A letter about Newtown, because 140 characters and a status update are not enough.
A couple of years ago my wife started a blog to help document things occurring in our lives. While this was something I wouldn’t be as likely to do it did prove to be an enjoyable exercise to sit down and write from time to time. I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was never much of a math and science guy so I drifted towards history, English and the arts. As a result a bulk of my education was evaluated by my ability to write papers. So, writing is something I don’t mind doing. But on March 3, 2011 the writing stopped.
My trip to Orange County was brought to a screeching halt with the news of a friend of mine being tragically murdered in his office … at a church in Arlington. I realize some of you don’t know the young man who I am referring to but perhaps you’ve heard the story on some level. His name was Clint Dobson. The loss of his life made any attempt to put “pen to paper” feel like an exercise in futility. Tragedy has a way to make all things in the world fade into dull colors and move in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to write about his death and any attempt to write about anything else seemed overwhelmingly trivial. Tragedy has a way to bring about perspective. The things that seemed so important diminished in an instant. The simple things that previously brought me joy now brought sadness because it seemed so unfair that Clint wouldn’t get to experience the things I was getting to experience … taking friends to lunch … seeing my wife at the end of the day … holding my children each night. The frailty of life was made painfully aware in a way it never had been to me before. But even more so, the deep level of evil and brokenness that exists in this world grieved me. It was truly the first time I sincerely prayed … Lord Jesus, Come Quickly. With too much reality to process, the writing stopped.
As the next two years unfolded life began to regain its color. Grief and sadness never left and still exists today but in a way that is easier to manage and process. However, it became apparent that a numbness had emerged as well. Though I had a deeper perspective of how quickly life can be ended, it was as if I turned a deaf ear to similar tragedies. Specifically, the loss of Christina Taylor-Green (age 9) was very sad but something I somehow was able to move past fairly quickly. Granted we talked more about Gabrielle Giffords as she was the primary target but seeing a young 9 year old robbed of life didn’t stop me like it should have. Then the news broke out of Aurora. The level of calculation James Holmes put together to end 12 lives and completely booby trap his apartment was fascinating more than it was stirring. I turned the TV off to distance myself from the news. I remember hearing murmurs of a shooting at some temple in Wisconsin but barely gave a shred of concern. Last week I heard about a shooting at a mall in Oregon and simply shrugged it off thinking, “What else is new?” Numbness.
It wasn’t always this way. April of 1999 stopped me cold when the news of the Columbine tragedy poured across my TV screen. That was large in part because I myself was a junior in high school that year and could easily put myself in the shoes of the victims. I was sitting at a desk working for CBRE in 2007 when my co-worker began talking about the shooting at Virginia Tech. I was moved at the speech where one of the teachers encouraged a student body and in some ways a nation with her powerful refrain of, “We Are Virginia Tech.” These two events stopped me, but in full confession, they didn’t change me. Something I will likely always remember but they didn’t alter my behavior in the least. They didn’t elicit change in my life. I wasn’t numb, but I wasn’t provoked either. They simply stood as landmarks in my memory of the many lessons I’ve had at varying degrees. Though the verses changed the song remained the same. Whether it was experienced through a TV screen or very close at home, I was constantly reminded that life is fragile and the world is painfully broken.
Now I’m thirty. Now, the memories and the lessons are stacking up. The numbness is wearing off. This horrific song of tragedy has grown too loud. I’ve finally heard a verse that I never thought would be imaginable. 28 dead. 20 children. 20 children. Twenty … children. First graders. Age 6. Age 6. Age 6. Age 7. 12 sweet little girls. 8 rowdy young boys. 20 children. Heartbroken. Rage. Helpless.
Surprisingly I had accepted the fact that malls, movie theatres and places of worship were unsafe. For reasons I can’t articulate I accepted those truths. In a cold place in my heart, I somehow tolerated the idea that high school and college students were taken from this world in senseless violence. What my heart cannot handle is an elementary school. What my mind cannot accept is a class of first graders. What my soul cannot embrace are teachers committed to these young treasures being alarmingly murdered in an incomprehensible manner. The picture of parents running to find their sweet first grader only to discover they were now a part of a group of 20 that would have the envy of none but the sympathy of all, is not something I can accept. The thought of those parents having to hear the news of their child being gone and sleep that first night knowing their precious baby lie unmoved on a cold school floor … alone … is too much for me to be ok with. I’ve had enough. And as I have done my best to process the hurt, the bewilderment, the frustration and rage, I’ve found myself grappling with an uncomfortable reality that there is nothing I can do. I am completely helpless. Of course, we have cried and prayed. I’ve held my sweet boy and my little girl with a greater sense of fear and gratitude. But there is nothing I can do to make these images disappear from the news and from my life. All I can think to do … is write.
