Thoughts and Prayers Incarnate
“…our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough.”
These call-us-up-short words came from President Obama in his remarks last week, words offered to the nation after yet another gun tragedy, this time at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon.
In a raw way at a raw time, these 10 words caught the attention of religious and non-religious alike.
It’s what we people of faith do, after all, exactly that in fact: we think of others in times of need, and we hold them in prayer to boot.
And yet…the shootings go on.
The shootings go on, defying all of our thoughts and all of our prayers.
The shootings go on.
I’ve spent hours and hours and hours in these last several days in thought about guns: reading Facebook posts and memes and all sorts of articles about this shooting, about mass shootings, about gun control, about guns out of control.
The vitriol and impatience and anguish manifested even in the comments about the shared links, let alone of the shared links themselves, often flaunt their own verbal violence.
Rather than have these tragedies pull people together, as, say, 9/11 did, or Katrina, mass shootings seem only to draw the lines, dig the trenches, buttress the fortresses of respective convictions all the more.
Still, if you (can) breathe in and out, if you (can) take some time to sift, to read, to ponder, to synthesize, some clarity and perspective come into focus.
First, a few facts:
1. Expert opinion within the field of gun violence in the US clamors for change of perception and legislation.
I found an intriguing article in the LA Times by David Hemenway. In it, Hemenway reviewed scholarly literature and opinion on guns in the USA.
Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (no slouch, that is). In this capacity, he’s often rung up to comment on gun control arguments, or after yet another tragedy.
He found that his comments were often put in relief against someone else whose views on gun control differed from his own–a view, let’s be clear, that holds that tougher gun laws will reduce killings, and that more lenient laws conversely increase crime. “This ‘he said-she said’ reporting annoyed me,” writes Hemenway, “because I knew that the scientific evidence was on my side.”
But here’s a salient point: he checked out to see if he knew what he thought knew. He didn’t assume that he was right, but rather subjected his opinion to some fact-checking.
So Hemenway polled 150 active scientists in the fields of criminology, economics, public policy, political science and public health who, within the last four years, have written an article in a peer-reviewed journal (that is, their work wasn’t just submitted to some publication that takes pieces written by most any warm body, expert or no: their article must be approved by a group of scholars who, though they might not agree with the gist of the article, do agree that the author has expertise and integrity).
Based on their knowledge of literature in the scientific study of gun violence, and based on their familiarity with this literature, they were asked to offer their opinions to questions related to firearms in the U.S.
This is what he found:
a) 84% agree that having a gun in the home increased the risk of suicide.
b) 72% agree that having a gun in the home increases the risk that a woman would die of homicide;
c) 64% agree that a gun in the home makes the home less safe;
d) 73% agree that guns are far more often used for purposes of crime than of self-defense;
e) 62% agree that fewer restrictions do not reduce crime; and that the change to more permissive gun carrying laws has not reduced crime rates (62% vs. 9%).
f) Finally, there is consensus that strong gun laws reduce homicide (71% vs. 12%).
I appreciated that Hemenway subjected his own impressions to a review of other experts in the field. He was willing to discover that he might be wrong (and be discovered by others to be wrong), and to let the facts rather than his emotions (and his reputation) determine his stance.
What he learned, though, is that far and away, the science, the statistics, the expertise in the field demonstrate remarkable agreement that more gun control, rather than less, is demanded.
Hemenway’s work is also featured in this article in the New Yorker, which also reviews the experience of the NYPD: make the crime harder to do (e.g., tougher gun laws), crime rates go down.
2. Guns do not stop mass shootings, and more available guns are tied to more regular and numerous mass homicides. This article in Rolling Stone pointed me to this compilation of studies and graphics about the correlated increase of guns to mass carnage.
That is a statistically, scientifically proven truth. More guns, more violence.
3. While mass gun murders grab our attention, horrific singular homicides occur every single day.
In 2013, the Center for Disease Control determined that on average, 92 people die every day due to gunshot wounds: about 30 of those due to homicide, 60 to suicide.
The news article linked just above exposes us to just a few of these 90-some people who died due to gun violence on the very same day as Umpqua, including a 5 month old baby.
This graphic depicts the stats–no, the lost lives–in a simple, stunning way: you scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, to see death after death after death.
4. Mental health–and the lack of adequate mental health care–does play a role in the spread of gun violence, but not as much as one might expect.
