“After Sutherland Springs: A Reflection”

Sutherland Springs

Yesterday’s tragic church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas has already hit the “refresh” button on any number of rallying cries on all sides of the gun violence debates, especially on social media.

Coming soon to a feed near you–depending on which ones you’ve developed–will be the seemingly inevitable impatience with sending “thoughts and prayers” and not attempting meaningful gun control legislation. Or alternately, there will be the calls to encourage concealed- and open-carry, even in church, under the general heading of “an armed society is a polite society,” or “the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

“It’s Not Too Soon to Debate Gun Control,” says an editorial in this morning’s New York Times. “If we can’t talk about gun control now, after Sutherland Springs, then we will never talk about it,” says a commentary in today’s Dallas Morning News.

Yet just last month, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, the White House called such conversations “premature” when they appeared less than 24 hours after the tragedy. Others will say so again today, if they have not already done so.

There will be statistics. There are always statistics.

Yet soon enough, it will once again be clear that few have changed their minds, even this time, and the debate will go dormant again…until the next incident.

Despite the common sadness and horror we all feel in the face of tragedy, we continue to talk past one another when it comes to responding to gun violence.

It’s time for a different conversation.

We want the court of public opinion to adjudicate whether guns are “the solution” or “part of the problem”.

But it’s not that simple.

Instead, I wonder what might happen if we began a broader conversation on fear.

Christian ethicist Scott Bader-Saye, academic dean of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, has written about the moral consequences of “disordered and excessive fear.”

He argues that fear “underwrites an ethic of security in which self-preservation consistently trumps other goods, and it fosters a set of shadow virtues–including suspicion, preemption, and control.”

He warns against the dangers of coming to fear not only what we should not, but also as we should not–that being afraid of the wrong things, or becoming consumed by fear to the exclusion of all else, can equally lead us astray.

Fear distorts our perception, leading us to see some threats as bigger than they are, or much closer than they are.

It can also lead us to fear losing things that, actually, aren’t all that worth defending. (Think of the person who refuses to give up a wallet during a mugging, or someone who whips out a gun over a disagreement about a parking space.)

Similarly, for many years now, studies have documented how fear of crime has been far more pervasive than actual crime.

How might that be translating into diminished lives, in which our fear of possible harm, while justified, has become so great that it overshadows our ability to pursue the good?

For example, in my congregation, how many people might be avoiding serving dinner at a nearby men’s shelter because the neighborhood seems too frightening?

In my last church, we had an older woman in good health who was afraid to come to Sunday Worship because of a burglary at her home that had occurred while she was out at church many years before.

How many people say they won’t go into a nearby city, or travel in different parts of the country because it’s too dangerous?

That sounds a lot like where we are.

We all long for security–for a world safe enough for us to cross a deserted parking lot, or to go buy a pack of Skittles after dark without worrying that our lives and our children’s lives might be on the line.

The fear of being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” is real, and yet it looks very different, depending on your social location in America today.

If you put it that way, are guns really “the problem” or “the solution”?

Hardly.

Much as guns are in the mix, the questions go much deeper than the presence or absence of a gun in a given situation.

Maybe we should talk about what it is like to be that sort of vulnerable space, rather than focusing immediately on the narrower question of whether or not a gun should be there, too.

Those who roll their eyes at the old slogan “Guns don’t kill. People kill” are missing an opportunity to ask what it is about our world that makes some of us scared enough or angry enough to contemplate killing if need be.

Those who carry guns are missing an opportunity to hear especially what those from traditionally “targeted” communities in America go through not only today, but literally since 1492.

What if instead of being focused on guns, we tried to engage in real conversation about privilege in America–what it feels like to be losing it, and to be denied it altogether?

If that’s too big, there are other questions to ask.

As Bader-Saye might ask: who are the “shadow virtues” of suspicion, preemption, and control training us to become?

Is that really who we want to be?

I don’t think it is.

But until we find enough common ground to begin talking, that’s exactly what we’re going to become.

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