Living Values: Reflections after New Zealand’s Tragedy

Shared below are remarks delivered to students at Bay’s Morning Meeting by Head of School Luke Felker after the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand March 15, 2019.

Good morning, Bay community. I was preparing a very different, light-hearted talk for Morning Meeting when I saw the news of the massacre in New Zealand. This morning I want to share with you how I am processing this latest tragedy.

For those of you who haven’t seen the news, 49 people were killed and 20 seriously injured in two mass shootings at mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Four people have been taken into custody at this time. One of the alleged attackers is said to have posted an 87-page manifesto filled with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Let me start by saying I have few answers. The rational side of me has come to expect this in our world. While we have been exposed to intense manifestations of hatred on a consistent basis in recent years, we know that violence is also a through-line in our world’s history. And we know that religion has been a source of both belonging and division since its inception. Millions of people have died for what they believed. When it hasn’t been religion, we humans have still labeled one another as insiders and outsiders based on any number of identifiers, with violence often accompanying such divisions. We also know that hurting and killing one another has become easier with 20th and 21st century technologies used for all forms of violence. Because I understand this rationally, on some level I should never be surprised or shocked when the next incident happens.

Yet the emotional side of me struggles to come to grips with the amount of hatred that can exist within people. I cannot fully understand what has to happen to a heart and mind to be brought to this level of terror and depravity. That’s partly because I believe, and maybe it’s a naïve choice, in the inherent goodness of people. I do everything I can to see the good in the hardest conversations, the hardest moments; I’m not perfect at it, but all of my lived experience suggests that generally everyone seeks to create a better life for themselves and the ones they love. I think people generally want to build, not tear apart.

The more I get to know someone, to understand their world and their life, decisions and moments that may be difficult to comprehend from the outside suddenly become clearer. The value of connection, real human connection, not just highly curated online imagery and lives, is the essence, the recipe. So if real human connection is part of the answer, how do we build on it to disempower the intense, animating forces of hate in this world? Again, there is no single answer, but I see the lived impact of human connection each and every day in education generally and especially in my days at Bay.

Each connection we make decreases the ability of hate to manifest and fester. That’s even more true when our connections go beyond our closest circle. I’ve shared before that I went to a religious grade school, and not surprisingly, a lot of people I knew in K-8 were fairly similar. It was really healthy for me to go to a high school with a far more diverse student body, where I was clearly reminded that I was just one part of a much larger, more diverse whole. While my K-8 school provided a powerful sense of belonging, it had its limitations.

This equal desire for both belonging to a close community and understanding ourselves as part of something much larger is why all of us at Bay care so much about going deeper into the range of hard conversations. These hard conversations are about who you think you are as a person and how that identity relates to your family, your local community, and the global community. They are about privilege, religion, and race. This is not a New Age experiment we’ve undertaken, but an intentional process that over time builds understanding and hopefully reduces misunderstanding and the formation of hate.

Two of Bay’s founding pillars are ethics and world religion, and you have the option to take a wide range of related courses. We regard the study of ethics and religion as vitally important to breaking down barriers that have been the source of conflict for generations. We recognize that a value-less world is unfit for living, and as your teachers, staff, and administrators, we believe deeply in the power of ideas, the power of connection, and the power of you all to imagine and create better communities and a better world.

Rarely will be it be simple to live your values, but it’s nonetheless a huge part of what we hope you take from your Bay education. You’re going to come away from high school with more knowledge and skills. That’s a given. The larger question is what role you’ll play with others around you to live your values and to fight hate. Bay teachers, staff and administrators are here for something far bigger and more meaningful than just a high school education. And, over time, we want you to be, too.

At this moment, though, what we can all do is pause to deeply keep in mind those who have lost their lives and their families. Process what just happened in Christchurch. Let it drive you to stay in conversation with those with whom you may disagree, to envision another deeper level of civil discourse, and to educate yourself on what makes us alike, irrespective of our identifiers. And then to think about what your next action might be.

I heard this morning from one of our staff who has a close friend in New Zealand. Her next action came from the heart. She posted on Facebook that if anyone she knew felt unsafe and needed someone to talk with, to go to grocery store with, to travel the bus with, that she was ready and waiting. A simple act that is so powerful.  

As we pause for a moment of mindfulness this morning, please keep in mind those who were just killed for engaging their faith. And consider all the good that does exist in this world. And your role in sustaining the good.