Newtown Tragedy: Searching for Answers Between God and Guns

This is the picture I’ve seen many of my friends post (or repost from other sites) on Facebook.

Just when I was sitting down to hammer out this blog, my dad called. As I’ve come to both expect and enjoy, he wanted to talk about current events, focusing more on underlying issues and motivations than the bandages of easy-fixes. This time, he was curious to know my take on Friday’s shooting at Sandra Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  All of our disagreements aside–he is a charismatic Evangelical affiliated with Calvary Chapel–the conversation was as thoughtful as it was sincere and, on the whole, it proved (one again) that people with antithetical religious convictions can (and often do!) share similar moral foundations affording more space on the dance floor atop our collective moral mountain than it did slip for the slope.

If only as much could be said of the bulk of discussions across the nation…

Since learning of the shooting on Friday, I’ve watched as people have rushed to the ready with their partisan war drums and sectarian hobbyhorses in hand. Racing to rule out the more nuanced reflections necessary when considering complex conundrums, these people prefer the easy-outs afforded by their dualistic worldview where all things black and white are seen in terms of religious red and benevolent blue. Simple answers, all much less than a dime a dozen, are trotted out, tattered and torn from the public thrashings they’ve received from the abuse of misuse, rugged and ragged from the rough and tumble of clashes gone by.

Consider the knee-jerk reaction for more gun control. Quick on the heels of gun-associated tragedies, the anti-gun crowd condemns 2nd Amendment advocates and gun enthusiasts, blaming them for fostering (and even fueling) a gun-crazed America where bullets bloody the bodies of innocent students and shoppers. Don’t get me wrong here, I can connect the dots between guns and bullet holes, but I think territory such as this warrants a “Beware of Blowback” sign. Leaving aside the common (and somewhat persuasive) arguments against prohibition, and letting slide the problem with the prohibitionist’s persistent refusal to distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes, this would lay us bare to the unfortunate consequence of blowback. Worse than failing to recognize ultimate causes, we’d exacerbate them, adding otherwise patriotic people to the ranks of the ruled and the riled. It’s one thing, I suppose, to say the room must get messier before it gets cleaned up, but we aren’t talking about a room of otherwise inanimate objects; we’d have a house divided and a bloody mess, literally.

Another example of sordid solutions comes from the Religious Right. Within a mere matter of minutes after the shooting, my Facebook newsfeed was bombarded with religious memes taking advantage of the tragedy, conjuring up controversial church & state issues relating to the public school classroom. I had a number of memes to choose from but decided to go with one that seemed to get a lot of traffic.

“Dear God,” it reads, “why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Sincerely, a concerned student.” It’s an excellent question, no doubt, and one that deserves an answer. Tragically, the meme portrays God in such a way as to betray His ignorance of U.S. and state laws regarding prayer in the classroom and, in adding insult to injury, exploits the emotions of believers at the expense of doctrines they otherwise emphatically adhere to. God simply replies, “I’m not allowed in schools. God.”

For starters, God isn’t prohibited from public schools. From a strictly religious perspective, as an omniscient and omnipresent being, any ban on his presence would be… well… ineffective. But it really is simpler than that. Put straightforwardly, and focusing only on the legalities of the situation  what is banned is public sectarian prayer. Schools may allow for moments of silence, and children are allowed to pray at various points of the day, either quietly or aloud. After all, there are no secularist security officials making sure kids don’t pray over their food, and there aren’t (to my knowledge) any thought police able to invade the private closet of a student’s mind when praying before a test. Furthermore, schools often provide rooms on campus for bible clubs to meet, schools regularly fund baccalaureates wherein sectarian prayers and sermons are often featured, and schools allow for annual days of prayer around the flagpole. Once again, and leaving aside instances wherein the bible may be quoted by public school teachers, the only prohibition is on public sectarian prayers.

Admittedly, I’m grateful for such a prohibition. My wife and I have four children, and it’s likely that all four of them will attend public school. Currently, our eldest is in second grade, whereas our second child is in kindergarten. Unlike the majority of the people in the Wayland community, we aren’t religious, we don’t attend church, we don’t read the bible and we don’t pray. Were public sectarian prayer to be permitted in the classroom, my children would probably be afforded one of three options:

1. Stay in the class and participate in prayer.
2. Stay in the class and not participate in prayer.
3. Exit the class so as not to participate in prayer.

Whichever way the scenario goes, one thing remains certain: my children, whether they participate or not, will experience an unnecessary (and undue!) amount peer-pressure, possibly pitting them against their fellow-students and teachers, their parents, or both… and this on a daily basis. Most importantly, what may be said here of my children being raised in a non-religious home can be said of many children being raised in religious homes. After all, not every child residing in a religious home stands by the religious creed of his or her parent. (And to assume that violence on campuses occurs as a result of non-religious home life is well-wishing delusion, at best.) In any case, with what we know of the ultimate causes of violence on campus, a decision to further fuel in-group/out-group pressures with public sectarian prayer would be anything but advantageous and, as with the prohibitionist response, would incur its own brand of blowback.

But where does this leave us? What ought we to do? Admittedly, I don’t have an answer, at least not one that answers the problem in its entirety. I do, though, believe that certain answers–especially those swaddled in “black and white” or “red and blue”–are worse than non-answers; they’re fuel for the fire. Still, while I don’t put much stock in the quick-fixes of God & Guns, I think there’s plenty of room for targeting the shades of gray, maybe with some meditation and reflection on control and education, both of the public and of the self.

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