This IS America

Given the reality of gun violence in America, faith communities should begin developing strategies for responding to mass murders like those in place for natural disasters.

By Bill Leonard

In an interview after the Sept. 16 mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Dr. Janis Orlowski, senior clinician at the hospital where most victims were treated, declared: “I would like not to be an expert on gunshots. Let’s get rid of this. This is not America.”

Unfortunately for all of us, Dr. Orlowski is wrong. This really is America.

The 12 people who died and the others who were wounded were simply going about their daily lives, struck down by a mentally ill shooter, much like people in Hialeah, Santa Monica, Federal Way, Herkimer County, Newtown, Minneapolis, Oak Creek, Aurora, Seattle, Oakland, Norcross, Seal Beach, Carson City, Tucson, Manchester, Parkland, Ft. Hood, Binghamton, Carthage, Henderson DeKalb and Kirkwood, the scenes of similar shootings during the last five years.

These mass murders, so-called when four or more people are “shot in a spree,” add up to 192 killed and 167 injured. And if those statistics are not sobering enough, it appears that since Dec. 14 when 20 school children were shot to death in Newtown, Conn., roughly 25,179 Americans have died from gun-related incidents. Sadly, this is America.

Responses to the Navy Yard massacre encompassed an all-too-common litany as pundits on both sides of the “gun control debate” once again shouted down each other across the airwaves.

The president of the United States joined in the requisite interfaith service, a now familiar public attempt to offer some small consolation to families forever haunted by another gun-and-mental-illness-related murder of their unsuspecting loved ones.

This is America, a country with 300 million firearms where at any moment any misguided person may secure a weapon, legally or not. Owning up to that violent reality may help us endure incessant political debates and blame-gaming while struggling to find alternatives to our communal impotence regarding firearms, madness, and mass murders.

For myself, I’ve decided to surrender, at least where firearm legislation is concerned. With few exceptions expanded background checks and weapon-limitations are dead, at least nationally. Most states seem more interested in expanding concealed weapon options than regulating them.

Funding programs for mental health are severely underfunded. Legislators who seek even moderate legal adjustments are ignored, outvoted or recalled in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Given those realities, perhaps we should invest our energies in the America we have rather than the America we might wish for by and by. Since mass murders can occur anywhere, anytime, we must try to re-examine the meaning of “security,” physical, mental and spiritual, throughout American life and culture.

One seminary’s small but significant initiative illustrates the point. Last April, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary hosted a workshop on “Church Safety and Pastoral Care in Violent Times” aimed at addressing “gun violence in the church,” and exploring “active shooter scenarios, church safety best practices, security training policies and strategies on how best to minister to a congregation following an act of violence.”

Former dean Donna Melloan commented: "When the Sandy Hook, Aurora, and other community shootings happened, they were the furthest things from my mind. A shooting in a movie theater, in an elementary school, in a local church meeting? I felt a kinship with all those affected and wondered how my church would react in such a circumstance.”

She joined members of the local presbytery in planning a seminar to “help all of us prepare for the unthinkable.”

Here begins the lesson: “Go thou and do likewise.” Acknowledging the reality of firearm violence requires intentional responses to the inevitable deathwatches that lie ahead.

Faith communities should follow suit in developing educational programs and firearm-response strategies just as they do for natural disasters, training clergy and laity in pastoral care approaches specifically focused on families torn apart by mass shootings, family violence or suicides (suicides account for some 60 percent of firearm deaths).

Some faith-based individuals or communities may continue to work for new firearm legislation or care for the mentally ill, while others shape new safety and pastoral training strategies. All this requires us to confess that these violent moments are not exceptions; they are an enduring fact of American life, undermining the idea of “safe space” across the country.

And, more than ever, we need liturgies that help us claim the presence of God amid interminable firearm-assisted violence: hymns, prayers and texts — liturgies that attend to grief, violence, anger and communal lament.

Ancient lamentations give voice to our contemporary predicament: “Those who for no reason were my enemies drove me cruelly like a bird; to silence me they thrust me alive into the pit and closed the opening with a boulder; waters rose above my head, and I said, ‘My end has come.’” (Lamentations 3:52-54)

Is this cynicism, pessimism or despair? No, this is America, searching for hope in a nation packed with 300 million firearms, from sea to shining sea.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.