As a teenager, my mom read Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders one night while babysitting. I know, right? This is the same woman who waited until my dad was out of town to watch Silence of the Lambs in an empty house, resulting in a episode of creeping up to closet doors and flinging them open while shouting “Aha!” to check for potential cannibalistic serial killers. Anyway, the book told the story of Charles Manson and his cult of followers committing the murders of white families in the Los Angeles area in 1969 in an effort to frame the black community and start a full-blown race war. Charming guy, really. It terrified my mother for obvious reasons. But it also unsettled her because she said before reading it, she had always thought of murder as something people did to people they really hated. She knew no one hated her, so she wasn’t all that concerned about being murdered. But the Manson “Family” picked their victims at random, knowing nothing of them personally except their skin color. It rocked her world a little bit to realize that something so horrifying could happen to anybody.
I think that’s why we are so fond of blaming the victim when things go wrong. Even if the rules are completely unfair, it feels better to have them and know what they are than to accept chaos. Chaos makes us vulnerable. It’s much easier to hold onto the comfort that if she hadn’t been wearing that and drinking so much, if he hadn’t engaged that other driver when his road rage escalated, if they had realized their son wasn’t ready to walk to school alone, if she had left after the first time he lost his temper like that… this never would have happened. We would’ve known better. We wouldn’t have put ourselves in that position in the first place. So this could never happen to us. We’re safe, right?
If we can find an identifiable reason why this happened to them, we can do something to make sure that it doesn’t happen to us. That makes sense, we want to be smart and take appropriate precautions, learn from the mistakes of others and all that. But when we follow this train of thought all the way through to it’s logical conclusion, we end up believing that people deserve what they get. We find ourselves with a sort of circular reasoning that says if you do the right things, you can prevent bad things from happening to you and the people you love; if those bad things happen anyway, you obviously didn’t do the right things.
Not only does this further shame and isolate people who need support in the aftermath of a crisis, it also shifts responsibility from the person or people who caused the pain to the ones experiencing it. We don’t have to deal with the underlying causes of rape or murder or any of the rest of it if we decide to limit our who and why questions to the victims rather than the perpetrators. We accept that evil exists. It’s a given. As Batman’s faithful butler Albert told us, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Yikes. That’s a little too freaky, so we’d rather let that sleeping dog lie and focus on avoiding close encounters with lighter fluid instead.
Now I realize I’m painting a pretty bleak picture here, but it’s not as fatalistic as it sounds. We’re not a real-life version of the movie Final Destination where death is creatively scheming to get us any way it can. The truth is, life and death dance together all the time.
I was reminded of this freshly a couple of weeks ago by the sound of my two-year-old niece’s laughter as she played peekaboo with the mourners at my grandfather’s funeral. When the graveside service ended, she leaned over and whispered sweetly to my brother, “Daddy, I go play with the flowers?” She didn’t see death as something ominous. She didn’t feel hopeless at the reminders of mortality. She saw the cemetery as a garden of colorful flowers inviting her to rejoice rather than a collection of cold, grey headstones inviting us to despair.
The suffering in our world feels random at times, but the joy does too. It sneaks up on us out of the blue. It can come unbidden and without any clear provocation, spattering us helter skelter with peace and comfort and laughter. We don’t earn it or deserve anymore than the pain that comes the same way. And if we can hold on long enough through the bad stuff, we might just see flowers bloom. In my mind’s eye, they are Easter lilies, defiantly sweet and gorgeous despite the crucifixion they represent.
Christians serve a God who chose to suffer abuse and death while people taunted and pointed fingers and whispered about how Jesus brought it on himself. When we continue to blame people for their suffering today, we are the ones in Christ’s story shouting “Crucify him!” Better to be the women who never left his side. They couldn’t stop what he was going through, but they could stay in his line of sight so there were a few faces in the crowd still on his side. They could kiss his feet as he hung on the cross so he could experience some tenderness in the midst of his worst day. They could visit his grave in the garden on Easter morning. They could tell all of us that there is resurrection, and life bursts through to wash over us helter skelter, forever and ever, Amen.