After the next person opens fire in a room full of innocent people and after we have gathered to read the names of the victims, grieve for the families of those who died, and encourage people to work for common-sense gun laws, we need to talk about a long, hard way we can be part of the solution.
The ability of individuals to inflict suffering has stunned us. The men who commit these horrific acts have a staggering lack of empathy. The background story that keeps repeating itself is of a loner detached from the community turned into a shooter. These isolated individuals are susceptible to being radicalized online by groups spewing racial hatred, nationalistic propaganda, and narcissistic notions of going out in a blaze of “glory.” Some have committed murder out of loyalty to groups they have never met.
Shooters are not born wanting to destroy others. They have been taught to hate. If we can teach one another to kill, we can teach one another to love. We need communities that invite us out of isolation.
I saw it in a small church in Mississippi. He fought in Vietnam and came back messed up. He limped and took painkillers that doctors did not prescribe. He looked a foot to your right during conversations. The less he knew about a subject the more he talked. His volume was inversely proportional to the importance of what he said. His wardrobe was army surplus before there were army surplus stores. He was not allowed to drive.
When he first came back from the war, he moved in with his parents. They soon told him to move on and stay away. His army pension and odd jobs were enough for him to get by.
The veteran had no friends — except for his church. A rotation of people brought him to church on Sundays. He often interrupted worship by shouting, “What song was that?” The pianist got used to it.
When the congregation shook his hand or gave him a hug, it was the most human contact he had since the previous Sunday. The potluck dinners were the best meals he ate, and he took home leftovers. People called during the week to ask if he was okay. They helped him get the mental health care he needed. He was difficult, but the church never asked him to move on and stay away.
The church of my childhood had big problems — racism, sexism and homophobia — but, at their best, they were family for those who had no family. They cared for some who would not have been cared for otherwise. This happens in thousands of congregations.
Religious people have committed terrible acts of violence, but people who feel loved are less likely to hurt others. People who have been taught compassion are less likely to open fire with semi-automatic rifles. Caring for broken people can be scary, but not caring for them can be dangerous, too.
Houses of worship need to reach out to those who are difficult to love. Children, in particular, need to be taught the value of a caring community. The lonely need a place to be heard.
Those who choose not to be part of a religious congregation need to provide ways for those who feel unconnected to be part of a group. Community organizations offer shared purposes that are bigger than the individual. We need to bring people together to talk face to face.
In our current political climate, loving one another sounds not only naïve, but like an act of defiance. Our president speaks out of anger in the face of violence. We have to remind one another that compassion is not weakness, and arrogance is not strength. The culture that does not care for the broken will be a violent culture.
One of the long term solutions to gun violence is a sense of community. We will always be in danger as long as some feel like they have been told to move on and stay away.