When yesterday’s shooting happened, a scene from days before flashed before my eyes.
It was a conversation I’d had with a longtime progressive friend. This is a friend who’s lived here in Dallas his entire adult life, and who was a young man during the Kennedy assassination.
He said, somewhat offhandedly, “You know, Eric, after what happened here I’ve never been a fan of political assassination…but…”
He didn’t have to say anything else. I knew his politics. Everybody knows who the president is now. I understood the subtext.
I immediately said to him, “No, you don’t want that. That’s not funny. We should never want personal harm to come to our political leaders and government employees.”
He immediately backtracked, and said, “I know, I know…”
And I believe him. He’s a kind, decent, gentle guy. Pretty sure he doesn’t own guns, and very sure he doesn’t know any paid assassins.
But I flashed back to that brief encounter, as news broke yesterday of the shooting in Washington by a man who specifically asked if his victims were Republicans or Democrats.
The reality is that on the right and the left, we have become far too comfortable with hostile, violent, and homicidal rhetoric when it comes to describing our political enemies. We progressives were fond of pointing out this during Obama’s term in office. We were morally outraged over by lynched effigies of President Obama, hanging from trees.
But then, more recently some of us defended Kathy Griffith’s disturbing picture, with a fake severed head of President Trump. Multiple people I respect and admire defended what she did as “artistic expression.”
OK. So, when the store owner in Georgia hung an Obama effigy, was that acceptable artistic expression?
I don’t think so.
The old expression is SO true here today, “Just because you *can* say something, doesn’t mean you should.”
And “The Golden Rule,” a pillar of many of the world’s great religions, is in desperate need of renewed attention.
More about that in a moment…
Look, we can go back and forth all day about who is truly at fault….who is truly to blame for this corrosive atmosphere. And at the end of the day, we’d be nowhere. That “tit for tat” accounting of past wrongs would simply continue.
The reality of yesterday’s shooting is that we cannot blame the shooter’s political views as the main “motive” for what he did. Dylann Roof was a White man who wanted to kill black people. The Pulse shooter went after gay people. Here in Dallas, Micah Johnson wanted to kill cops. Specifically, White cops. Yesterday’s shooter wanted to kill Republicans.
The commonalities of these tragedies is not a specific political view. It’s deeper. And, sadly, they are commonalities I’ve been speaking to after every one of the tragedies I have just mentioned.
1. A culture that allows ready access to military-grade firearms.
2. A culture that fails to treat a serious problem with mental illness.
3. A culture of corrosive, angry rhetoric that dehumanizes and “Otherizes” political opponents.
I could, and probably should, speak to all three of these. I’m not going to do that. I’ll graze the first two, then push hard on the third.
Sandy Hooks convinced me there is almost no conceivable tragedy that will shake American free of its obsession with guns. That’s not to say it’s not a worthy fight. It is, and I will continue to fight it too. But the obsession with gun culture is so deep, that if dozens of dead kids won’t change your heart, I can’t fathom what will. And, no, I don’t see the shooting of a few Republican lawmakers as breaking open the issue anew. There will be more shootings. Count on it.
Nor do I really see a will to deal with mental illness. And, at the risk of offending friends, I will say what I’ve said after almost every shooting: I believe that, definitionally, to randomly shoot a group of people you do not know personally indicates some kind of mental illness in the heart of the shooter.
This is not to the same as saying “All people with mental illness can become mass murderers.” I myself have been diagnosed with depression in my life. I don’t believe I am at high risk of becoming a mass murderer.
But, and I’ll repeat this carefully so hopefully the truth can sink in…
If you randomly shoot a group of human beings you do now know —school children, gay folk, Black people, police officers, Republicans— that by definition indicates a kind of mental illness on your part. Killing another human being is incredibly hard for us in most cases. We have to train soldiers to do it. We train-out of them the deep-level prohibition within us all against killing. And some soldiers suffer for it the rest of their lives.
But, as with Commonality #1, I don’t see a real political will to confront the scourge of mental illness either. Again, not trying to be Debbie Downer here. I just don’t see that we have the genuine political will for it.
I must say that I am hearing a great deal about Commonality #3 during the past 24-hours.
I’m hearing a lot of handwringing from Washington about the “tone” and the “rhetoric” of our nation, and the dehumanization of political opponents. Republicans and Democrats are appearing together to talk about how we are “one nation,” and how much they suddenly realize they should work together.
