We humans are meaning-making creatures. This is a fascinating part of how we tick. We experience something and we are not only shaped by the thing which we experience but far more by the meaning we find in it and attribute to it. This plays out in our world all the time in big and small ways. The meaning we hear in the words and actions of our spouse and the significance we do or don’t find in the mundane parts of life are just some examples. I marvel at the way mom bloggers are able to find incredible meaning in the smallest moments of interaction with their children. They prove to me time and time again that behind the briefest of moments is a world of meaning waiting to be discovered within paradigms of thinking and reflection.
Of course, there are times when people seem to create meaning out of nothing. I doubt I need to remind the reader of how much my generation suffers from delusions of grandeur. We are starving to be affirmed in our significance. I would argue that it is our inability to find meaning in the reality of life that plays a central role in this problem. I do believe that Christian theology has much to say about this issue but that would be another blog article.
Certainly larger events in our lives have a greater opportunity to more seriously shape us. There is an event that took place this day seven years ago in which I (but even more curiously, many others as well) still find great significance and meaning.
Here are the basic facts of the matter: on March 18th, 2012, my brother, Joel Wesley Shrum was on his way to work and was shot and killed by two men driving motorcycles next to him. The men used automatic weapons, shooting him from shoulder to jaw, immediately ending his life.
That is the most fundamental fact of the matter. I have intentionally stripped away the things we commonly turn to to direct our sense of meaning for the moment. Certainly every murder victim in 2012 (est. 437,000 based on UNODC) had those who loved them and mourned the loss of that person. In many ways, our family and friends had simply joined the throng of human suffering which takes place regularly on this planet. Tragedy has its own way of shaping our sense of meaning.
But maybe it is right of me to draw on a few more facts now. Although, it must be said here, that the facts added at this point are not only true but they also relate more closely with the incredible meaning-making paradigms in which we live. My brother who was born and raised in central Pennsylvania was living with his wife and two children in Yemen at the time of his murder. He was on his way to his work at the International Training and Development Center which focuses on human development, skill transfer, and community development among the people of Taiz, Yemen.
Those who killed Joel were certainly interested in giving meaning to what they had done. Al Qaede on the Arabian Peninsula immediately claimed responsibility for the murder, writing to Yemeni media outlets that they had just killed someone who was spreading Christianity, calling him “one of the biggest missionaries in the country.” Their statement was most likely made as a defensive measure to ensure silence on the part of the local population. How could any muslim stand up for a big, bad “American Missionary”? Their attempt did not work! As Joel’s body was being extracted and brought back to the U.S. for burial, we were deeply moved to see hundreds in Taiz, those whose lives had been daily impacted by Joel’s work, publicly protesting his murder, demanding justice be done, and trying to grasp with the “why” of what happened. Whatever his murderers wanted to accomplish by their accusations of proselytizing and missions, words that commonly evoke a strong historical memory in the Arab world, now fell on deaf ears. Why? They experienced something in Joel that had defied definition and did not fit to Al Qaeda’s accusations. They actually met Joel and they loved him.
As far as I am aware based on contacts in the nation, the first time women have publicly protested in Yemen was at Joel’s death. He was their champion. He lit up at the thought of seeing women empowered in the Yemeni culture to reach their God-given potential. That is why you can hear a women screaming in the protest video, “the murderers of Joel are the enemies of Allah!” (8:53 on video). His love and service broke down barriers, his death broke their hearts as it did ours. We continue to hear stories about how his life and death continue to create meaning for people in Yemen, despite the now desperate situation. Days after Joel’s death, a Yemeni father named his newborn baby, “strive to be like Joel.” With the devastation of the civil war in Yemen which began in 2015, I can only pray that “Strive,” now seven years old, is living and safe. I pray that he will have a future in the nation for whom his namesake had such love and believed so firmly in its destiny.
Certainly our friends and family were struggling to find meaning to this tragic event and struggling to understand the why of his death. The many paradigms and seasons of Joel’s life contributed to and continue to shape the meaning we see in what has happened in and through him. There is still so much meaning for me that is continuing to unfold. Things which I hope one day to articulate in a more official way. But that is for another time.
As over 900 people gathered together in Hershey to honor Joel in 2012, I remember seeing the utter shock on so many faces as they watched the video of the Yemenis risking their lives in protest. Maybe such a demonstration did not produce a great effect on the local justice system or produce any significant change. It did do one thing for my family, however, the moment we saw it. It made it abundantly clear that the meaning of Joel’s life and death doesn’t belong to us.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."