Anyone that has been around me the last six months knows that I think we have too many authors in our country. Too many people that are so anxious to talk and far too few that are willing to listen. And even fewer that actually do anything to make a difference. We are a society of opinions but with no ambition to make a true difference. We’ve reduced our voice to 140 characters and an instagram. Pathetic. We prove our intelligence and resolve by witty comments, pithy sayings and a hashtag. We debate with such hatred over a social network that elicits more arrogance, jealousy and extremes than we would ever portray in public. We watch a polarized media that constantly prompts an agenda and then measure our support with “likes” and “comments.” We have a gridlocked Washington that continues to be one of the most dysfunctional expressions of leadership known to man as they care more about careers, dollars and reputation than they do being effective. These too were large factors as to why the writing stopped. It just seems so hollow and trivial in a society that continues to prove to be void of any true depth. So, I’m realistic and painfully aware of the irony that in the midst of all those opinions I’m sitting here writing these words as if they are going to make a difference. But frankly, the images finally won out. The song finally grew too loud. The level of helplessness was so overwhelming that doing nothing was no longer an option. And all I really know to do is write.
So here is what I have to say in light of thirty years of images that have hit so close to home and been observed from afar. They have involved all forms of violence. Some with guns, some without. Some with mental disorders, some without. It’s a full range of emotions. But I refuse to be ok with twenty children … twenty first graders … shot in their classroom. I refuse to be ok with parents robbed of their most precious gift just days before Christmas. I refuse to tolerate it and just go about my day. So, I’m going to write … and 140 characters and a status update are not enough. At the bare minimum I’m going to say something. I’m going to say it to my family, my friends and my elected officials.
First and foremost, I want to be clear. This is absolutely the time to speak. Our country continually proves to be utterly backwards in the way we deal with grief. We applaud athletes for playing a game when they lose a loved one rather than taking the time to grieve. We applaud this as a display of honor when everything within me wants to scream, “Go home and mourn. It’s ok to be sad. It’s a stupid game. Grieve.” When a tragedy occurs that shakes us to the core as citizens we quickly rise up and say, “Don’t politicize it.” “Don’t exploit these deaths to promote your agenda.” “Don’t dishonor their lives by making a political point.” “We will move on.” All of that is a warped and perverted sense of life and sense of civic duty. It’s an indictment against the sad state of our political system that we are so polarized and terrified of the “other side” using a platform for their agenda that we choose silence when society is screaming for someone courageous enough to actually speak out. This is EXACTLY the time to talk about it. This is EXACTLY the time to make it personal, political and spiritual. This is exactly the time to stop going about our mundane self-serving routine and offer a hard look at ourselves.
Furthermore, This is absolutely a political statement. And it needs to make EVERYONE uncomfortable. Both sides of the aisle need to forget there is an aisle in the first place and realize they all sit in the same damn room with the same damn responsibilities … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if they just so happen to believe in the same God and Christ that I do, then we need to remember to take up the cause of the defenseless and be a voice of reconciliation and transformation. Regardless of your political or spiritual affiliation, if you are going to call this country home then it’s time we find some common ground and speak louder than ever before. If 20 first graders lying dead in their classrooms won’t provide that common ground then we have become a pathetic display of freedom and liberty. Whatever misguided belief that our nation once sat as some city on a hill as a light to the world is more than snuffed out and is now laughable. If this doesn’t shake us out of our bloated and horrendous lack of self-awareness then I don’t know what will.
So here is where I would begin. The horrific scenes of Newtown Connecticut are about EVERYTHING. It is absolutely about mental illness. It is absolutely about an excessively violent culture. And it is one hundred percent undeniably about guns. To try and pit these three ingredients against the other only proves ignorance. Advocating that we treat only one symptom and ignore the other two is cowardice. All of us need to find the humility and strength to say, “This is not right. Whatever I’ve clung to before I’m willing to put on the table and start over.” So here is my best attempt to get the conversation going.
