Houses of worship all over America were praying yesterday for the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.
We had seen this kind of horror before: Easy access to assault weapons and high capacity clips, plus a person under extreme mental duress if not with mental illness, plus a culture of violence in our country that proliferates the myth of redemptive violence, equals horrific mass murder. The fact that this instance of mass murder involved twenty first graders may finally make a sufficient impression upon us that we insist something be done. But what? This post makes a start at answering the question. Let’s consider the elements of this formula for mass murder.
Easy access to assault weapons and high capicity clips: It’s high time that citizens rise up against the NRA in order to pass legislation to control citizens’ access to such deadly equipment, which is manufactured to make war, not to hunt animals, nor even to repel intruders. (Can you imagine the instances of harm to neighbors if assault weapons were to become the preferred means for guarding one’s domicile or place of business?) We need to get real about the intended use of such weapons, and ban them. Enough is enough.
Secondly, the public needs to be better educated about mental health and mental illness. People who act bizzarely, or threateningly, are often marginalized. In a litigious society we often avoid reporting them to persons who could help. You and I are the eyes and ears for a mental health system that is under-funded and under-staffed. I don’t mean that you or I should try to counsel persons who need professional care. But we could alert persons who love them about what we observe, and about our own concern that a troubled person ignored and marginalized may become more troubled, and perhaps even explosive. The public needs to learn more about depression, especially. Sadness is not always manifest. Because of machismo, depressed males often don’t show sadness. They get angry.
Several years ago I served on a committee of mental health workers and pastors and parents of persons with serious mental illness. We wrote a policy paper for the Presbyterian Church USA entitled “Comfort My People.” It was intended as a guide to help congregations welcome and give effective support to persons with serious mental illness. The issue of public safety arose in our research, and we addressed it in the paper. “Comfort My People” is not just for Presbyterians. People of faith from many traditions will find it useful as Americans ponder how we can be a first line of defense against tragedy, referring persons with mental illness to competent, caring professionals; and also, how communities of faith might better support such persons under treatment, so that they don’t become marginalized and more desperate. Please download a free copy of “Comfort My People”.
Finally, there’s the matter of the violent culture in America, the third element in a formula for mass murder. Watch the previews for upcoming movies in any theater and you will notice that Americans love shoot-em-ups. We are still enthralled by the pioneer myth that evil is overcome only through violence. For a heroic model many Americans prefer “The Terminator” to Martin Luther King, Jr. Many American Christians make the Prince of Peace, Jesus, into an apocalyptic terminator.
This third element will no doubt be the most difficult for Americans to grapple with, because the remedy for the previous two pertains to “the other”, the arms industry, the NRA, people with mental illness. In the third element we find that the enemy lies within. We ourselves are responsible for swallowing the myth of redemptive violence. It has insinuated itself into our theology, our politics, and sometimes even into the way we treat those nearest and dearest to us. The time has come for us to examine ourselves to discover how we contribute to a culture of violence. This is an interfaith challenge, a spiritual work for every community of faith in America to undertake. Imams, rabbis, pastors, gurus, elders, this is your leadership responsibility: Help us face the truth about ourselves.
Since this post was published:
Two opportunities have arisen for Delaware citizens to join others in working for sensible gun control. You can sign the White House petition on gun control, and also join members of Delaware’s peacemaking organization, Pacem in Terris. Pacem recently announced: “If you feel strongly about gun violence and would like to do something about it, send us your contact information and we will add you to the DE Campaign for Gun Sanity. We will meet on January 3rd, Thursday, 7:00 p.m. in the Community Hall at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1506 W. 13th Street in Wilmington, DE 1980 6. Go to Delaware Pacem in Terris to get their contact info.