Until that horrible weekend in America, “I never had to come to terms with my own mortality for being Hispanic.” That jolting testimony came from a young Texas Latina interviewed in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Two days later, the New York Times ran a frontpage story entitled “El Paso’s Terror Leaves Latinos in the Grip of Fear.” The article noted that after the deaths of 22 people gunned down while doing back-to-school shopping at a local Walmart:
- “a Florida retiree found herself imagining how her grandchildren could be killed”;
- a Latino lawyer in Texas “bought a gun to defend his family”; and
- a 30-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, now completing a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale, observed, “It’s really hard to be alive as an immigrant right now and to not be sick and exhausted. It feels like being hunted.”
Latinos were indeed targeted by the shooter, yet another AK-47 toting, 20-something white male, this one driving from Dallas to El Paso, determined to slaughter Hispanic “invaders” in a border town with Mexico. He allegedly posted an online “manifesto” expressing support for the March 15 shooting of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, and echoing right wing conspiracy theories of Latinos attempting to “replace” white American culture. The victims ranged in age from 15 to 90 and included citizens from Mexico, the United States and Germany. Jordan and Andre Anchondo, a married couple, died protecting their two-month-old child.
The article concluded that for many Latinos, the El Paso massacre “felt like a turning point, calling into question everything they thought they knew about their place in American society.”
“Perhaps we are, all of us, playing the odds of survival in the endless killing fields of the American nation.”
If the El Paso shootings are a “turning point” for Latinos, then what about the rest of us? August 5 was the 217th day of the year, a period torn apart by 255 mass shootings, acts defined as four or more individuals shot in a single event. Have such murderous atrocities become so “normative” that we must admit that no public gathering in this country is truly safe? Is that the “turning point” we are all finally compelled to acknowledge? It would seem so; and with it the fearful recognition that firearm deaths can find any of us any time, any place.
That fear took on national implications a day or two after the El Paso and Dayton shootings when a motorcycle backfire in Times Square created pandemonium for people occupying that iconic space, some of whom rushed Broadway theatres for sanctuary. A day later, similar chaos erupted in Springfield, Missouri, when a heavily armed man, clad in body armor, showed up at another Walmart. Fortunately, he was arrested before the shooting began. A week after the El Paso shooting, a Walmart in the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, was evacuated when a young man pointed a pellet pistol that looked like a “real” gun at an arresting officer.
“If the El Paso shootings are a ‘turning point’ for Latinos, then what about the rest of us?”
Responding to these events, a friend of mine commented, “If Walmart isn’t safe, then nowhere is safe.” Looks like we’re a nation trapped in nowhere. Perhaps we are, all of us, playing the odds of survival in the endless killing fields of the American nation.
Which brings us to the church. Are American churches willing and/or able to speak to the reality of mass shootings and the accompanying fear of death rampant in the land? Do our faith communities, whose history began at the place of the skull and the killing fields of a Roman coliseum, have a will or a witness for our assault-weapon-proliferated, executionary times?
Possible responses, and the questions they provoke, abound:
Will Christians continue or now engage in the struggle for greater firearm legislation, no matter how futile it may seem, pressing for more extensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons, instruments of war that, as another Times article documented, create “gaping holes the size of a man’s fist” in human bodies, shredding intestines and bones?
What security measures have congregations enacted, or need to enact, for their own protection? Should churches or at least some churches, like elementary schools, periodically rehearse active-shooter-lockdowns, plotting escape exits for a time when a shooter claims our sacred space?
Is it time for churches to train certain members as “second responders,” individuals who seek to “bind up the brokenhearted” by offering extended care to grieving families and communities in the aftermath of mass shootings?
How might congregations and individuals claim or reclaim their gospel calling, borne of the Church’s One Foundation, to assist human beings in reflecting on and responding to their shared mortality in confronting the fear of death, especially an unholy dying in the violent-couched environs of American culture? This essential ministry lies at the heart of faith – offered not to make us more fearful, but to help us come to terms with the fear of death that already grips us with each new incidence of mass shooting or that confronts us anew in lockdown drills, airport security lines and the continuing massacre of friends, neighbors and fellow human beings.
For Christians, the ceaseless epidemic of mass shootings and the weapons that enable them reflect a tragic, 21st-century adaptation of “the slaughter of the innocents” described in Matthew, a gospel-referenced genocide perpetrated against certain Jewish children in or around the little town of Bethlehem in response to a first-century “replacement” theory.
Two millennia later, the biblical dirge continues unabated:
A voice is heard in Rama, El Paso, Dayton, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, Parkland and . . .
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled,
Because they are no more.
Two millennia later, we’re still a long way from the Prince of Peace.