This is what I think: Can we ever solve our violence problem? Or anything else?

Yet again there has been another mass shooting in the United States.  Yet again there will be calls for more gun control or calls for more guns.  We will ask for prayers for the victims of this tragedy. There will be news stories, but then life will go on as usual.  And Las Vegas will be added to a long list of other mass shootings in the United States.  Orlando.  Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut.  San Bernadino. Charleston, South Carolina.  There are many other places where mass shootings have occurred in the United States but have been forgotten.

The violence problem has no simple solutions. Rarely do we consider the complexity of questions that do not yield to answers expressed as either this or that.  We want to jump to these quick answers.  We often rely on those answers we have already come to believe are absolutely true, so that they do not allow for any other interpretation.  More gun control or more guns.  But are we more violent? How is it the United States has so many more gun deaths than other countries? And why is it likely that at the end of the day we will be no closer to a solution to the epidemic of gun violence?

Perhaps we must look deep within ourselves. Maybe we need to ask why, on the surface, we have more gun deaths than other countries.  Are we more violent? Is there something about Americans that makes us more likely to attack each other?  Why is it we have so many more prisoners than other countries? Do we break the law more often? Are we more anti-social than citizens of other countries? Is there something in being an American that makes us so much more violent than the rest of the developed world?  Why is it these instances of tragedy seem to be occurring more frequently?

While clearly the United States is diverse, a reason suggested by some for the greater level of violence seen in the United States, there are areas of the world that are more ethnically and culturally diverse, that at the same time do not appear to have as much violence or crime.  Canada, for example, has many fewer gun deaths while being quite diverse.

The challenges we face with gun violence and other types of violence cannot be easily solved.  Even if we could pass meaningful gun control, there is no guarantee that would solve the problem.  There are an awful lot of guns out there.  They would still be out there.  And while there are mass shooters who obtained legal guns, there remain an awful lot of guns that are available illegally.

Moreover, while automatic and semi-automatic guns gain a lot of attention, the gun of choice in the United States remains the handgun.  I am not aware of many discussing banning handguns.  Guns only seem to get our attention after a mass shooting.  Each and every day people in the United States are killed by guns. And each and every day it seems we become more polarized, more divided. So it seems there needs to be more than just a discussion about gun control or more guns.  The problem requires a much more difficult, but much more meaningful discussion about the state of our country. There needs to be a recognition that we face a problem that is neither Republican or Democrat but is rather a problem of our society that can only be solved if we work together.

It does appear that any discussion of our problems must include discussions about our society.  We are angry.  Almost every significant issue divides us.  And not only do these issues divide us, these issues cause us to insult each other, even hate each other.  We call those with opposing viewpoints idiots, crazy, and refer to them by even worse names.  We find it increasingly difficult that people who disagree with us might also want the common good.  They might also want what is best for the country.

Whether or not one agrees with Donald Trump, is it really acceptable to have a president who speaks about women the way he does? Do we really want to accept a news culture that seeks to find the dirtiest, meanest stories about people even if they are not true? Do we really want to be okay in a society where demonstrable facts can be stated to be untrue, and some will believe that what is true is, in fact, not true? Can we, just for a moment, seek to stop blaming and start listening?

It would be unwise to speculate on the motives of the latest mass shooter.  But if we are to have meaningful dialogue to solve difficult and complex issues, we must first realize that there are certain aspects that are unhelpful to such a discussion. There are certain “fundamental principles” that must be accepted.  And they all involve how we view human beings.

We cannot ever say there are good people who march with white supremacists.  White supremacy can never become acceptable.  Ever.  We cannot insult people who suffer from natural disasters.  We cannot reduce the killing of unborn babies to the euphemistic word “fetus.” We cannot objectify human beings sexually, for then it becomes easier and easier to objectify them in other ways too. We cannot describe all welfare and food stamp recipients as lazy, or moochers.  We cannot ignore that one is much more likely to suffer at the hands of poverty if they are a person of color.  We cannot equate all cops.  Most are hardworking, upstanding, courageous men and women who keep us safe every day by putting their own lives on the line.  We cannot ignore black Americans who are crying out for justice.  We must provide a reasonable answer to the question about why so many of those in prison are black, when whites and blacks commit drug crimes, as one example, in roughly the same numbers. Quite frankly, whenever we sin against the human dignity that all people possess, we open the door to the type of violent behavior that we see all over the world. Behavior we just witnessed in Las Vegas.  And the obvious answer to the question Cain asked God about whether he was his brother’s keeper, is yes.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

If we cannot admit the dignity of all human beings, then finding a solution to this problem is not possible.  While the above list is by no means exhaustive, the list represents some real challenges.  At the heart of all of these issues is the question of human dignity.  As Christians, we believe every human being is made in the image of God.  In the gospel of Matthew, we are told by Jesus that the way we treat others is, in fact, the way we treat Jesus.  Think about that for a moment.  We are all held accountable for the way we treat others.  Every one of us.  Every time.