Albeit crassly, John Oliver points to the deficient mental health care in our nation. It is one thing, however, to blame mental health as a primary element in gun violence, it is another then to follow up with an intentional solution to the problem. (To those politicians who protest increased gun regulations because mental health is to blame, he retorts that he expects that they will also therefore support dramatically increased funding for and support of broader and deeper mental health options.)
Oliver lifts up the February 2015 American Journal of Public Health which maintains that only “5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental disorders” and that most of those who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses are non-violent. “In fact,” says Oliver, “mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, so the fact that we tend to only discuss mental health in a mass shooting context is deeply misleading.”
This article in the Pacific Standard made me catch my breath, because my assertion has been that stronger background checks (not least of all to filter mental health flags) would clearly flag potential attackers, and therefore attacks.
Turns out that background checks to survey for mental illness might not be all that helpful after all.
In fact, Lois Becker’s interview with Dr. Jeffrey Swanson (a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine) reveals that a far more reliable predictor of future gun violence than mental illness is past violence.
We need to think of violence itself as a communicable disease. We have kids growing up exposed to terrible trauma. We did a study some years ago, looking at [violence risk] among people with serious mental illness. The three risk factors we found were most important: first, a history of violent victimization early in life; second, substance abuse; and the third is exposure to violence in the environment around you. People who had none of those risk factors―even with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia―had very low rates of violent behavior. (Swanson)
In fact, studies demonstrate that five factors can help predict someone’s tendency to gun violence: “psychosocial problems” is one such predictor, but to that can be added residence in a smaller community; self-perception of a killer as being “marginal;” powerful “cultural scripts” of notoriety post-assault; failure of those close to the potential killer to note and report concerning behavior; and, not least of all, the degree to which guns are available to the potential perpetrator.
5. The Second Amendment might not mean what one thinks it means.
Jeffrey Toobin, lawyer and legal analyst for the New Yorker and CNN, believes that the intention of the Second Amendment has been misunderstood, maladapted, misapplied from its original context to that of our world today.
Consistently, up until 1977, the Amendment had been understood to confer the right of militias, but not individuals, to have weapons. But in that year, the leadership of the NRA became extremely right-wing, and extremely powerful. Because of their orchestrated political action, and the parallel presidential conservative leadership, the die was cast to allow in 2008 a Supreme Court decision which blessed the individual-rights angle on the Second Amendment. Toobin notes that the new political interpretive reality of this constitutional reading was brought about because of pressure–which could be applied differently today, with enough outcry.
Second, cultural fear is palpable:
1. This piece by Charles M. Blow in the NYT sketches out how fear motivates those who want their guns: They are afraid of intruders, of foreigners, of the government, of the loss of their freedom.
Of course, those who want fewer or no guns are also afraid of more killings, more massacres, more anxiety about going about simple, ordinary daily activities, like attending school, church services, movie theaters.
2. I’d like to add an impression of mine here as well: people who could make a difference by lending their voices in favor of gun restriction can be afraid to speak up. Some pastors and other leaders of the church are frightened to speak about this issue from the pulpit or from the newsletter, and some politicians who could make a strong case to move the country toward greater gun accountability are afraid of publicly protesting present policies.
Both fear the reaction of those in their respective audiences who might leave, might withhold offerings, might withhold their votes, because they want their guns and the freedoms which they believe the guns represent.
Some might call this lack of courage. Perhaps. But before we simply mock or wave those fears away, imagine if our familial livelihoods, our vocations, our entire contribution to our dedicated field were on the line for a singular issue.
It is a lonely and scary thing sometimes to be a leader.
Third, there are things we can do:
1. Attention to and empathy for those who are unwell would go a long way.
Mark Manson wrote a poignant piece called “How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings.” Full disclosure: he’s no expert, no scientist, no politician. He is, though, an observer, and a reader, and a linker. His article is worth a look, perhaps most of all because of the following paragraphs.
Gun control gets the headlines. Mental health care gets the headlines. Violence and video games and misogyny and internet forums and atheism — the list is endless at this point.
Here’s what doesn’t get the headlines: Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much. We have come to live in a culture where it’s taboo or unacceptable to simply check in with people emotionally and offer some empathy and understanding. I’m not saying this would magically fix all gun violence. I’m just saying that all of these things — the lack of gun laws, the lack of health care, the inability to have basic conversations with friends and neighbors about what’s going on with them, these are all extensions of a callous and self-absorbed culture that lacks any real empathy.
Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world.
And no one is paying attention to him.
