I’m sure we are all used to the rhetorical pattern following a mass shooting. Thoughts and prayers are offered, people suggest all kinds of possible causes and explanations, then we do nothing. I’m interested in that middle stage because it might suggest what our mindset is that results in the final moribund stage. The way that we talk about gun violence is really just a set of excuses that allow us to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, what can we do?” One thing I hear every time is that “we have a God problem, not a gun problem.” The idea is that there is some spiritual malformation rampant in our society that causes these horrifying acts. I agree. It is time for Christians to choose between the Gospel and the gun.
First, it would be impossible to deny that a child who is willing to shoot other children is not suffering some kind of spiritual impoverishment. Of what does that impoverishment consist and what is its cause? The common litany includes lack of prayer in schools, lack of respect for authority, lack of parental guidance, and mental illness. But the most common factors for the shooters are that they are young men and that they have access to guns. The most common predictor of mass violence is a history of gender-based abuse, young men abusing women. So if we’re going to talk about a spiritual malady at the root of mass shootings, it has to start with the ways we socialize men. But there are other forms of spiritual illness at the heart of gun violence.
How about guns? Of course, no one thinks that guns fire themselves. Rather, I wonder what it is we glorify. In what do we put our faith? Whenever God or one of God’s agents visits a person, they almost always begin by saying, “Do not be afraid!” These angels usually follow up with one of two reasons not to be afraid: 1) God is with you; and, 2) God favors you. If we invest our sense of security in a gun, I don’t see how we can possibly believe those things. The gun becomes an idol, our own golden calf.
But most gun homicides do not happen in mass shootings. Most are everyday, run-of-the-mill crime, a slow-motion massacre. President Trump is correct that gun violence is on the rise. After about two decades of decline, there is a sharp spike in the last two years. Most of it, he correctly points out, are in urban areas. What he misses, however, is that it is more localized than that. The spikes in gun violence in those cities are usually in one or two neighborhoods that experience massive death tolls. Most of the violence is centered on the drug trade.
People need to eat. People also want the common things we simultaneously glorify and take for granted in America – cars, TVs, clothes, phones – all the material goods that suggest that we’ve made it. But in neighborhoods experiencing poverty, the options for getting those things are drastically limited. One easy option is the drug trade. Poverty and the drug business go hand in hand. So do violence and the drug trade.
When it comes to policy solutions, we tend to attack the violence and the drugs. We send in more police, which means more police contact for impoverished people of color. It ensures more arrests and we know that will mean more and harsher sentences. So, while we have in middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods young men shooting people because they can’t get a date, we have young men of color being pulled out of their neighborhoods, away from their families for trying to eat and pay rent. We do this in lieu of dealing with poverty. This is also a God problem.
God asks us again and again to care for the poor. Instead, we use the poor as a foil. We blame their culture, their values, their parenting, their choices – but our choices constructed this world of division. We point to impoverished people enduring gun violence as if we are concerned, as if we want to help, but the hand we offer holds only another gun. Guns, first in the hands of police, but ultimately, if necessary, in the hands of ordinary citizens, maintain that border between the righteous, God-fearing, people of America, and the “animals” on the other side. Guns will save us from “those people.”
Perhaps contained in God’s reassurance to Mary – “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” – is a clue as to the fear that drives people to grasp for a gun. Perhaps the privileged know that God is not on our side. Perhaps God’s reasurrance rings hollow because it is not for us. If we want to find God’s presence, we will have to be with the poor. We will have to find peace without power. We will have to trust in the Gospel and not the gun.