Our weekly gun massacres in the United States are shocking in the extreme. They set us apart from other nations in the worst possible sense.
I have not yet been in or near one of these massacres. The closest I have gotten is that the recent shooting in an Atlanta medical office building took place in a building I have visited with my aged mother-in-law. That sent a chill down my spine.
But at this point, it appears to be only a matter of time for me, and for all of us, before our immunity will end. No person is immune. No public place is immune.
It’s like how if you play the old game Battleship long enough, eventually those red pegs stop landing in the water and start hitting your ships.
When will it be my turn? Or my loved ones’ turn?
I don’t think any of us should underestimate the collective trauma we are all enduring. We can either pay reasonably close attention to what is happening, or we can attempt to stop up our ears and close our eyes.
Neither choice is a good option.
If we pay reasonably close attention, we learn names and a handful of details — like, for example, the detail of children with their faces shot off at an outlet mall in Texas, or a 6-year-old left orphaned as the rest of his family is murdered, or a 9-year-old shot in a Nashville Christian school because she tried to do the right thing by pulling the fire alarm when a murderer stalked the hallways of her school.
“You can only stuff your fears down in the basement for so long before they wrench the door open and find their way into your unconscious or conscious mind.”
If we stop up our ears and close our eyes, we can perhaps evade such details for a while. But it’s like any other form of reality denial — in the end, you can only stuff your fears down in the basement for so long before they wrench the door open and find their way into your unconscious or conscious mind.
The ubiquity of these killings is negatively affecting the quality of life in this country in ways we can hardly quantify. One of them that seems already visible is that more and more people are arming up to protect themselves and then accidentally or impulsively using their guns in routine situations like kids ringing the wrong doorbell or a dispute between neighbors.
I will give you one homely example of a quality-of-life hit from my life. My wife, daughter and I were watching “Glee” the other night. In season two, they staged a flash mob scene at a crowded mall. The actors danced and sang joyfully, and the extras seemed to be having just as much fun.
Hundreds of young people having a blast being young around 2010 — what fun! What could possibly go wrong? Then I thought something I certainly did not think when we watched this show a decade ago: What a target rich environment! What a dangerous thing to do, gathering hundreds of unarmed innocents in a mall! Then I grieved deeply in my spirit thinking about how low we have descended as nation.
How did we get here?
Our gun massacres reflect terrible failures both of our government and our culture. Government is failing in its first and most basic task, that of providing security for the population.
“Our gun massacres reflect terrible failures both of our government and our culture.”
Whether you operate from a Romans 13 vision of government or a Lockean social-contract vision, on both accounts the first task of government is security. Romans 13: God gives government its coercive powers to deter and punish wrongdoers who would harm the innocent. Locke: People give up some of their freedom in order to contract together to secure collectively their life, liberty and property.
But our government officials (chiefly Republicans) are unwilling to take the steps necessary to provide basic domestic security from gun violence. Government’s failure to prevent the distribution of military-grade weapons to a civilian population is staggering, especially in comparison with the policies of other countries.
This failure of the government is deeply discrediting U.S. democracy. It leads one to wonder whether there are certain government officials at the state and federal level who find it in their interests to preside over the military-grade arming of a hostile, divided population. Is this, as Jeff Sharlet has argued, scenes from a slow civil war — or perhaps a war on targeted population groups, which has been characteristic of some of these massacres?
But we must acknowledge broader cultural failures too. Culture is failing in that we are repeatedly producing people who are willing to massacre others. Where are the moral forces that once trained people in love of neighbor, the sacred worth of others and self-restraint? What is happening in the souls of people who decide mass murder is the best concluding act for their lives? Remember when people used to be taught in their families and congregations to love their neighbors?
“Culture is failing in that we are repeatedly producing people who are willing to massacre others.”
While mental illness is a factor in some of these gun massacres, we must not lose the language of evil. From the first gun massacre of our era at Columbine in 1999 until today, when we read the stories of many of these killers they quite often read like a descent into evil — often aided and abetted by cultural and material products easily accessed in our libertarian free market. There are plenty of resources on sale to help train the American soul into mass murder.
Do people have parents anymore? Do parents teach children anything anymore? Is there anyone telling people there are better ways to deal with anger, frustration, conflict, job loss, rejection or political differences besides slaughtering people?
We are a very sick society. We need our politicians to do their jobs. But we also need our culture, including its families and congregations, to do theirs. God help us all.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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