Six reasons mass shootings make me wish I was still religious
After the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas murdered 26 people last November, veteran writer Solomon Jones penned a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer with one of the most heartless arguments I’ve read over the last year (which is saying something).
“People of faith feel particular pain from hateful violence,” the headline reads.
Jones said that the Sutherland Springs killer committed “the vilest of sins,” because “he lashed out against the people of God, and did so during a time of worship. He sinned with a reckless disregard for the fact that he stood on holy ground.”
“When we are confronted by the kind of hate that would make a man walk into a church and start shooting, confusion lingers just beneath our faith,” Jones wrote. “Anger tries to smother our beliefs. Doubts rise to challenge our convictions.”
Against such abject terror, it must be hard to maintain your faith that the providence of a just deity operates to benefit us, and maybe that’s why Jones thinks mass shootings are easier to bear for secular people than they are for religious people.
But his column’s repeated invocation of deadly crimes on “holy ground,” i.e., in churches, as in the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina shooting; or the 1963 Klan-member bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; I see another implication. It is that people who are members of a faith, or who are in the act of practicing their faith, are more worthy than other people. That their deaths by gunfire are more tragic than secular people’s.
That shooting people at a church is inherently worse than shooting them at a theater, or a nightclub, or a concert, or an army base, or a school.
I’m not sure if Jones means to single out Christians, since all of his examples are of Christian worshipers. Either way, why does this self-professed person of faith promote this hierarchy of victims, instead of mourning every human loss equally for its own sake? I’m glad I’ve escaped personal practice of the faith I grew up in (though I still participate in loved ones’ community-based religious rituals, like weddings and funerals).
The first major domestic terrorism event I remember was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. I was 12, and images from newspapers at the time are still seared in my mind. Home alone one afternoon, I crumpled up and wept. More than twenty years later, after I read the news about the Pulse Nightclub shooting on the subway, I was so blinded by sadness that I got lost on the three blocks between the station and my house. I can tell you that losing your religious faith does not make terrorism easier to cope with, and it galls me that Solomon Jones claimed otherwise in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But after the latest round of American terrorism wrought by an easily purchased AR-15, I’ve watched the pro-gun reactions range from people who try to divert discussions on sensible legislation by arguing about abortion; to people who claim to think that because the law will never prevent all gun deaths, we can’t implement any laws that could prevent some of them; to people who somehow believe that owning a semi-automatic rifle will preserve them if the government runs totally amok. And I’ve had a strange feeling.
I envy Solomon Jones. I miss being religious. I can think of six reasons why. They may not be tasteful, but they’re honest.
1) I wish there really was a shorthand for morality. Religion pretends to be one, often cloaking people who argue for the dankest discrimination and danger. Politicians in particular use religious language and rituals to signal a commitment to morality, amity, and the greater good of the masses. But many of them gratefully gulp boatloads of cash from society’s wealthiest, most powerful stakeholders, in exchange for blocking policies that would boost their own constituents’ safety and survival.
And I find public expressions of faith from liberal leaders serving in some official capacity just as galling as similar expressions from conservative ones, especially in the absence of meaningful work on either side. Professions of faith do not correspond to morality, action, or effective policy, but if I thought they did, I might feel better.
2) I wish I thought prayers made a difference. Hey, some of my best friends are religious! When I’m going through tough times, they tell me they’re praying for me, and I appreciate the sincere care they demonstrate for me in the practice of their own lives. But what if I was having, for example, a medical crisis, and the same people who said they were praying for me were also lobbying my doctor to stop treating my illness?
Someone told me that he bought a gun because he didn’t like the way American society was headed. I wish fighting the social tides you fear was as easy as getting your hands on a weapon. If you don’t like the way society is going, whether or you not decide to equip yourself with a firearm, you could start volunteering for or donating to a cause you believe in, calling your legislators, adding your body to protests that matter to you, staying informed from responsible sources, and at the very least, voting. But especially in America, buying a gun is probably easier than doing many of these things. Just like saying a prayer is much easier than actually being accountable to the people whose lives your laws should protect.
But if I believed those prayers pointed to genuine care and a viable way forward, I might not feel so angry.
3) I wish I believed the world had some kind of greater providence in it. This really extends beyond American gun violence. From North Korea to Syria to South Sudan to Venezuela to America’s own towns, some of us are starved, bombed, oppressed, tortured, and killed while some of us order sushi, binge Netflix, and pretend our dogs run their own Instagram accounts.
As a child, I learned that there is always an overarching order and spiritual providence at work in the world, even in the gravest suffering. And people are always saying some variation of “God never gives you more than you can handle.”
Especially if it’s other people, and not you, who are staring down death, this is pretty damn comforting. Maybe it even convinces some people that it’s not necessary to take action themselves, since God has everything in hand. Even though I can’t incorporate religious faith back into my life, sometimes I miss the feeling it gave me—kind of like being occasionally nostalgic for the days when our parents took care of everything (or at least we believed they could).