Damn it, by gum, they’re gonna play that baseball game today.
Glad to hear it. Kum Ba Yah. Good for them. Hope it sticks.
Because they are right. And of the three commonalities of every modern American mass shooting, this commonality is the only one that we all, without encumbrance from anyone else, can change.
Each. Of. Us.
We can all make a difference here. And we should. I’m still cynical that we WILL change now. But, as I preacher, I feel compelled the make the case again.
I mean, this new enlightened view could have come to us after the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. Because the same dynamic was at play then. The corrosive political environment. The toxic social media. The dehumanizing of elected officials.
Or, a new enlightened view could have happened after Charleston. The random selection of African-Americans for assassination by a White man should have given us all pause about the racist rhetoric of our time. Yes, it is true that afterwards the Confederate flag disappeared from many places. But I can still see it on display today in the 1.5 hour drive to our lakehouse in East Texas.
A new enlightened view could have come to us after the Pulse shooting. Or, it could have happened after the Dallas shooting last year. Yesterday, I heard handwringing over Alexandria being “such a good neighborhood,” and how surreal it was to have the world’s gaze fixed on your town.
Yep. Been there. Done that. We said the same thing here a year ago. Yes, Alexandria, we feel your pain. We know how weird it is to have the entire world descend on the places where you work, worship, and live…it’s surreal.
A new enlightened view still needs to happen after the shooting of Jordan Edwards. The fact that a cop can just randomly shoot an African America boy leaving a party? Not acceptible. You can travel the street in front of yesterday’s shooting…all the way down to the banks of the Potomac. From there, you’ll be staring straight across the river at a Washington DC neighborhood where every Mothers and Fathers fears for the lives of their Jordan Edward’s aged boys every day. EVERY DAY, these parents live with a chronic low-level fear that the folks of Alexandria do not understand. (thank you to columnist Mike Barnacle for this point today…)
So, we’ve had plenty of chances to change our political rhetoric before. We’ve had plenty of chances to turn from seeing each other as enemies, to again seeing ourselves as “one America.”
But the corrosive rhetoric continues. And now, people on the right and left acknowledge we have a President who perhaps epitomizes it more than any other leader in modern time. Some people trace the corrosive rhetoric of our day to Donald Trump.
O Lord, no. Trump may be helping to unleash such rhetoric in new and horrendous ways. (“Moral Licensing”) Trump may have made it far worse. But he did not invent it.
My own sense is that American culture itself shaped and formed Donald Trump out of our own sickness, ego, narcissism and fear. We literally created and shaped him out of the worst parts of all of us, accumulated over forty or fifty years.
I’m captivated by the new TV show, “American Gods.” It portrays an America where new “gods” have been created by the beliefs of the people themselves. The gods of technology, media, and The World, to name three.
Donald Trump is like that. We, all of us, fashioned Donald Trump. He is not the antithesis of who we are, he is the penultimate example of our unacknowledged sicknesses. He is the symbol, the god, of this culture of angry rhetoric and the dehumanization of the “Other.”
That is why Republicans and Democrats alike detest him so.
So, what’s the answer? What do we do? Where do we go?
It starts with you. It always does.
It starts with taking a spiritual inventory of your own rhetoric and statements.
It starts with asking questions like this:
Can you defend to your own views, can you make your social/political points, without violent, angry rhetoric? Even comments made in jest or in the name of “art?”
Back to the Golden Rule. There’s a reason why it’s Golden, and why it’s been a rule for every major religion for thousands of years. Jesus’ version is:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Hillel’s version, from Jewish tradition, is perhaps even more helpful in the current environment:
“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow…”
Hillel said this was the entirety of the Torah. Everything else is “commentary.”
Choose words carefully. Don’t let anger lead you to dehumanize other people. You wouldn’t want them to do it to you, so don’t do it to them. And stop constantly pointing out the hypocrisy you see in others. Jesus once said all of us have a log-sized hypocrisy in our own eyes.
He was right. Do unto to others as you would have them do to you. Don’t do what you don’t want them to do to you.
As the spouse of an elected official, I personally don’t want to see a hung effigy of Obama, OR the fake severed head of Trump. Because I don’t want anybody doing that to my wife. (Trust me, even at the local level there are real threats that come to your elected officials that you never hear about…)
There are mentally ill folks out there who don’t see such things as “art.” They see them as permission.
