I have never quite felt a sense in the U.S. like the one I experienced last week. The U.S. crisis is not fiscal, political, military, or even cultural in any usual sense. It's as profound and hard-to-name as it is evident; like some strange tropical illness with which a relative is suffering, and nobody can seem to stop it.
Founding a nation on "self-evident truths" must always be a risky business let alone when those truths claim the equality of all people. Generally speaking equality will be either a recipe for satisfaction or for constantly renewed conflict. Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that U.S. "equality" was always based, in uneasy parts, on a mutual measure of Christian individual salvation and a huge continent in which such saved individuals could lose (and find) themselves. The 2010 movie, True Grit, and the book it is based on, are convincing depictions of the cultural marriage of these two factors, with the gun as the great settler of scores against both backdrops. Now, for better or worse, both the ideology of Christian salvation and the open horizons of migration are eroded. We are left staring more and more fixedly at each other, yet more than ever armed.
The horror of Sandy Hook and the barely less horrific response of the NRA, made public a week after the shootings, brought day-to-day U.S. society almost to a spiritual halt; or at least to a kind of moment of clarity. As if the fever (our own fever) cleared just enough for a moment, for us to recognize the true character of the crisis.
A twenty-year-old man named Adam entered an elementary school and for every one of his own wretched, miscarried years he slaughtered a first-grade child with an automatic rifle, shooting each child between three and eleven times. Having previously killed his mother, he also killed six adults at the school, finally shooting himself. The cold mathematical fury of his actions combined with the extreme youth, vulnerability and innocence of his targets, plus his own rabbit-in-the-headlights-look in the photos available, managed to exceed by an order of magnitude the shock of all the previous mass shootings in the U.S.
The U.S. love-affair with guns slammed with the force literally of a bullet into its much greater love-affair with kids. There were calls at once for increased gun-controls, led by the President who declared "words need to lead to action" and directed the Vice-President to head an interagency effort, coming up with answers to the issue of mass shootings.
Such controls seem to be simple common sense--and do so to many NRA members--but the response by the NRA leadership demonstrates that there is something greater in play here than common sense. Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every U.S. school, fingered "mental health" as the culprit, and uttered the eternally classic line, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
This kind of vision implies a complete breakdown of the idea of civil society, in a dystopian one-for-one mirroring of the violence of the lone shooter which the supposed intent is to counter. Those who carried lethal weapons in ancient city states from Canaan to Greece to Verona and Venice always belonged to the warrior class, the aristoi (from which comes aristocrats), those who were "best" in a variety of fields, above all fighting. The ordinary populace, tradespeople, and peasantry in the fields, may have had weapons stashed away but they did not carry them. (Hence the biblical "meek of the earth," as in psalm 37:11 and Job 24:4.) That way, violence was reserved to a special class, those who were, you might say, professionals in the field, and then also the soldiery which developed around them. Modern police are largely in fact a product of the time when aristocrats gave up carrying weapons and keeping beside them groups of armed retainers. What LaPierre is, therefore, talking about is a level of near-universal (re)arming never seen before in human history: armed guards at every corner and concealed-carry on the part of numerous others, together with weapons whose lethality is unparalleled. The NRA is talking about a steady state of civil war where you're never sure who or what the enemy is or whether the next moment will be your last. A Christian mutuality of individuals has been sundered apart into an original violence, and equality in violence becomes the final measure of a man (or woman).
This is the crisis we're facing. You could call it a spiritual crisis, except "spiritual" seems normally to refer to a separate realm of spirit which only secondarily has concrete consequences. You should perhaps then call it anthropological, because that indicates how we concretely structure our humanity. Most of all you could call it "Christian" because the half-born message of the gospel in the West has brought us to this decayed and dangerous form of equality, a kind of zombie Christianity filled with violent atomization and atomizing violence. This form of equality has lost all sense of solidarity with the next man or woman, completely unwilling to trust them for ordinary business of life. It has been replaced instead with a war of all against all, a long slow bleeding war which has already been engaged in many minds.
As Girard says it, "(T)he Western world is in a perpetual state of crisis, and the crisis is always spreading." (Violence and the Sacred, 238)
In these circumstances the Christian message is called to take on a powerfully renewed self-understanding. Because it was a version of Christian belief that helped put the crisis in place it is only a re-imagined and re-vitalized Christianity can help resolve it. First, then, it is urgent that Christian ministers work to transform the basic sense of how Christians think of themselves as humans. Their dominant body/soul anthropology is critically outmoded and is deeply prejudicial against organic human solidarity. Next, violence itself must be taught, not seen on one occasion as a moral aberration, and on another as a magnificent heroism. Rather it is something essentially and horribly human, a kind of spirit or essence itself which has made humanity all that it has known for hundreds of thousands of years. But now this essence has reached an elemental inner crisis because of its exposure to the gospels...being brought literally to light. Because of that light human violence is sweating and blowing up in our faces like dynamite itself. Yet, just as Jesus predicted in the gospel, at the very same time as the human crisis evolves it's also the very time for the "sign of the Son of Man" to appear. That is, the sign of a nonviolent relational humanity, surrendering to each other in love.
This sign and its teaching will be a far surer way of protecting the children than a nine millimeter in every teacher's desk.
Tony Bartlet, Contributing Theologian
P.S. This blog is also published at Hope In Time, another blogspot I'm looking to develop.