Maybe the most effective response is deeper than changing laws.
Americans seem to be reaching a critical point in our response to mass shootings. In the wake of the most recent tragedy—10 dead and 9 wounded at a community college in Oregon yesterday—President Obama rightly said that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” The outcry has reached a crescendo: “Let’s put the heat on our lawmakers, and finally institute the kinds of policies that will put an end to the madness.” Isn’t it obvious?
Well, sort of. If you listen to the debates, there are two main changes being proposed: stricter gun laws, and better mental health policies (or some combination of the two). No doubt, our country could use a sane, research-based, bipartisan discussion on both those issues. And if we improved our policies in both areas, it is possible we’d see fewer mass shootings. But I don’t think that gets at the heart of the problem.
Here is what I’ve noticed: almost every perpetrator of a mass shooting is described as a loner. Antisocial…disconnected…friendless. Yes, there is often a mental health issue involved as well. But at a very simple level, people who commit these crimes are profoundly lonely.
And that tells me that maybe the most powerful remedy to this mess is not anything politicians or lawmakers can do; it’s something regular people like us can do: we need to start relating to the disconnected people in our world the way Jesus did.
When you read the Gospels you see it over and over again. A woman whose notorious promiscuity excluded her from the social fabric of her village: Jesus met her by the community well, where she was all alone, and befriended her. A Jewish man who was despised because of his traitorous career as a Roman tax collector: Jesus requested the intimate fellowship of sharing a meal in his home. A woman whose chronic physical illness made her untouchable to her neighbors: Jesus gave her his time, touch, and attention. And Jesus’ habit of getting friendly with outcasts seems to have rubbed off on his brother James, whose letter directly challenges church leaders to stop showing favoritism and treat those on the fringes of society with respect.
What if we focused less on changing laws, and more on loving people?
Here’s one reason we don’t: in many cases, there’s a reason people avoid loners. They can be socially awkward, emotionally draining, and sometimes downright mean. It’s much more convenient to simply avoid them, and spend our time with more healthy people. It’s what most of us do. But Jesus was gripped by the conviction that every single person has profound dignity and value, and breaking through to the more difficult cases is worth the effort. Isn’t it time we tried his approach?
This week, I’m asking God to open my eyes to lonely people—people who, if left isolated, could one day be driven by their loneliness to commit desperate acts of violence. I’m praying for the Christ-like character to notice them, care about them, engage them in conversation, and look for ways to include them in my life. I’m praying that my church community will increasingly reflect Jesus in this way, and will be known as a place that includes people who are painfully accustomed to being excluded by the world.
Is it possible that mass shootings could be eliminated through something as simple as friendship? This morning, haunted by images of a devastated Oregon community, I’m thinking it’s worth a try.