I want to make sense out of the shooting at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. We want to make sense out of the things that shock us or disgust us or frighten us. We want to be able to explain the horror simply and clearly so we can “fix” it by identifying a culprit. Looking at media responses to this tragedy, as well as so many recent shootings, it appears we also look for the cause, the guilt, the explanation, to lie outside of ourselves. It’s easy to demonize a person, or an “ism.” It’s harder, much harder, to do the self-examination that sees the culpability within ourselves, our culture, our own values and beliefs.
One of the reasons I enjoy watching Criminal Minds (besides my undying infatuation with Derek Morgan and Spencer Reed) is that even in the face of despicable and horrific violence and crime, there is an underlying, usually compassionate, psychological explanation to the serial murders. This feeds my own desire for order in both compassion for the perpetrator and an explanation for the violence.
And so, when the shooting took place in South Carolina this week, my immediate reaction focused on the psychological and spiritual state of the shooter. In discussing the event with pastors and elders over dinner last night, I found myself practically defending the shooter by speculating on the level of hurt, pain and anger he must have been experiencing. I met young men who burned down churches while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education at a medium security prison in Kentucky; I know how painful their lives were. I know young men who espouse hateful comments about women and muslims and blacks and gays on social media, and I know how frustratingly hurtful their lives have been. So, this explanation seemed … compassionately Christian … to me. Last night I felt grief-stricken and sad, but not culpable.
In 1998, however, when I watched the news of the Middle School shooting near Jonesboro, AR, I felt responsible. I remember the deep remorse that welled up inside me and the tears of confession that poured out of me … for myself and for our society … a culture that could give birth to the kind of thinking that would lead to the mass killing of middle school students by fellow students. Since then, there’s been Columbine, Sandy Hook, and countless other shootings and bombings in schools and churches and universities and movie theaters and offices. And my remorse has shifted to sadness. My confession has shifted to explanation.
Of course the explanation for the shooting at Emmanuel AME is both complex and unknowable. What drove the 21-year-old gunman to shoot ten people after reading and studying scripture together is, at one level, only in the mind and heart of that young man. On another level, though, we can examine ourselves and our culture to identify ways in which we have been participants in the brokenness, in the darkness, in the hate, in the complacency … in the sin that has led us to this place.
When we make excuses like “he was mentally unstable” or “he was broken,” we ignore not only the part we play in the brokenness, but a key to healing and change. In this article in Salon, “It’s Not About Mental Illness,” Arthur Chu argues against using mental illness as an excuse for this kind of violence, saying:
Well, “mental illness” never created any idea, motivation or belief system. “Mental illness” refers to the way our minds can distort the ideas we get from the world, but the ideas still come from somewhere.
We can no longer make excuses or seek simple explanations outside or ourselves for tragedies like this. There have been too many occurrences for them to be lone, isolated, and individual events. President Obama acknowledged this fact in his comments after the shooting:
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and for healing.
But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
(as quoted in Sojourners)
As the Church, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a clear, prophetic call to repentance. We have a responsibility to initiate and encourage conversation and dialogue on all the issues the shooting in Charleston raises into our consciousness: hate, racism, gun violence, and more. We also have the responsibility to look at ourselves, our own individual actions and inactions that contribute to our cultural brokenness. And, finally, we need to assure each other that we CAN do the hard work of honestly evaluating how our values and our ways of being contribute to the violence, because we have hope and assurance of forgiveness and of a better and more faithful way in Christ. The president said, “… it is in our power to do something about it.” For those of us who know Jesus Christ, we know that even if it seems impossible for humans in Christ all things are possible.