2. Our individualistic culture contributes to a culture of violence and it doesn’t need to be this way.
Yet, our way of life is embedded in our history and our politics, and we cling to our individualism despite indications that countries with a stronger sense of communal identity and well-being are safer, healthier, more educated, and more content (see these graphics comparing the US to other cultures in relation to parental leave, health care, education, and welfare to the unemployed and disabled).
This NPR interview includes the work of Peter Spire, a British researcher who has drawn any number of lines between a culture of community care and respect (such as one might find in Switzerland and Norway, both of which have a gun culture that yields very little gun violence) and a decrease in gun violence.
The US, he says, is different. Our lack of concern for the other, trumped by our concern for individual rights, coupled with a high number of guns, has created the following circumstance: “…America has a third-world gun violence problem in a developed country. And that’s the anomaly.”
He is quoted again in this article in the USA Today, and references the communal nature of the nations with relatively many guns and relatively little violence: strong social networks and bonds facilitated by a strong economy, strong health care system, and strong compulsion to care for the Other.
The premium that the USA tends to place on individualism comes at a great cost.
What would happen if we heeded countries that advocated for policies bent on creating a strong social network, and voted for those who supported such policies, allowing for the chance of creating a culture of communal concern and investment?
Spires’ argument, by the way, is not the same as saying that guns don’t kill people, but people do.
His argument is rather that culturally, we have created a society which fosters a people who tolerate guns as solutions, guns as acceptable risks, guns as a right more important than the statistically provable and attainable reduction in homicides and suicides by virtue of fewer guns with tighter controls.
3. Simple safety measures are reasonably possible.
Nicholas Kristof writes in the NYT that were we to think about gun regulations as we do vehicle regulations, perhaps the common sense from one area of public safety could be lifted to another. By requiring basic safety regulations, car fatalities have declined 95%.
Most Americans support significant restrictions, background checks, and regulations on guns and the industry.
Smart gun technology is available, enabling fingerprint technology like one sees on iPhones, or necessitating a companion wristwatch for the trigger to pull.
Liability insurance could be mandatory–like it is with vehicles.
Fourth, we all know that if we don’t do anything, the problem–mass shootings, individual killings, suicides–will not go away.
Theologically, there are some pieces that ought to contribute to the conversation.
1. Jesus brought salvation, soteria, namely health, healing, and wholeness.
The word comes from the Greek root sozo, as Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen informs his readers so lucidly, which means not least of all “to rescue from physical danger,” to make whole, and to heal.
As I have often said and written, what are Christians if not to be ambassadors of soteria, of salvation in the name of Jesus?
What are Christians if not bringers of life into a reign of death?
What are Christians if not advocates of safety into spaces of fear?
Given that, it is impossible for us to remain silent, or content, with the status quo violence and defense of the conditions that create the culture which allows it.
2. Increasingly, we are realizing (both thanks to quantum physics and to the continued [and intersecting] observations of process theologians) that we are all connected.
What happens in Umpqua affects Sioux Falls, Cheyenne, San Antonio, Burlington–and Sandy Hook, and Columbine, and…and…and…
Moreover, we realize that each of our choices affects what happens in the next moment, as well as choices and actions that are possible in the next moments too.
In each moment, God is calling us into another moment, a new possibility in the next second.
We have had too many moments of preventable death and destruction. God is about neither. How is God calling us into a new moment where both can be alleviated?
How will our choices to engage–or not–a new way of being affect those close to us? Those whom we will never meet?
3. Fear is real but is not our God.
Again, although it says numerous times in Scripture that we should not be afraid, it does not say that there is nothing of which to be afraid.
Both the fears of those who support increased gun control and those who reject it have fears, fears which are to one degree or another deserved…or at least understandable.
That said, as people of faith, we pay obeisance, we bow to, we serve not our fears, but our God.
4. So as people of God, the questions before us concern a) which God is ours in the present moment; and b) what is that God calling us to do in this moment…and the next?
That means, of course, that every moment belongs first and foremost to our God.
Including what we support socially and politically.
That means that our stance about gun control is not first and foremost a social issue, or a political issue–or a personal preference issue: it’s a faith issue. The question before us concerns what God is calling us to do about guns–and the society that allows them to such a degree that, as President Obama says:
Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.
For people of faith, our stance about gun control is not first and foremost a social issue, or a political issue–but be not mistaken: it is those things too.
Our voices and our votes reflect our faith, and our belief about what we believe God intends for us as a people.
