On Friday morning, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and killing six adults and twenty children before killing himself.
This incomprehensible act has caused enormous mourning and outrage. So many of us have been feeling grief and also numbness, bewilderment and anger. Our thoughts turn toward those killed and their loved ones. How does a parent survive something like this? How do any of those who lost a loved one that day endure? And because our own humanity connects us, we ask how we ourselves are to go on, and what can we do on behalf of healing and integrity and justice.
In an early briefing, the White House press secretary said it was too soon after the tragedy to start talking about policy issues related to this tragedy, such as gun control. Other politicians have repeated this.
I disagree. It’s not too soon. It’s too late.
It’s too late for those children and their teachers, too late for the gunman and his mother, who he also shot. This horrific crime needs to spur a policy discussion about the proliferation of firearms in this country. If not now, when?
There have been 19 mass shootings in this country since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Friday’s tragedy was the sixth such shooting in the United States this year alone. After the killing in an Amish school, after the killing in a movie theatre, after the killing in a Sikh temple, after each one of these incidents people have grieved and asked why and pointed fingers.
But according to opinion polls, a growing majority of Americans oppose restrictions on access to guns. Politically, the issue is a nonstarter. In his long campaign for reelection, President Obama mentioned gun control policy a total of three times. If not now, when? If not after this tragedy, when?
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people a year lose their lives in this country because of gun violence. For every person killed with guns, two others are wounded. These include homicides, suicides, and police interventions. Most of these deaths and injuries take place without much notice in the press.
We know from the experience of other countries that banning certain weapons or making them difficult to obtain has led to fewer deaths by homicide, fewer deaths from gun violence. We also know from the experience of other countries—countries that have similar ratios of guns to population—that the rate of gun violence in the US is even then comparatively high. In other words, even when access to guns is comparable in other countries, the number of gun deaths and injuries in the US is still higher. Other countries with proportional numbers of guns do not have as high rates of homicide as the United States. What is the unique relationship of US society and culture to guns and to violence?
What we know about strength and safety, about resolving conflict and encountering difference, arises from our context, a national culture which from its beginnings in colonialism and slavery has favored armed defense and military might. Power and security, dominating others and our natural environment, this is our shadow as a nation. We’re armed to the teeth because we’re afraid. We are afraid that those we have subjugated for our benefit will overwhelm us.
And the seemingly plausible answer given by a majority of Americans is that we’ll be safer if more of us have guns, we’ll be less afraid if we’re armed.
Gun control may indeed see the statistics of mass shootings and other gun violence go down, but gun control alone will not address the moral and spiritual crisis of our culture’s worldview which is the basis for so much violence in this country. It’s a worldview based on fear—fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of the other. It’s a worldview based on the dictum that might makes right, and if we don’t understand something—the unknown, the different, the other—we must conquer or destroy it, rather than engage it.
In addition to social policies that must change, we need to also ask, what within ourselves needs to change as well. What are the seeds of fear within myself? What sources of distrust, suspicion, and anxiety are there within me? How do I handle difference, how do I relate with those who differ from me? What is my encounter with the unfamiliar marked by—is it openness, curiosity? In my dealings with others, do I seek points of connection or only points of contention?
How do we, individually and as families and households, a town and a neighborhood, a community of faith, how do we contribute to the culture of fear? How do we resist it? What forms of desensitization and dehumanization do we participate in?
We need to make space to ask these questions, these queries of self-examination. We need to make space for an internal change, an inner conversion from fear to trust, from fear to love.
These transformations have repercussions for the social order. Gustav Landauer, a nineteenth century German anarchist, says:
“The state is not something which can be destroyed by revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.”
Our social order is a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior. Changes in how we order our thinking and our relationships—shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice—revolutionizes the social order, the political order. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “We must be the change that we want to see.”
And it begins in our own dark hearts. It begins in a long vigil through the longest night until dawn breaks, until vision comes. It begins in our own places of expectant waiting, of contemplative vigilance.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says,
“Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind.”
He goes on to say that what grows in the soil of your mind is what you cultivate. The seeds you awaken and water and encourage will be what you sow in your life and relationships—let it be the seeds of peace, understanding, love. Let it be the seeds of joy, mindfulness and understanding.
Contemplation, mindfulness meditation and prayer are forms of cultivating the seeds of peace. Reshaping and transforming our whole lives are next steps, including all of how we relate to others, remaking and transfiguring the social relationships which are the fabric of our civic society.
We need to enter the simple, dark void, the sheltered silence out of which comes power and change, dreams and visions made possible only in that mysterious empty space. We need to look long and hard through windows of our darkness, into the self, into the everything and the nothing within to touch the sources of our personal and political and planetary transformation.