We Need to Talk about Violence.

We Need to Talk about Violence. December 21, 2012

President Obama got it right: we can’t tolerate this anymore.

In his speech at Newtown’s interfaith prayer vigil on Sunday, while appropriately keeping the primary focus on voicing and responding to the nation’s grief, Obama showed a hint of political courage that hasn’t been seen on the problem of public shootings from either side of the aisle for as long as I can remember:

Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Whether this hint of courage will be realized in action of course remains to be seen.  In any event, it should not have taken a tragedy of this magnitude to get us to start publicly acknowledging that maybe we should rethink our legally mandated national firearm fetish, an all too deeply embedded piece of the culture of death that enslaves us.  Sadly, it’s too late for the 26 children and teachers who were killed last Friday.  All the more reason we need some serious national introspection now.

We need to talk about violence.  We need to have a nationwide conversation that goes beyond superficial finger-pointing and begins to look for the roots of our national necrophilia, our perverse addiction that keeps deadly weapons sacrosanct in everything from the X-box to the NRA to the untouchable military budget.  We need to start asking what keeps us clinging to the very thing we fear as gun sales consistently spike in reaction to public shootings, and what keeps these tragedies the price we are willing to pay with increasing frequency for a gun-shaped manifestation of individual autonomy.

The editors of America raised some of these important questions following this summer’s shooting in a Colorado movie theater, concluding, “If some say that gun violence is the cost society must pay for citizens to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms, then others must insist that the cost is too high.”  They insightfully named extreme individualism as a key reason that “society allows individuals to build an armory, heedless of the rights of all Americans to live in safety.”  And they demonstrated an awareness of how such individualism underlies the culture of death in this and other facets, as they pointed out, “Catholics ought to champion gun control because restrictions would promote life, as they do in the case of abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia.” The freedom to make choices is a good thing as far as it goes, but when held above the things that matter more deeply, even life itself, it becomes an idol.  Nobody’s personal choice is EVER worth more than anybody’s life.

Is legislation the answer?  Yes and no.  Or better: not by itself, but yes, as a necessary minimum.  I remain haunted by the words of Martin Luther King: “The law cannot make you love me, but it can keep you from lynching me.”  Contained in these words is the wisdom that can guide us past the false dichotomy between love and justice.

Laws by themselves will never be enough, because they can never eradicate the deep roots of hatred in human souls.  Yet they are sorely needed, and always will be this side of the eschaton, because there will always be people refusing to love.  The virus of violence that infects the human condition will take every chance it gets to reproduce.  So let us do everything in our power to deny it that chance – whether through easy access to guns or easy access to abortion; whether its victims be children facing a crazed gunman in Connecticut or children facing a predator drone in Pakistan.  An outpouring of sorrow and goodwill, as much as this may be motivated by deep and genuine compassion, is also, by itself, not enough.

Let us do all we can to promote just and life-affirming laws – and then, let us not stop there as if that would fix everything and our task would be complete.  At the same time that we advocate for desperately needed restrictions on guns and abortion and drone warfare and all other offenses against life (and please, for the love of God and humanity, let’s be consistent in the way we oppose such things), let us not wait until all the right laws are in place to do the necessary soul-searching.  It is past time to start asking of every game we play, every song we sing, every advertisement we see, every speech we hear, every purchase we make, every social convention we participate in: are we serving life or death, God or Mammon, the Prince of Peace or the bloodthirsty idol Moloch?  We are of course in the world and cannot simply withdraw; we must and should continue to play games and sing songs and see ads and hear speeches and make purchases and participate in any number of social conventions – but we must do so discerningly.  The patriarch Joshua (24:15) once said to the people of God, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Right answers to this question are needed as surely as right laws are, and more deeply so.

As the America editorial said this past August,

Until society’s preference for the unlimited exercise of individual rights over those of the common good is tempered, our nation will remain hostage to the gun lobby. And our politicians will be reduced to offering victims condolences rather than solutions to gun violence. Is this the society we want?

This final question has broad implications.  It is what we need to start asking in all things, and especially in the face of violence: is this the society we want?

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