Quite awhile back now I wrote about what I called the elephant of anger and violence we rarely if ever speak of from our Christian church pulpits. Since that time there’s been another mass shooting that killed 9 or 10 in Oregon, and I’d like to add a postscript. It is, after all, a big elephant in our room and I barely covered the tip of his trunk earlier. In all fairness, this big elephant is also joined with the earlier one I named mental illness and addiction. One may be the front half and the other the back, but this whole elephant may need to be talked about one bite at a time.
So what should we even say about this mega elephant of mental illness, addiction, anger, and violence now stuffed into our living room? For my part, I’ll start with the most recent school shootings in Oregon. Here there’s already plenty of talk going around, most of it of a blaming and divisive nature. If this latest episode is typical of all the others, the talk of this elephant will in coming weeks or even days die off, poor pun intended, and be forgotten. Until the next shooting triggers, an even poorer pun intended, our very same old divisive conversation.
While this elephant is still in the room, still in the news, here’s my own attempt to at least reframe the conversation in what may be a less divisive manner. And I’ll begin with this statement: America has a gun violence problem that is more about people than about guns. It’s true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But why do people in America kill thousands of other Americans by guns each year, aside from the obvious “because they can?” And then how can we best reduce America’s gun violence in the future?
Back in 1920, the US Congress passed the Prohibition Act banning the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol itself was thought to be a huge problem in our land. We changed our minds in 1932 and repealed that Act, having learned that we didn’t have an alcohol problem so much as an alcoholism or addiction problem, which led people to commit crimes in service to their addictions. Failing to learn from the mistake of alcohol’s prohibition, our President back in 1971 declared a “War on Drugs” that continues to this day to be a huge and highly expensive failure. We have yet to ever declare war on addiction itself, and so our addicts continue coming out of the proverbial woodwork to commit crimes both non-violent and violent in service to addictive illness. In any case, the problem to solve is not the drugs but the people who abuse them. The same is true of our problem involving gun violence and because of the same dynamics of addictive illness.
Okay, bear with me here while I try to connect a few dots here.
For people affected by, say, alcohol and drug addiction, and I don’t mean just those who’ve been victimized by drunk drivers and the like, you will know that addiction affects not just individuals but families, communities, even larger social networks. The harmful consequences of addiction cast a broad shadow well beyond the addict himself or herself. Yet, there’s always a temptation to blame or isolate only the addict as being “the problem.” Those who, for example, drink responsibly blame only the drunks who do not. Alcohol manufacturers and their retail representatives blame those who fail to drink responsibly. Commercial ads encourage safe consumption, if only to clear everyone’s collective conscience. Meanwhile, towns like Mayberry blame Otis Campbell or the occasional moonshiner (wink, wink).
And the addiction problem goes on.
Addicts and their families use the defense of denial and rationalization. They maintain secrecy at all costs. Actually, they blame each other but not openly so. They expect outsiders to mind their own business. They feel nagged and misunderstood, and then become even more defensive and defiant. In reality, however, it is not just the addict that is sick but rather the whole family. Where families are clustered in more isolated communities such as Indian reservations, we too often find the whole community gets sick. Addiction is both a mental and social illness, not to mention a spiritual disease. So the beat goes on. And on and on and on.
Are you with me so far?
So how do I connect the dots of mental illness and addiction with those of anger and violence especially having to do with gun violence when clearly guns themselves, like alcohol and other drugs, are not the real problem?
Here’s my belief: America is culturally addicted to guns.
We are like a big alcoholic family. We are in denial. We rationalize that we are normal, but we are not. Other nations do not have our problem. We wish they’d mind their own business and address their own faults. We have our bad hangovers after each episode of gun violence in the news. So we do what addicts do best: we blame others and make excuses why we can’t quit now. “Maybe after the next election and a different party gets to run the White House.” “Maybe after we get rid of the illegal immigrants.” “Maybe if we lock up all the bad guys or get them all into mental hospitals where they belong.” “Maybe then we won’t need so many guns. Maybe then we can cut back. But not now! Not yet!!!” Notice how other people are always to blame for our addiction. Oh, that’s right: what addiction? After all, it’s legal. Even Constitutional. And since nine out of ten gun owners are just fine and pose no danger to anyone…. hey, stuff happens. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers and retailers and trade associations promote more sales with fewer regulations for the sake of higher profits for their investors who then pay their CEO’s. What could possibly go wrong?
I realize this is a very different way of framing our problem in America. Many folks won’t agree with me. Some won’t understand addiction to be an illness. Others won’t understand what I mean by social or family disease. Some may even fear I still have prohibition in mind as a solution. I don’t. But if anyone cares to accept this re-framing of our national problem with gun violence, I hope you’ll join me in seeing our problem as at least now being treatable and recovery now possible. But how?
How it won’t happen is any kind of international tough-love “intervention” involving the other nations that think we’re crazy and need help. Sorry, Australia. Ain’t gonna happen that way.
Rather, when we are finally sick and tired of being sick and tired, when we hit bottom and our nation’s harmful consequences from gun violence have caused us to lose far more than just a few school rooms full of kids, a few thousand returning war vets by means of gun suicide, a bunch of other family members by accident, etc……….when we reach whatever bottom we have yet to reach………then we can do a 12-step program as a nation. We can enter our own program together as follows:
1. We admit we are powerless over guns – that our nation has become unmanageable.
2. We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
3. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admit to the God of our understanding, to ourselves and to another nation the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. We make a list of all nations we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. We make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. We continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong we promptly admit it.
11. We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to other nations with their own addictions and to practice these principles in all our national AND international affairs.
Will this type of program work for everyone? No. Many Americans have become so sick from our national addictions (we actually have many of them beside guns) that they have turned away from any belief in any Higher Power at all. Many more will still deny that we have any kind of gun addiction. Most will not attend any meetings, read from any book, work any program. Nor will most Americans abstain in any sense of the term. Rather, our sobriety will be measured in what today’s addiction professionals call “harm reduction.” Gun violence, like food and obesity (another of our elephant-like American addictions rarely if ever talked about from the pulpit), does not lend itself to total abstinence. Yet, it remains an obvious health issue with an increasingly high mortality rate. And if, the big IF, enough of us were to then work this program TOGETHER as I’ve proposed, I have little doubt it could actually work for our much-needed recovery. “However, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, pray, search for me, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear [their prayer] from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their country.” 2 Chronicles 7:14, GOD’S WORD translation