Yes, I get that there are bigger systemic problems than what I’ve laid out here. Gerrymandered political districts are one. A big one.
Yes, so are news sources that are fake.
You might even argue that homogenous houses of faith are too. This last one is one I think and pray about a lot.
That is why I try to push our mostly progressive congregation to get out into the world and understand others better. That’s why we work with “Faith in Texas” so that we can listen to, and learn from, congregations who are much different from us. That’s why I personally do so much interfaith work…so that I can be challenged by colleagues and friends of other races and religions.
So, yes, there are systemic issue that make all of this problematic. Because our congressional districts, our news sources, even our houses of worship are so balkanized, it makes understanding the “Other” harder today, and it makes the Otherizing process even easier.
Every choice we make tends to sort us into categories of similar preference.
Democrat or Republican.
Fox News or MSNBC.
Costco or Sams.
Prius or SUV.
Urban or Rural.
Yes, I know, I know. Republicans drive Prius’ and Democrats shop at Sam’s. But, come on, you understand the point, right? Every choice we make today sorts us into one tribe or the other. I personally believe it’s a great flaw of our current political system (the Electoral College) that we are likely to permanently “sort” into opposites.
Far too often, we Otherize, we sort, those different from us. It’s trait that’s deep in our DNA. It kept our “tribes” safe, thousands of years ago. But we don’t need it nearly as much today as we use it. The dehumanizing affects of Otherizing can help lead the mentally ill to shoot total strangers. They pick up on the rhetoric. They internalize it. They move to action in ways the rest of us do not. Words matter.
That’s why Jesus talked so much about loving the stranger and praying for our enemies. That’s why the Hebrew Scriptures speak so much about treating the immigrant the same as the foreign born. Because the world’s great religions have within them, truths that push us to overcome our xenophobia and fear of the other.
WITHIN Christianity, there exists the challenging message that we should love the stranger and the enemy. As I understand it, this kernel exists within each major religion too. That means, as Jesus understood, that the main challenge is not to look across the green field and be jealous of those who are different from you. (The grass is always greener). Instead, it means the great spiritual challenge is speaking truth to your own people.
Jesus’ greatest spiritual challenge was to folks who considered themselves “faithful” and folks who should have been his friends. He spoke Truth to Power…and most forcefully to his own circle of influence. This is applicable to great many things today…
As a White man, I long ago learned the challenging truth that racism changes not because of the skill and rhetorical brilliance of minorities, but if and when Whites stand up to other Whites. The burden of healing the nation of racism in no way falls only on the shoulders of people of color. In fact, the most powerful change comes when Whites stand up to Whites.
It’s the same with homophobia. Recently, somebody I respect challenged our congregation to do more to change people’s views on the subject. Good Lord. We’ve been doing that for twenty years. Homophobia changes when accepting people (straight people) confront homophobic friends, not just because of the brilliance of the gay community and their allies.
Sexism is similar. It is reduced when men confront other men, and do not let the private “jokes” pass. When, especially in the company of other men, they push back against “locker room talk” in all of its forms….when publicly and privately men treat women as equals and with respect.
This pushing back against our OWN communities…holding our own communities accountable to The Golden Rule…is perhaps the single greatest thing each of us can individually do.
Republicans to Republicans.
Democrats to Democrats.
Christians to Christians.
Muslims to Muslims.
Whites to Whites.
On and on as far as you want to go…
By this measure, one of the greatest political moments in modern time was when John McCain called President Obama “a good person,” and rejected the idea that he was a secret Muslim.
Yes, he paid for that. And you’ll pay for it too, when you confront your friends and your family on the Right or the Left. But it’s the only way things change.
So, when my friend the other day joked about the assassination of President Trump?
That’s not a funny thing. Even in jest. And I told him so.
Do the same, as you have chance.
If you are a person of faith, understand that one of the greatest callings of your faith is to push back against the extremists within your own community….because religion can always be used as a rationalization to become even more hate-filled.
Guess what? So can politics.
So, we have a lot of work to do.
You can’t do anything about guns today, even though we should.
You can’t solve mental illness today, even though we should.
But you can look inward every day, and seek to follow whatever form of The Golden Rule speaks to your heart. among those God gives you the opportunity to encounter.
And you should.