Mental Health: I’m not even going to pretend to speak intelligibly about this issue. There is no doubt all cultures across the globe deal with citizens that are disturbed in profound ways. As a Christian I will always advocate that open arms and a loving touch that exalts the name of Jesus Christ are going to be the best answer. But as a citizen I’m going to have to be a bit more realistic. So the best I can do is apply what seems to me to be a logical approach to this component. The first would be a word of caution. To dismiss all such tragedies as a result of mental illness too easily dismisses the problem and also places us on a slippery slope. It would be equally concerning to imagine a world where every young child and adolescent that deals with mental issues and social disabilities to be treated as a threat. If we label children and individuals with such problems in such a way then we risk an alarming invasion of personal privacy and harsh profiling that is irrational. Individuals that are already struggling to fit in are likely to be even more isolated and considered more untouchable. I’m fearful that this rhetoric of “getting help” to such individuals will turn into an unhealthy response predicated on fear as opposed to genuine concern. That said, we do have to figure out a way to build a sense of community and support that loves these individuals for who they are and accepts them in spite of these challenges. Greater awareness, education and a strict evaluation of approved medication should all be pursued. Most importantly, when individuals have a history of violence or aggression that has led to some sort of criminal history, then our correctional facilities have to take this seriously. The young man that killed Clint was cleared from anger management and pushed out of full prisons. Two weeks later he killed my friend. The system failed my friend as much as anything else. But even more so, we have to consider our culture. This of course leads us to the second component.
Culture: This is so comprehensive it’s hard to know where to begin. The easy target is violent movies and video games. Yes … they are absurd and maybe that needs to be addressed. We could talk about technology and the increasing isolation our devices deceptively create. We could talk about the media’s sensationalism of such an act that might in fact motivate more and more occurrences as people try to be “famous.” We could talk about the lack of awareness and training of conflict resolution that permeates into our schools, offices, highways and public arenas. It’s so broad it’s hard to know where to begin. I’d argue that we need to set some personal rights aside to address them all. Freedom of speech is a blessed freedom but we have also been taught that speech that is false or dangerous shall be restricted. Speech that jeopardizes the safety and well-being of other citizens should be limited. We are taught you can’t yell “fire” in a theatre but we keep pumping this ‘art’ that invades gaming consoles and movie theatres without any serious scrutiny. My right to spend $20 to see an unbelievable body count or my right to spend $50 on a game where I “shoot” my friends is not more important than a first graders right to go to school. We need to have the courage and humility to at the very least to have the discussion on how healthy this is for our society. And if this is the sort of speech that helps train, encourage and promote these mass killings then it needs greater restriction.
But beyond the easy target of analyzing the products that are frequently put in our hands and in front of our eyes, we need to talk about the family. Once again, as a Christian, I will always believe that the Biblical model of a family is the one we should pursue. A father that loves his wife like Christ loves the church. A mother who lovingly looks to her husband for partnership and leadership. Children who see a model of love and the value of respect. This will always be my hope and prayer as a Christian. But as a citizen, I have to appreciate the diversity our nation allows. I have to acknowledge the challenges families face. I’m not sure how it’s addressed from a political standpoint but if our culture is ever going to change and figure out a way to be bigger than this outpouring of violence I fully believe it’s going to start in the home. So rather than look to our politicians and our leaders for this one, I’d appeal to the notion that we are a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” That begs the question we must all ask ourselves … “What kind of person am I?” Are we willing to turn off the television when a show is too violent? Are we willing to use our dollars on purer entertainment to drive those products off the shelves? Are we willing to shut off our phone and talk to our children and their friends about what they are seeing and playing? Are we willing to love rather than argue? Are we willing to let go rather than get our way? What kind of people are we? My prayer is that somehow we each ask that of ourselves. My expectation is that our leaders of government do the same each and every day. And if an official refuses to stand up on this issue and ask these hard questions of themselves and their colleagues then I fully intend to vote them out of office and for someone who will without fear of re-election. It’s time our elected officials destroy their reputation of leading for re-election as opposed to the people they’ve been entrusted to protect. We need leaders. Not politicians. And it’s our job to get that message across.
