This is a commentary that has become all too routine.
My colleagues and I here at Vox Nova have reflected on several occasions on the American idolization of the gun (see here, here, here and here). It is an idol that our society has long been willing to sacrifice human lives to with numbing regularity, in exchange for an enslavement to fear that we mistake for freedom. Notwithstanding the legitimate exception of hunting and farming purposes, a gun made and used for the purpose of killing humans is, by its telos, as pro-life as a curette or a suction machine.
I won’t indulge here in the regular post-sacrifice ritual of analyzing the specific details of this latest incident and what could have motivated it. I just don’t know, and in some ways it’s beside the point. Not, perhaps, in terms of prevention, but especially when warning signs seem impossible to find even in retrospect, much of the analysis can easily miss the forest for the trees. Part of the ritual involves asking, at least partly rhetorically and often with good intention, whether this time it’s finally horrible enough to make us change. But sadly, if the horror alone were enough, it should have been enough one or five or ten or eighteen years ago. With the idol enshrined (a word with fittingly religious overtones) in our very constitution, yet another mass shooting is unlikely to shock us out of the Faustian bargain written into our national contract and held so sacrosanct that the slightest mitigation is felt as an existential threat. We are in it too deep, and it is too deep in us.
As bleak as that sounds, I don’t mean it as a call to complacency, but to a radical (root-deep) metanoia beginning with each one of us. Last year, former Vox Nova contributor Mark Gordon created an extended prayer for just such a massive metanoia in the form of an 81-day “novena of novenas” for justice, peace and racial reconciliation in the United States, lasting from August 20 (the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux) to November 8 (the birthday of Dorothy Day, and last year’s election day). A year later, he observed that we still need it. As it happens, the collection of prayers and readings for the current nine-day cycle is “for an end to violence in American society,” including a reflection by Fr. Daniel Berrigan that is all too apropos:
Alas, I have never seen anyone morally improved by killing; neither the one who aimed the bullet, nor the one who received it in his or her flesh.
Of course we have choices, of course we must decide. When all is said, we find that the gospel makes sense, that it strikes against our motives and actions or it does not. Can that word make sense at all today, can it be something more than utopian or extravagant? The gospel is after all a document out of a simpler age, a different culture. It may even be our duty to construct for ourselves another ethic, based on our own impasse or insights or ego. And go from there, with whatever assurance we can muster, amid the encircling gloom.
Or on the other hand, we can bow our heads before a few truths, crude, exigent, obscure as they are. The outcome of obedience we cannot know, the outcome of disobedience we can deceive ourselves about, indefinitely and sweetly. Thou shalt not kill. Love one another as I have loved you. If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other. Practically everyone in the world, citizens and believers alike, consign such words to the images on church walls, or the embroideries in front parlors.
We really are stuck. Christians are stuck with this Christ, the impossible, unteachable, irreformable loser. Revolutionaries must correct him, act him aright. That absurd form, shivering under the crosswinds of power, must be made acceptable, relevant. So a gun is painted into his empty hands. Now he is human! Now he is like us.
Does it all have a familiar ring? In the old empires, the ragged rabbi must be cleaned up, invested in Byzantine robes of state, raised in glittering splendor to the dome of heaven. Correction! correction! we cry to those ignorant gospel scribes, Matthew and the rest. He was not like that, he was not helpless, he was not gentle, he was under no one’s heel, no one pushed him around! He would have taken up a gun if one had been at hand, he would have taken up arms, “solely for one reason; on account of his love for the kingdom of God.” Did he not have fantasies like ours, in hours out of the public glare, when he too itched for the quick solution, his eyes narrowed like gun sights?
How tricky it all gets! We look around at our culture: an uneasy mix of gunmen, gun makers, gun hucksters, gun researchers, gun runners, guards with guns, property owners with guns. A culture in which the guns put out contracts on the people, the guns own the people, the guns buy and sell the people, the guns practice targets on the people, the guns kill the people. The guns are our second nature, and the first nature is all but obliterated; it is gunned down.
And who will raise it up, that corpse with the neat hole in its temple, ourselves? It is impossible, it is against nature.
Christ asks the literally impossible. And then, our radical helplessness confessed, he confers what was impossible.
Some will object, still following the dictums of the national post-sacrifice ritual, that now is no time for any questioning – however prayerful – of the pride of place given to our flesh-eating household gods, that it is only a time for grief and lament. I answer that it is not an either/or. It is a time to lament; it is a time to pray; it is a time to question. The prophet’s cry, “How long, O Lord?” does all three at once. So I give the prophet Habakkuk the final word.
How long, O LORD, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
How long, O Lord?