President Obama said that our thoughts and our prayers are not enough.
He is right.
But note that he didn’t say that we shouldn’t think and that we shouldn’t pray.
He said that our thoughts and our prayers are not enough.
So these last several days, I’ve been thinking about gun issues a lot. I’ve been thinking about them by reading and researching and pondering.
And I’ve been thinking about those who have suffered violence, and those nameless ones who inevitably will.
And I’ve learned by my thinking.
I’ve also prayed for those who have suffered violence, and those nameless ones who inevitably will.
But I was reminded recently that my mentor, Walt Bouman, said that prayer enters us into the struggle.
When we pray, we quiet ourselves, and we speak, and we listen. We attend to how God would have us attend to the matter at hand.
And then we engage in the struggle.
Our thoughts and our prayers are not enough.
But with them, we can be moved to do something that might be.
Anna, thank you for taking time to process this critical issue so thoroughly, and for sharing it with the rest of us.
Grateful, Matt, that you found it helpful. Were that it would make a difference!
Thank you for this well thought out essay. It certainly creates the perspective that is missing from the conversation.
I wish it weren’t, but I’m afraid that you are right. Here’s to hoping that this small contribution might catch some imaginations, and perhaps make even a small difference in the conversation. Peace!
A beautifully written and transformative gospel from which we can all benefit by taking action. Thank you from Cincinnati!
So thankful you found it helpful! Peace.
Excellent piece Anna. Thanks for thinking and praying through this in an informed way that challenges us to do the same. Hope you and the family are well!
Thank you, Jake. So good to hear from you! Peace be with you and yours.
Your essay is correct in every way. It’s a pity that rational, fact-based discussions about gun violence and safety seem so hard to find.
The prevailing response to calls for a discussion of gun violence currently seems to be something like, ” regulations won’t eliminate the problem, or criminals will ignore the law.” So what. It doesn’t have to eliminate the problem, just reduce it, bridle it, corral it. Laws and regulations affecting other aspects of life help ensure civility and safety even though laws and regulations are sometimes violated. That is not a reason to give up and say we should have no rules, no laws.
As it is now rational discussion is discouraged and to some extent even prohibited. Florida doctors are legally prohibited from asking patients or parents of children, “Do you have a gun in your house?” And (I believe) the NIH is prohibited from granting research money for investigating gun safety.
I read today that a civilian woman in Michigan observed a shoplifter fleeing from store security and she took it upon herself to take out her glock pistol and shoot at the van and the people in it as it sped away. Fortunately nobody was known to have been shot. How long until two armed vigilantes, thinking the other looks suspicious or dangerous, shoot one another or a bystander?
Thanks for writing the essay.
Thank you, James. We are at a crisis point. Clearly the status quo is not attending to either the curtailing of violence or the feeling of security, as yet another shooting on another campus points out. Sighs too deep for words…and yet we need new words and new action too.
Well reasoned, impassioned writing. Once again you’ve gone to the very heart of the issue and helped to clarify! Thanks, Anna!
Thank you, Barry! Grateful that you read it and offered your comments too. Peace to you!
Thanks for the most comprehensive, carefully nuanced and spiritually insightful position on guns and violence I have read. You have given me much on which to chew. (Walt Bouman would be proud of you!)
Karen, those are incredibly gracious words. Thank you for them! I hope that Walt would be proud: few things would make me prouder!
Thank you. Your opening paragraph could have been written by me, if only I were a writer. I have been sharing your struggle. Spending more time than I have, reading and thinking and trying to collect my thoughts and share them in a coherent manner. You have captured all my thoughts and added more richness and depth than I was personally capable of finding. I have shared your beautiful piece, hoping that it brings my heart peace. Living in a small town in Texas and not being a gun advocate can be scary and I want to be a catalyst for positive change. I pray that sharing your wisdom will help some of my friends “on the other side” start thinking in new ways. I will sleep better tonight knowing that I finally let go of my fear to speak out. Memes that refer to me as “a sitting duck” because I do not believe more guns in schools are the answer will no longer keep me up!
Meredith, thank you for your kind words–and your courage. I am honored that you read the blog and that you offered your words. Peace be with you, and, of course, with those who have been, and continue to be, affected by and afraid of gun violence.
[…] After yet another mass shooting, Anna Madsen, an ELCA pastor, was moved to seek as much information as she could about gun violence and gun control – not to support her views but rather to learn what we know about the issue. To read what she found, click here. […]