4) I wish I believed in supernatural retribution. “God will deal with him,” Jones wrote, with righteous certainty, of the Sutherland Springs killer. And maybe it helps us cope when we think of these shooters facing some kind of hellish afterlife. I personally believe people convicted of crimes like this should never be allowed to re-enter society, but I also believe that the road to crimes like this is probably itself full of unspeakable pain for the perpetrator—maybe from serious psychiatric or social problems (though of course, most people with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, instead of perpetrators), or trauma or neglect, or something many of us don’t understand. Though I do want an appropriate response from the justice system to everyone who intentionally shoots an innocent person, and support for the victims and their families, I take little comfort in picturing the perpetrator in some version of hell.
But what about politicians who resist even moderate measures to reduce some of the violence, in return for campaign money and gun lobby ratings? What about pundits who argue that it is an ineluctably American right to own semi-automatic, high-capacity military-style rifles for the purpose of overthrowing the government, and that people who die when those weapons get into the wrong hands are necessary sacrifices to an American ideal? Or even just someone who opines that we debate gun policy after major shootings simply to annoy law-abiding gun owners, and not because we want to prevent mass murder?
I wish I had a notion that some force beyond our ken (God, karma, or whatever you want) would deal with these people. But I know the best we can probably hope for is that eventually their advertising dollars dry up.
5) I wish we could collectively blame some kind of supernatural evil for these shootings. I grew up in a faith with teachings about life after death that are so specific they’re spooky. Hell—they’re straight-up hallucinogenic. There were clear notions of angelic and demonic forces around us all the time, in the form of good or bad spirits who came from heaven or hell to influence us. Even as children, we learned to guard against invisible “evil spirits” who loved it when we were nasty.
It might be comforting to believe that a killer like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter was under some supernatural evil influence, whatever you want to call it.
And speaking of denial and irrationality, for a lot of people who might have historically blamed atrocious acts on the evil influence of another realm, I think some concept of “mental illness” has started to replace spiritual denunciations. And certainly, in some faiths, including the one I grew up in, implicit or explicit connections between evil forces and mental illness persist.
(On a side note, it’s amazing to me that many of the same politicians who seem to be working full-time to erode healthcare access, including the removal of mental healthcare services from the definition of essential healthcare, can’t stop talking about our need for better mental healthcare whenever a mass shooting happens.)
However, instead of blaming mental illness or malign spiritual forces, a great number of people perhaps unintentionally blame the children and teens who are the victims of these shootings. How is that? The “Walk Up, Not Out” campaign, which has gained a lot of traction on social media, posits that instead of staging school walk-outs in protest of legislatures who refuse to address gun violence, students should be friendlier towards their peers, presumably to make sure no-one gets lonely, angry, or alienated enough to buy a semi-automatic rifle and bring it school.
Walk-outs and kindness are not mutually exclusive. I am a hearty supporter of everyday kindnesses, at any age, as well as First Amendment rights. But it’s impossible to read advice like this and not infer the underlying messages to America’s increasingly traumatized youth: You or your friends could be murdered by a school gunman if you aren’t friendly enough, and students like you could have prevented past killings by sitting down next to a solitary kid in the cafeteria. (Not to mention the unintended side effect of perhaps making kids think that an everyday loner is, in fact, a potential shooter.)
Apparently, we aren’t going to address the systemic legislative aversion to common sense about firearms. So blaming mass shootings on mental illness, or the devil, doesn't bother me as much as urging individual children to prevent the next shooting by being a little nicer.
6) I wish I could genuinely appeal to people for sensible gun policy on religious grounds. After the Parkland shooting, I watched a furious live-streamed rally in Tallahassee, including students, teachers, a PTA leader, and then a rabbi and a pastor. The religious leaders said it was time for sensible gun laws because gun violence separates us from God. God is unhappy with this carnage. If we can reduce the number of available guns and stem the violence, we will be closer to God. Wild cheers greeted these statements. That’s when I had to turn it off.
In America at least, people of faith seem to have considerable overlap with the people devoted to the principle of unregulated guns. If I could sincerely argue with people of faith that unfettered gun access isn’t just bad because you and your neighbors and friends and family are in danger, but because God frowns on it, would I stop feeling like nothing we could say or do will ever make a difference, while we wait for news of the next mass shooting? And the next? And the next? And the next?
If we can’t improve our policy around firearms for other people’s sake, would we do it for the sake of God’s displeasure?
But if I’m being honest with myself, however these vestiges of religiosity tempt me when I’m grieving over violence, I know they’re not the answer.
“Perhaps now, when the dust settles from this latest attack on the people of God, we can finally do something about guns,” Jones wrote in 2017.
But since that attack, it sounds like we weren’t compelled to change a thing. And however badly I want the comfort of my mind’s godly childhood grooves, casting gun violence through the lens of faith—to grapple with the pain of it, or to find a solution—isn’t helping.