John Bennison Words and Ways | Unhinged



[A copy of this commentary to print and/or read can be found here.]

Dateline: January 15, 2011

For many years I was privileged to lead a modest-sized faith community of good-hearted folks.  Being handy resourceful types, we were constantly repairing and enhancing the buildings and property.

On the long list for on-going maintenance were the wooden sanctuary doors.  They were large and heavy, and with frequent use the hinges would loosen, the doors would jam, and people couldn’t get in or out.  That was a problem.

Replacing the hinge screws with longer and longer ones worked for a while, until the threads stripped the wooden jamb once again.  Eventually, it was clear the problem wasn’t the door, the hinges or the screws, but the building itself.  Until we fixed the framework, our most important passageway wouldn’t work, and we weren’t going anywhere.  In a word, we’d become unhinged.

Until we fixed the framework, our most important passageway wouldn’t work, and we weren’t going anywhere.  In a word, we’d become unhinged.


A week has past since the unfolding events of yet one more violent moment in this nation and its aftermath, this time in Tucson.  Amidst all the searching for the inexplicable ‘whys,’ the inadequate ‘what’ of what might have been done to prevent it from happening (or ever happening again), and the squabbling over who might be blamed, one thing was clearly felt.  Whatever else has happened, we have once again collectively found ourselves unhinged.

On Wednesday, the President remarked, “… when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.”

But he also simply and astutely observed, “We’re shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward.”

My hunch is that, while the ensuing “thorough investigations” and careful examination of lots of evidence and data might provide a lot of potentially useful information, deeper, broader and more far-reaching introspection could prove more illuminating and helpful in the end.

Consequently, my further hunch is legislation merely limiting the number of rounds in a Glock’s magazine clip, or reviewing and revising school policies to better address student mental health may always prove to be too little, too late, in a social order that is itself in crisis and hanging off its hinges.  There’s something more at stake here.  And more than a little introspection would help serve the common good.

Whereas I would normally have had an immediate comment or two (or more) to make, in response to the perpetual 24-hour news cycle, I’ve surprised myself this last week; feeling more compelled to listen to others, ponder and reflect.

Quite some time ago I realized there’s always a back-story to every story; where something more profound may often be found.  That’s probably why I’ve spent so many years foraging around the language of myth and the plotlines of parables; moving from storyline, to interpretation, to meaningful application of arcane tales that still have the capacity to move us and tell our story too.  And, in this high-profile story of tragedy and violence for perpetrator and victims alike, I believe there’s a back-story; which may lead us to the very framework by which we collectively try to set our house aright again.

We have been both stirred and shaken.  There is something more deeply seated, more culturally endemic that has unfolded to create this American story; and it has something to do not only with the manner in which we think and act, but the words we use to tell our stories, about the ways we order our lives.

Looking at the back-story, we should not underestimate the power of language.  And public forums filled with talking heads that challenge each other to reevaluate the rules by which we engage in civil discourse and political rhetoric, with a general reminder that we all ought to just behave ourselves and treat others as we would like to be treated, is only a starting point.

Call it coincidence or not, it doesn’t matter: Gabby was absolutely right.  Words have consequences.  And her words should haunt us.  When one employs the language of lock and load, and crosshairs over targets that have a name and face behind them, it builds upon the framework in which one deliberately chooses to tell their story.  It becomes s part of the common language, the cultural parlance and folklore with which a society tells its story.

Call it coincidence or not, it doesn’t matter: Gabby was absolutely right.  Words have consequences.  And her words should haunt us.


When we tell our stories using metaphorical imagery, it’s never, ever just a metaphor.  Unless one is completely ignorant of the words that come out of one’s mouth, stories are told with certain imagery precisely for the power invoked in such an image.  The words chosen may be inspirational, insightful, or incite-full.  Once let loose, it should not utterly surprise us when the words used to tell our stories become part of real live human events.

It has been objectively argued the sole action of one more deranged gunman, who easily passed an instant background check and exercised his second amendment right to purchase a weapon capable of such inordinate violence, was not a political act; despite the fact this high-profile mayhem seems to have struck a deeper nerve in our national psyche precisely because a member of Congress was not only one of the hapless victims, but the target.

Regardless of the confused logic to such an argument – which is altogether useless anyway — it leaves me asking a far bigger question.

Why is itthat  political assassinations and the routine acts of armed violence amongst the citizenry are typically the stuff of across-the-border drug cartels, war-torn nations in which we’re engaged halfway around the world, and impoverished third-world countries in total social chaos; with the only seeming exception being our own magnificent country, the last so-called superpower and leader of the free world?

What is it in our collective make-up, our constitution and character? What is it in the way we create the stories we tell that makes a Tucson supermarket on a Saturday morning the latest crime scene; but not, I fear, the last such story to be told?

Misfortunate events happen all the time, and are typically labeled as being tragedies.  Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a terrible misfortune when tragedy strikes.  What is truly tragic, however, is when terrible misfortune happens when one has the wisdom and capacity to do otherwise.  We can do better.

