“I was an agnostic. But now I believe in God.” That’s what a young man named Taylor said on CNN the morning after another malicious gunman murdered 58 people and wounded over 527 (the present count) at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nev., on Sunday, Oct. 1. The 64-year-old shooter took 23 firearms, many adapted to machine-gun-like capacity, to his room on the 32nd floor in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. From there he sprayed bullets across a crowd of some 22,000 people packed shoulder to shoulder, with little or no place to hide. By all reports it was “the largest mass shooting in American history,” so far.
ISIS quickly claimed responsibility, asserting that the assassin is a recent “convert.” For that Muslim un-brotherhood, “conversion” qualifies one to slaughter innocents, a dogma my Muslim friends soundly repudiate. Early investigations indicate no Islamic connection; in fact, the killer’s stunned brother commented that he had “no affiliation, no religion, no politics. He never cared about any of that stuff.” Actually, it’s that very “stuff” that these monstrous events compel us to revisit again, again, and again.
The New York Times counts 521 mass shootings in the last 477 days, from June 2016 to October 2017, in the land of the free and the home of the gun, statistics that illustrate only one element of American firearm violence. Indeed, Washington Post writer Greg Sargent asserts that while mass shootings “are the right occasions for intense arguments over how to prevent them in the future,” such debates must also involve “the broader scourge of gun violence” and the “much broader day-to-day slow-burn carnage” created by suicides, gang wars, and domestic violence. Mass shootings should not dull but sensitize us to the everydayness of gun violence in all our communities. For example, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where we live, six people were shot within 17 hours, only a few days before the Las Vegas event.
What now, again? Are these incidences simply the “price of freedom,” as folks like Bill O’Reilly impotently opine, or are guns and twisted minds so prevalent in the United States that we’re all playing the mass shooting odds? Is arming ourselves to the teeth our only hope? If past history prevails, we might anticipate someone from the National Rifle Association, Congress or the Oval Office insisting that this numerically monumental, heinous act requires even more expansive gun options, additional concealed carry, open carry, cash and carry, hari kari “protection.” Congress has delayed “indefinitely” consideration of pending legislation to remove restrictions on the use of silencers by private citizens, but they’ll get to it. (Imagine the additional chaos if the Vegas shooter had used silencers.)
And what of American churches? Are most too divided, declining, naïve, immobilized, silent to offer effective responses to firearm violence and the spiritual (yes, spiritual) issues that impact them? When an agnostic or two show up after this or the next shooting incident, will we have any good news?
Years ago, Texas megachurch pastor Gerald Mann told me that at Riverbend Church in Austin, “we do gospel triage. The people who come to us are so beat up by life, so desperate, that they decided to give faith one more chance, or try it for the first time. They’ve got nothing to lose.” I’ve never forgotten that image and insight.
On that fateful night in Vegas, triage, “the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition,” produced untold stories of courage and care as people rushed to help the wounded and dying. Many who were initially vulnerable targets became first responders, using their own clothing to create tourniquets and bandages, co-opting any vehicle available to get the wounded to hospital. Might churches claim and enact a kind of gospel triage, responding with immediacy and intentionality to the external/internal struggles of persons impacted by gun violence?
To begin, we might offer a gospel triage that challenges the spirituality of firearms. In America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose, Presbyterian minister James Atwood writes that for many Americans “the gun is only a thing, but it is a thing of the spirit,” noting, “if one looks to tools of violence for deliverance, one grows to be like those tools.” A gun, he warns, can become “less a utilitarian tool than an icon,” which grips devotees in ways that approach “the mystical.”
Does the gospel offer an alternative spirituality? If so, then such gospel triage might involve:
- Developing caregiving strategies for responding to individuals and families who encounter the trauma of gun violence directly — if not first, then second responders.
- Working toward additional firearm-related safety legislation like expanded background checks, and restrictions on sale of semi-automatic firearms.
- Helping individuals learn to live in a culture where firearm violence is an ever present reality.
- Affirming, renewing and re-forming the Jesus Story as an alternative to the spirituality of firearms, and a resource fostering spiritual enrichment and communal engagement inside and outside the church.
- Compassionately addressing the spoken and unspoken fears at the heart of the human condition, fears that may contribute to firearm-related obsessions.
Of that human condition, playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote: “The characters I have used are not fully conscious of their spiritual rootlessness, but they feel it instinctively and emotionally. They feel lost in the world, something is missing which they cannot, to their grief, supply directly.” When agnostics, atheists or anyone else traumatized by the myriad forms of firearm violence decide to give Jesus one last chance, we’d better have something to offer them.