Guns: Here’s where the passions get a little more enflamed. The argument gets a little more heated. Biases bubble over to the surface and the pithy quotes and clever images get paraded out into our newsfeeds as if they are effective. But nonetheless, something has to be said. Once again, let me start with my beliefs. This is fairly tough to articulate and I won’t pretend to be a theologian well versed in the Biblical basis for violence, self-defense or war. Here’s what I know. The Bible is an incredibly violent book and many times it is through war and conquering. That cannot be denied. Moreover, Jesus is an undeniable and unapologetic model of complete surrender. From the teachings of turning the other cheek, to being silent before his accusers and his willful acceptance of the cross Jesus frequently modeled the true power over violence is peace. I do not believe the Bible to be contradictory so it is difficult to reconcile these two elements of Scripture. There is, however, one commonality I would suggest for any believer of Christ to consider when evaluating the right to own a gun. That commonality is fear. It seems that if we aren’t talking about hunting then we are talking about “defending” ourselves from intruders and our government. This is incredibly hard to say but it’s time to say it. My suggestion would be to constantly evaluate which voice is speaking louder, the one that trusts God in all things or the one that convinces you must live in fear. Don’t rush to conclusions. Trusting God does not equate to pacifism. Trust doesn’t mean willful acceptance of harm. My point is that trust is anchored in the understanding of being free from the fear of death. To live is Christ and to die is gain. My question for any believer is if you believe it or just memorize it? Even more so, do we believe it for our family? Do we trust in a God that can conquer kingdoms and shut the mouths of lions more than we fear the violence in society? Do we fear a government will seize our rights and oppress us and therefore we need some form of defense against whatever military expression would find itself at our door? Are we so afraid of intruders and the mentally unstable that we are ready to take a life? Do we fear this sort of oppression in a way that leads us to believe somehow our freedom in Christ can only be experienced by freedom on earth? As a Christian, that’s my frequent question on this issue. If you are so adamant about your right to carry an instrument that’s sole design was to be used to kill, then why are you living in such fear? This is not a political issue, but a deeply theological one that needs to be explored. It’s time we take a long hard look within to determine why it is we feel so strongly about owning a gun. But regardless of your faith or creed, if our mantra is more guns and our right to guns then I’m increasingly afraid we have become shackled to an unhealthy fear sweeping across our nation.
Now, as a citizen, I must acknowledge that there are major challenges that extend beyond our spiritual convictions. And once again, I don’t know where to begin. The best start I can offer is that I don’t have the answer. I don’t have a solution. But I would also say, whatever we have right now is clearly not the answer either. We don’t have a solution, we have a major problem and we are fooling ourselves if we think guns don’t play a critical role. I’m not well researched on this yet but let me offer what I have found in the last few days:
- The U.S.A. does not lead the world in gun violence. There are several other countries ahead of us with that title. But, almost if not all of them, are from a less-developed context. They aren’t the sort of countries we aspire to be economically, politically, etc. so neither should we use their excessive violence as a justification that it isn’t that bad in our own home.
- The U.S.A. is leading the more developed and affluent countries of the world. So, when comparing apples to apples we are far in away the most active nation in terms of gun violence. It is undeniably a problem.
- An extensive review of studies and literature by Harvard University has shown that guns do not deter violence but increase it. Countries, states, and cities with more guns and fewer laws experience more gun-related homicides. (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/index.html)
I’ll spare this document with the actual numbers and statistics because those can always be misleading and altered to prove a point. The only one I’ll use is 20. Twenty children. Twenty first graders. If the points above don’t prove we have a problem then please go look at all the photos of all the children shot in Sandy Hook school and try to convince me we’ve got it all figured out. So let me address some of the deceptive logic we appeal to when this conversation occurs:
1) Guns are a deterrent – The Harvard study proves otherwise. The idea that gun-ownership is a deterrent to these sorts of violent crimes is a warped and misguided stance. It escalates the problem and rarely solves it. Suggesting we arm our schools is borderline idiotic. We want guns off the campuses, not on them. We should want the access for guns to be more difficult not easier. We should not have a country where we send our children to a fortress to get an education. Our children should not have to view their playground through bulletproof glass because quite frankly, they shouldn’t fear bullets ever coming into their rooms in the first place. This is not the answer. We should not fear the mentally unstable coming through an elementary school doors armed with such force in the first place. A “shoot them first” mentality promotes violence … it does not deter it.
