We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day, The Washington Post reported last August. But the mounting frustration of chasing solutions is the good news.
The Daily News piece “God Isn’t Fixing This,” articles in the Atlantic and Washington Post, the Nation’s compilation of candidate reactions to the San Bernadino shooting, Daniel Schultz’s parallel list of reactions relative to NRA campaign contributions, The Huffington Post’s collection of political figures calling for prayers and the stories on every news outlet…
All good news.
Good, because time was when gun violence barely made it into the press. First, for much of American history, there was much less press than today, and what there was, was overtly owned by business and/or political interests. Folks read the papers for partisanship and lurid entertainment, not objectivity, which became a badge of good journalism only in the 20th century.
More importantly, gun violence rarely made it into the press because it was unexceptional. High-Noon-type shoot-outs, to be sure, made it into legend, and muckrakers (again, 20th century) got space for shocking tales of slum brutality. But the ubiquitous violence of daily life was unremarkable—and largely unremarked upon. The Five Points, The Gangs of New York, and Low Life are good histories of the era.
By contrast, today’s outcry against our murder rates shows a positive refinement of sensibility. It means that if this cultural shift continues, we might do something about it.
There are, however, a few pieces of bad news. One is that in the outcry, silly things are said.
“Prayer-shaming” is balderdash (as is the suggestion that simply because one does offer a prayer she isn’t prepared to act). Many of those accused of “prayer-shaming,” like the Daily News and Think Progress’ Igor Volsky, weren’t denigrating prayer, per se, but the fact that there is a clear correlation between those legislators offering prayers and their past opposition to gun control legislation. Or, as a Salon headline put it: “the hypocrisy of empty gestures.” The idea, run across the Twittersphere, that one can either pray or take action against gun violence is mind-boggling polarization.
But this is neither serious politics nor theology. The Bible doesn’t say pray—and only pray—about violence any more than it says pray—and only pray—about the needy, stranger, and enemy. It calls murder a sin and crime, and provides sanctions (along with requirements for fairness and witness testimony in trials), just as it gives detailed instructions on aiding the downtrodden.
Indeed, the idea that humanity only pray and wait for divine action would exempt us for any moral accountability for our communities. As long as I’m not the perp, such logic would go, I can fiddle—and pray—while San Bernadino burns.
This is a rather extreme form of Occasionalism, developed by Nicolas Malebranche in the 17th century. He held that the world is but an occasion for God’s will, and that all occurrences in it are caused directly by his acts. God acts in regular ways to create what appears to us as the “laws” of nature. God coordinates the body and mind so that when we stub a toe, we feel that it “causes” pain. But at each moment, each event is a separate act of divine intervention.
Malebranche’s ideas of divine action and human passivity were rejected by his contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibinz and many others since. Leibniz held that all worldly entities are at once material yet enfolded with something of divine capacity. Thus, we can act without God’s perpetual, instant-by-instant miraculous intervention. He and others also noted that Malebranche’s theology, voiding human action, rather uncomfortably set God as the cause of evil.
One need not be a Leibnizian to follow the Abrahamic premise—in Augustine, Maimonides, and Aquinas, for instance—that we are created in the image of divine intelligence and so have something of that intelligence to act in our present circumstances. The underlying theology is that God, as the basis or ground for all existence, “inheres” so to speak in all things in order for them to exist at all (see also, my piece on the Syrian refugees).
“In all things,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “God himself is properly the cause of universal being… in all things God works intimately.” Or as John Milbank writes, “Everything is therefore ‘engraced.’” By studying “all things”—the world, ourselves, and the effects of biblical principles on both—we can come to grasp something of what these principles mean. We err, but we correct mistakes by continued study and experience.
“The human mind,” Aquinas continues, “is divinely illumined by a natural light.” We understand the world through a natural light—our experience and reason—that is yet divinely informed. Aquinas develops this idea in his doctrine of “secondary causes.” Because our understanding is divinely illumined, we have the capacity to grasp and further God’s principles. We may act secondarily to him. God is the ground for natural laws and electro-magnetic fields; we secondarily plant crops and make electricity. The Jewish tradition expresses this as “co-creatorship.” The medieval Islamic philosophers Al-Ash’ari and Al-Ghazali called it “performing” what God creates. More popularly, we call it being “the hands and feet of Jesus,” the prince of peace.
This is not only descriptive of the cosmos but a prescriptive mandate to follow our divinely lit understanding in our worldly conduct. “Human beings,” First Testament scholar Terence Fretheim writes, “are not only created in the image of God (this is who they are); they are also created to be the image of God (this is their role in the world).”
So no, we don’t only pray. We pray, study, and decide how to act.
As study materials, the church fathers, following Jesus’ lessons in non-violence, might assist us with gun violence. Should the populace be armed? The third century Hyppolytus wrote: “A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.” A generation later, Cyprian echoed, “[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves… it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.” Toward the end of the century, Marcellus continued, “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”
So maybe the widespread distribution of weapons is not the way to go—at least, for the 92% of congress and 70% of the country that identifies as Christian, and anyone else who values their scholarly and ethical contributions.
But siding with Malebranche or ignoring church fathers is not why Republicans evoke prayer but oppose gun control. They do not pray and wait for divine support for assault weapons. They quite actively oppose gun control because their constituencies and the NRA oppose it. And the NRA opposes it because their constituencies do.
It may be true that a majority of Americans favors increased gun control: 85% want expanded background checks; 70% seek stronger laws to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill; and even half of all Republicans (48%) want an assault weapons ban, according to Pew.
But in representative democracies, majorities of people don’t make laws. Their representatives do. Until people vote in a majority of representatives to curb gun availability, guns will be available.
Why don’t we vote them in? In their rigorous analyses, Daniel Schultz and Sarah Posner suggest that gun control is often not a single-issue priority for many of its advocates, while the opposite is true of gun rights advocates. As a result, organization, talent, and resources are dispersed and cannot sustain a national campaign against the well-funded NRA. Among faith-based gun control advocates, Schultz suggests, there may also be a disinclination to get involved with tainted, ungodly politics.
But social issues and candidates come to the fore from groundswells of activists and small donors. The Civil Right Movement, Obama in 2008, and Black Lives Matter are a few. The Civil Rights Movement was largely faith-based, an instance of churches decidedly inclining themselves to politics.
In 1811, Joseph de Maistre wrote, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Ouch. But there it is.
And this is why the frustration and media flurry are the good news. As the bodies and frustration tragically pile up, instead of arguing to the death—gun control vs. gun rights, as if each were a faith—we might come together to craft laws that allow people their sport and self-protection but that are also pro-life, in the truest sense of the term.