Editorial: Mass Shootings and Religion

Sitting in the deep sadness that drapes our national soul when we experience another mass shooting (307 this year)**, we once again hear the cries and calls from a nation whose voices are hoarse from repetition, whose eyes are red with tears, and whose spirits are weary in the renunciation of evil. And as before, we hear the deep laments for the loss of life, and the accompanying pleas for better mental health and gun-control laws.

All this is as it should be. We must be for anything which reduces the likelihood of future acts of violence. But with every good effort, I find my soul still troubled. Another question haunts me, “What role has religion played in this?” I wrestle with even forcing myself to ask it, and I realize the question lacks a means for arriving at any measurable response. Nevertheless, the question persists. Two thoughts guide my meditation, leading me to think that religion is also culpable in creating the whirlwind of our dismay…

First, the growing perception that institutional religion is unnecessarily negative, mean-spirited, and toxic. These impressions have generated the none/done phenomenon, and it means that the role of conscience-making traditionally ascribed to religion (and also to home and school) has declined. Fewer persons are involved in formative religious communities where they have an opportunity to learn the life of love, which is the core teaching of all religions.

This leaves a growing number of people to be loners in the world of value shaping, left to their own minds to figure things out as they go along, or to be influenced by peer groups who are similarly adrift. To the extent that religion turns people away, it plays a deformative role in society with respect to the development of ethics in new generations.

Second, the rise of religious fundamentalism, which fuels the fear of and anger toward designated less-than others, and practices discrimination against them based on notions of superiority. Richard Rohr nails it as he reminds us that once we define others as less than, our minds find ways to justify what we say about them and do to them after that.

Sadly, we find ourselves in a time when religious fundamentalism contributes to a partisan mindset in our nation, one which widens the gap between our differences and exacerbates the vitriol of our divisiveness. This is harder to see when the supremacist mindset couches its ideology in a religious freedom context, and in the Christian church in a pure-church mentality. Retribution language seeds the mind and purgative/punitive actions are alleged to be of God.

Violence inevitably erupts in a culture where people are taught to view themselves as victims.  And when religion causes its adherents to believe they are religiously persecuted by whatever and whomever, the stage is set for anger to act itself out in harmful and murderous ways.

And so, I find myself unable to shake off the feeling that religion is a factor in what we are experiencing today–false religion, that is. Through it, we have sown the wind, and we are now reaping the whirlwind. Nothing could be sadder than for religion to be a co-conspirator in the fostering of attitudes and actions that debase us as a human family and degrade us as a nation.

Sitting at the gate of national tragedy, we must lament. And in biblical context, this means the repentance of our sin, and the simultaneous nonviolent resistance to any and all ways religion has played, and continues to play, in the cultivation of a world view that disposes our hearts toward evil.

**Statistics from the Gun Violence Archive website, which compiles data from across the nation to provide up-to-date statistics. They use the accepted definition of a mass shooting (when 4 or more people are wounded or killed) to document 307 of them in 2018, as of the Thousand Oaks tragedy.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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