Certainly, there is evil in the world, because of Original Sin.  Despite sin, just imagine how different our world could be if we realized that every human being is made in God’s image, and must be treated this way. What if in discussing an issue like this mass shooting, we could begin from the premise that we have a violence problem? We want to be safe.  But at what cost? Hardening our hearts to those in our world in desperate need because we are afraid? Hardening our hearts because we do not want to be generous? Giving into our anger because the suffering of others can remind me of my own suffering, my own vulnerability?  Or, do we want to address this problem in a way that helps us to preserve the dignity of every human being?  What if we committed to hearing, listening, dialoguing with each other? What if we sought to imitate Jesus and were generous to not only those we care about, but also those we may not like.

I do not know what the solution to gun violence is.  I do not know how to solve the situation about health care in a just way.  I do not know how to create more just economic situations so that all people are given the opportunity to thrive.  But I do know that every time I set myself against another, dismissing them, either their ideas or their very persons, I am part of the problem.

Why does it become so newsworthy when Republicans and Democrats work together? I think it is because we are more concerned about our side winning, and not what is best for our country. And when winning, not what’s best for every human being becomes the goal, we all lose.

Homily for Thursday, May 8, 2014

Readings for Today

Enthusiasm. I am not sure that people are aware that the root of this word involves God. In its original Greek sense it involves being “possessed by a god.” So, it is easy to understand the enthusiasm we see in the first reading.

Certainly Philip is “possessed by God”. And because of his enthusiasm for the Word of God, so too does the Ethiopian eunuch become possessed by God. So enthused, in fact, that the mere sight of water must be acted upon by baptism.

Continue reading

Civil Discourse

In a recent Internet post, Scientific American posed an interesting question. “Why is everyone on the Internet so angry?” It is an interesting question, and I only need a brief examination of my Facebook page to recognize that there is some truth in what they say. A recent NPR story, indicates that while most of us think we are objective in our search for information, almost all of us tend to focus on that information with which we already agree.  Recent opinion polls indicate that when it comes to ascribing blame for the current polarization in Washington, both sides tend to blame the other.

So what are we to make of this current situation in discussing issues of significance in our day? It is true that the Scientific American article points out the complications the Internet presents engaging in dialogue.  “Communication, the scholars say, is really about taking someone else’s perspective, understanding it, and responding. “Tone of voice and gesture can have a large influence on your ability to understand what someone is saying,” Markman said. “The further away from face-to-face, real-time dialogue you get, the harder it is to communicate.”

In the instant nature of Internet dialogue, or perhaps the instant nature of Internet diatribe, the ability to remain anonymous when making comments, the ability to react immediately to one side of an opinion, and the belief that one side or the other presents the objective truth while the other has a bias, are challenging realities to the nature of objective discourse.  While it is true that there have always been heated arguments in the course of human history, the absolute pervasiveness of information available on the Internet, and the seemingly unlimited ability to comment on this content immediately, have created a challenging circumstance.

Too often in commentary today, things are presented as an “either-or”. There simply is too much black and white thinking on both sides of most issues. For example, there are those who decry the Supreme Court’s ruling on citizens United, which gave person status to corporations. But these same voices defended issue oriented ads purchased by nonprofit organizations and unions. It seems both sides would be better served with eliminating the ability to contribute anonymously to any organization. But the ability to stand up and confront people who make their views known is an important component of honest dialogue.

For all those who claim that news can be objective, the evidence suggests otherwise. Fox News, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and a whole host of Internet news sites begin from a basic editorial bias. Such is human nature.  It could be argued that any reporting of the news, is the reporting of the news as seen by a particular individual, with a particular understanding, with a particular bias, with a particular set of experiences and opinions that make it difficult for any of us to say with absolute certainty that what we witness is in fact objective truth.

This is not to suggest that objective truth is not real.  It is to suggest however, that when suggesting something is objective, it is perhaps best done in the method of an ancient medieval scholar. The method of St. Thomas Aquinas was in fact to consider the most persuasive arguments on a variety of topics that were available in his day, both those with which he agreed and those with which he disagreed. His method of “getting at the truth” often involved considering the strongest evidence from both sides of the equation. Were Aquinas alive today, I suspect that he would be encouraging these same types of real debates, rather than the thirty second soundbites where people usually simply argue with one another at the same time, or political debates where the answer is prepared before the question is asked.

Such is the hope of what is written here. Namely, reasonable, intelligent, dialogue, using a variety of sources to raise important questions of our day.  Of course, not everything discussed here will be deep, profound, or life-changing. Some things that are discussed here will be frivolous, quirky, and really won’t change much of anything. Perhaps this site will only serve a need to share ideas, to place out in cyberspace, one more silly attempt, to search for truth and meaning. And after all, isn’t that the challenge of mature human life?

“Working out solutions to the kinds of hard problems that tend to garner the most comments online requires lengthy discussion and compromise. “The back-and-forth negotiation that goes on in having a conversation with someone you don’t agree with is a skill,” (Art) Markman (professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin) said. And this skill is languishing, both among members of the public and our leaders.”

So, as I tell my students, when they write something in cyberspace, they are best served to remember the person that reads it is in fact, a real person.  Would that we all could remember this.  Let’s hope this is the start of something new.