A husband and wife walk into a pizza place and gun down two Las Vegas police officers eating lunch, flee to a Wal-Mart and shoot an armed bystander. The wife then kills her husband, and ends the episode with her own suicide.
An echo of the shooting at Seattle Pacific University last week; and of the deadlier shooting at UC Santa Barbara three weeks ago; and all the mass shootings – Tucson, Sandy Hook Elementary, the one-room Amish school, the Sikh Temple, Columbine. All just random nuts with weapons? Or are they canaries in our cultural coal mine of alienation, disempowerment, and desperation?
Does this have anything to do with the armed standoff of the militias and the BLM over grazing leases? What about the inability of our elected representatives to negotiate compromise solutions for the various issues of our day? Might it all connect somehow to the decline of participation in any sort of voluntary associations for common goals? And is that related to the decline of marriage and our inability to keep the marriages we’ve got together?
In the aftermath of gun violence, we reflexively say we need better regulation of firearms and we need more mental health services. Yes, obviously true. I am 100% for both those technical responses. But whenever we say those things in the aftermath of gun violence, people rush out to the gun stores to beef up their firepower, the daily attrition through gun violence continues, and a short while later (these days a very short while later), we have another mass shooting. The problem is deeper and wider than loose gun laws and the shortage of affordable therapists.
For whatever reasons – let competent sociologists explain them – people are becoming more and more disconnected. The loneliness and despair overwhelms us. We are alienated and in our alienation, we are disempowered, unable to influence our environment because the channels of influence – relationships – are broken. We lose the ability to shake hands, look each other in they eye, and have an honest conversation. In the absence of such organic connection, the economic machine chews us up. In despair, we drink, gamble, distract ourselves with work and electronic games, and some of us become angry – angry enough to kill, to kill someone, anyone – it doesn’t matter who we kill because we aren’t really connected to anyone. We don’t have the capacity to connect with anyone. We have lost the capacity to imagine how the world looks through another person’s eyes, and no one can imagine what it is like to be us. We live and die unknown. In a crowded room, perhaps in a casino sitting at a gaming machine, we are in solitary confinement. The only connection we know how to make with another human being is to shoot them.
My question is: where do faith and the community of faith come into this? Some of our congregations are open and welcoming, embracing people who come their way, offering them caring presence, attention, appreciation, and a chance to participate in activities ranging from the fun to the noble. I hear stories from people who were lost, alienated, and discouraged until they connected with a congregation, and little by little, they came back to hope.
I heard a story from one woman whose family life had been hard, so she had resolved not to have children. But when she saw how people loved and nurtured the children in our church, she changed her mind. Her children with her that day in church were born because of the grace she experienced in our community. I have heard stories of people who came to us from broken relationships and found comfort, hope, and healing. I have heard from people who had lived on the streets but were able to get back on their feet not just through material support we offered but also through encounter with people who understood that to believe in God we have to also believe in each other. We believed in those people and our faith in them gave them courage.
Not all of us get this. Some of us want to keep the church just for ourselves. Others want to grow the church to add to our institutional strength, so we can feel successful. Both approaches utterly and completely miss the mark of our mission. It is to give and receive mercy. It is to reconcile people to the human race. It is to give up the futility of acquisition and self-advancement for the better life of extending caring presence to other people and eliciting their caring presence in return. We might call it belonging. We celebrate it ritually as Communion.
When the loneliness in the world is so great, the call is to open our doors wider, make our porch light burn brighter. We have no time for crankiness or pettiness. There is a world to me healed.