2) Cars & Alcohol – “Cars and alcohol kill people and we aren’t going to get rid of them.” A car can absolutely be deadly, but it was designed to get people from point A to point B. Alcohol can be lethal but it was designed to satisfy a thirst. Guns were designed with one purpose … death. They are weapons and solely designed for harm and destruction. There is no alternative purpose. Comparing them to cars is not an equal comparison so it shouldn’t be used. We are talking about weapons. We are talking about lethal force. A semi-automatic rifle is not the same as a Honda Civic. Period the end.
3) People with Mental Illness shouldn’t be given a gun – This is frequently being alluded to in light of the Newtown shooting. Let’s remember that the shooter didn’t purchase many of these guns nor were they registered in his name. They belonged to his mother, who was apparently normal, healthy and obtained them legally in state with some of the strictest laws. It’s not just about laws, screening, mental health or enforcement … these weapons should not be on the street and so easily accessible. The problem is that I have to worry about every living room my children will visit because any citizen at any point can have a small arsenal in their home. Adam Lanza wasn’t screened because he didn’t have to be. He walked into a living room and got all he needed. Tougher checks are a component but not the only answer.
4) There are too many of them to get rid of – An absolute ban is highly unlikely and the black market that would likely develop is equally terrifying. But in all honesty, I’d choose a black market being the only option as opposed to a neighbor’s living room. We have to consider the ease of access that we’ve created. If not banned they should be wildly difficult to obtain, much more so than they are currently.
5) They are purchased to defend – This is true in many ways but we must also be honest enough to admit we’ve turned violence into a sport. We have “gun enthusiasts.” Think about that term. A lethal weapon designed for lethal force makes me enthusiastic. That’s not a purchase out of necessity and I’d argue it’s unhealthy. Many of these semi-automatic purchases are feeding a desire that goes well beyond simple defense and is excessive.
6) They are for sport & hunting – Again, we have to balance what we are choosing. I grew up hunting and enjoy it. But not so much that I’m willing to fight for my weekend or season of shooting animal or bird so my first grader can be at risk. That’s a foolish, foolish and selfish choice to cling to and moreover; it forces a critical look at the definition of ‘hunting.’ No doubt a bow and arrow requires a higher level of skill than a semi-automatic rifle with a scope used to shoot an animal while it’s feeding. What hunter empties a round of 30 bullets into their target? There are other options to hunt and they should be considered because the cost of our current preference is far too great.
7) Crazy will always find a way – This is absolutely true but does not mean we should make it easier for crazy to do so. You need no more concrete evidence than looking to the news that just came out of China on the same day. A man suffering from mental illness took out his rage on 22 young children. The difference is that he only had a knife and every single one of the children survived. Every single one of them will have Christmas with their families while twenty first graders in Newtown will not. We don’t surrender to crazy, we guard against it and limit it’s ability to inflict harm. I’d rather treat crazy with a loving community and trained doctors knowing it is incredibly difficult for them to relinquish harm than I would like to live in a society that is ready to gun down the mentally disturbed before they gun down my children.
The solution? I have no idea. In the very least, a semi-automatic weapon ban should be put in place in addition to tangible responses to our violent culture and mental health. Personally, I wouldn’t object to an all out ban but I realize that’s highly unlikely and an extreme response is rarely the best one. I heard an interesting proposal about ammunition this evening. Rubber bullets, stun guns, etc. as alternatives to ammunition that kills. Perhaps we keep the guns legal but eradicate the ammunition. This seems like something worth considering. All I know is that the dialogue has to take place. All I know is that it isn’t one thing, it’s all things. And the time to figure it out is right now.
It was the death of my close friend that made the writing stop. No words could ever do justice to such hatred, senseless violence and tragic loss. So I just didn’t say anything. But the pictures and names of young children like Emilie Parker and the thought of her parents have made me snap. I have to start somewhere because something has to be said and something has to be done.
So, I write. I write to you, my friends, and ask you to be a voice. I’m not saying you have to agree with me. I simply ask you to put your agenda and previous convictions aside and find a sense of civic duty and strength that looks beyond the “easy” road and embraces the challenge that I believe God has set squarely on our laps as citizens of this great nation. I ask you to be a voice and more importantly the voice of twenty young children who will never speak again. Research the issue. Write your leaders. Write your friends. Run for office. Advocate for mental health treatments. Sell your guns. Find something that leads you to action. I’m not sure what you can do, but for God’s sake, please, please, do something.
This is why I write.
IN HIS GRACE,
Friend & Neighbor