What is truly tragic, however, is when terrible misfortune happens when one has the wisdom and capacity to do otherwise.  We can do better.


In the aftermath of such stories, it is often asked why bullets need to fly and we become unhinged once again, before we are starkly reminded of both the capacity for good, often heroic acts of human kindness and sacrifice, in the face of utter human cruelty on the other.  Like it or not, they are both a part of our common story.

In the face of this still greater tragedy that continues to unfold – of which this event is only the latest chapter – I am persuaded it yet remains within our capacity to deliberately choose to tell another story; if only we have the wisdom, courage and compassion to do so.




© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.


  1. The power of words – they can build you up and take you down. Your words are insightful. It is a joy to read!

  2. Your poetic use of language and penetrating insights are a delight to your readers. The story of the church doors is a powerful metaphor. I believe you are right that we have become “unhinged” as a nation and that we can, if we will, do much better. We continue to repeat the same errors instead of looking deeper into root causes and making necessary changes.

  3. Michelle /

    Yes, words have consequences. I say it to my children all the time. “You say it, you own it. A joke is not a joke.” Words stem from mindsets. And a most troubling mindset that came to mind for me as I read this week’s commentary is Manifest Destiny; our country’s breeding ground for arrogance, self righteousness, and entitlement. We’ve used it as a calling card internationally, so surely it’s just on home turf as well. It’s so simple and neat! Only take stock in your own point of view. And if you don’t “get it”, at the very least you should have your nose bloodied, or, better yet, just be done away with. Do these mindsets really take root and grow? For this I found my way to David Neiwert’s book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized The American Right. “Rather than engaging in a dialogue over political and cultural issues, one simply dehumanizes its opponents and suggests, and at times demands, their excision.” … Now obviously my writing shows judgment, so am I really any better than my opponent that I find so shocking? Nope! For guidance on this, I reflect back to the words of a former bishop who encouraged me to pray for a softening of everyone’s heart. … When my children were baptized we received a lit candle. “Now you be Christ’s light to the world.” were the words that we also received. I strive for and pray these words for myself and others in the world. I will never stop hoping for the light of humanity.

  4. J.B.: Rep. Peter King of New York has proposed legislation that would make it a felony to have a lethal weapon within 1000 feet of a member of Congress. An editorial in The New York Times, in response, suggested that it should be a felony to have a lethal weapon within 1000 feet of a nine year-old girl or a ninety-seven year-old woman, by which they meant that there should be legislation that would make it a felony to have a lethal weapon within 1000 feet of any human being. I’m for that. The NRA just rolls its eyes at people like me. Keep up the good work.

  5. While you spent the previous week listening to others you have managed to still hold to the party line, blame everyone and everything except the psycho who pulled the trigger. Targets and crosshairs have appeared in political and other ads for years. These ads had nothing to do with the insane actions of 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner who probably had no political leanings in either direction. Of course “words have consequences”, do you want to abolish the 1st Amendment along with the 2nd? There were “words” in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, there were words in the Gettysburg Address and the Bible is just full of words and all of these beautiful words had wonderful consequences. You can’t blame Sarah Palin or George Bush or any firearm for the death of 6 and the wounding of 13 nor can you seize it as an opportunity to smear or discredit others without a shred of evidence to back it up. Is Representative Giffords a close friend of yours that you can call her “Gabby”? The country is not unhinged John, but I think that many of you on the extreme left may be.

  6. J.B.: An excellent statement (“Unhinged”). A metaphor isn’t just a metaphor. There’s power in it, and power can be used for good or ill. One has to have found the center of himself (i.e., God or the holy or love or something that transcends us while at the same time giving meaning to life) before he/she can say, That’s my metaphor (or That’s not my metaphor), or “Congress on the Corner” is my metaphor, or Crosshairs is not my metaphor, etc. Keep it up, dear friend. John

  7. Katherine /

    John, I hear you. My concern is the acceptance of these tragedies as “a part of our society fabric”. Why is this expression of anger and mental disturbance expression acceptable at all? In my utopia everyone would know each neighbor well enough to guide and direct love and urgent attention to the ones who are disruptive in any behavior. Where is the “LOVE your neighbor” in this framework of our neighborhoods and towns of “good folks”? I know it’s too ideal but I really believe that if everyone just reached out to Love the neighbor next door on both sides a good many people would feel acceptance where they live. … I pray for LOVE within our framework of life.

  8. John. Can you post “Unhinged” on your Facebook page. It is a wonderful reflection, and I would love to share it on my profile.

  9. I am still in mourning. I struggle to make sense of this event, but cannot. Eventually I unplug the TV and computer. At least your commentary has the grace of compassion. At least you still seem to be willing to have a dialog. I think I’ve reached a point of stuttering incoherence.

What do you think? Join the dialogue:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *