterested in their real, living memories of seeing 500,000 innocent Iraqi women and children destroyed by an oil embargo, or in the suffering of innocent Muslims elsewhere in the world. Pick any historic cycle of violence and revenge in the world--and there are too many to list here, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, African nations, Asian nations. The world is full of murderers and victims, has been, and always will be.
Nevertheless, the cycles of retaliation and revenge, while generated by nature, are false. Nature never will tell our tortured minds the truth: blind bloody revenge is not justice, though justice must be sought. I know that, as a Christian minister, I had deep spiritual experiences and teachings to chain my natural emotions. Without them, knowing how I loved and love Bruce, I can foresee how this older brother might have cooled down after a time, then become mentally focused on revenge, which could have taken any number of harmful directions for me, my family, and those victims I might have created.
So I think I understand something about murder and victims and how they feel. But I do hope, and I pray to God, that someone reading this story, whose life now is filled with poison, will consider what this fellow sufferer has said in my reflections. Yes, there is a desire for wrath and revenge. Yes, we all want justice. But if the history of the world teaches us anything, we can see that completing the cycle of violence with more violence, is potentially and usually endless.
If we resist the temptation to honor our dead by following our worst instincts--which are temporary--there is better hope, healing, reconciliation, and resurrection for better things, if we remember the mercy of God to us. For we all are sinners. We all are capable of the worst. I can remember times of youthful rage when I might have become an Eric Hill. As Jesus said and as I believe, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Let let us not foreclose the possibility of that comfort by becoming judge, jury, and executioner, which must be left finally to the Last Judgment.