The Crisis in Connecticut: Guns or Sons?

A couple of volunteer firefighters place flowers at a makeshift memorial at a sign for the Sandy Hook Elementary school, Satu
A couple of volunteer firefighters place flowers at a makeshift memorial at a sign for the Sandy Hook Elementary school, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 in Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Teaser: Are guns "Public Enemy #1" or is it something in the soul that chooses to misuse them?

The tragic shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, adds yet another event to a growing slate of shootings in this country. It is yet too early to know much of the perpetrators involved in this horrendous act, but it is becoming an all-too-familiar narrative in the land of the free. As President Obama said in his remarks: "As a country, we have been through this too many times. ...And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

Five too-short months ago, the "movie massacre" in Aurora, Colorado, now known as the worst of its kind in American history not only caused presidential candidates and their political machines to calm their rhetoric and take pause (at least for the moment), it stunned parents, leaders and pastors alike. Sobering questions emerged, including: What is it about society that breeds such violent behavior? Is the source problem a gun or something within the souls of those who misuse them?

While many will blame it on gun control laws, the more pressing question is what we can do to better "influence" the souls that may eventually use them. While extrinsic safeguards and factors have their value, intrinsic ones, have all the more. On Meet The Press earlier this year, New York Times political and cultural commentator David Brooks was asked by host David Gregory if the Colorado shootings may cause "some kind of national moment" to occur. Brook's response framed the issue clearly and poignantly. He said: "The theme of the show so far has been 'do we focus on guns or do we focus on the person.' ... I personally think the focus should be on the person. There are 250 million guns in this country. If someone wants to get their hands on a gun they are going to be able to. But we also have this situation where we have a lot of 20-year-olds who are living in their under-institutionalized world, lonely -- with not a lot of people dealing with them. At the same time a tremendous hunger for fame and you see the rise of these spectacle killings. I would like to see a debate about that."

Brooks noted two vital factors contributing to a more violence-obsessed society: first, an "under-institutionalized world" that is leaving too many young people "lonely" and, second, "a tremendous hunger for fame." After years of working with teenagers and young adults as a pastor, and now as a university professor, these observations strike a truth chord, but also point to another, and third, "factor."

The breakdown of social structures (foremost of which is the nuclear family) and the build-up of technologies focused on accentuating the individual (i.e., YouTube and iPhone) are creating a dangerous new "dynamic duo," a lethal combination of an under-emphasized social experience and an over-emphasized individual one. We now have fewer social "places" for creating and experiencing authentic community, for navigating and dealing with interpersonal conflict and more and more ways to accentuate our individuality in increasingly psycho-isolated "spaces." There is something inherently unhealthy, if not inhumane, about an all-too-virtual lifestyle. We are creating less-social and more selfish souls, machines of sorts, people who are increasingly more isolated, lonely and socially inept. And I would add another factor to Brook's list: We not only have come to consume gratuitous violence as "entertainment," we are now creating a thousand ways to play-act at it via first-person shooter video games of virtual wars, gangland murders and car thefts.

Our new "under-institutionalized world" is indicative of one that has become more connected individually by technologies but much less connected socially because of the breakdown of our foundational social-based institutions. In an interview, President Bill Clinton said he fears that despite the numerous advantages of technologies we may be losing our experience of interpersonal or social "presence."

One organization, as an example, that we depended upon as a socializing gateway for boys for years is The Boy Scouts of America. Now, it is in a steep decline with only half the enrollment it enjoyed in 1972. And, what has replaced the time formally spent in these types of organizations that focused on nurturing skill and character development within a social setting? That is quite clear -- videos, technologies, virtual friendships, and video games the most popular of which, ironically, are highly-weaponized.

Brook's second factor leads us to ask what has brought about such "a tremendous hunger for fame" within young souls. Researchers of generational trends universally agree that Millennials carry a strong sense of entitlement from their adolescence. They, after all, were weaned on countless Disney movies and celebrities built upon the notion of "when you wish upon a star, your dreams will come true." Match high expectations of entitlement, however, and hard realities of a recession and you get disillusionment in varying forms and intensities.

Ironically, young adults' disillusionments come from more than a failing American economy and job market; they also have something to do with their need for authentic "heroes." No, I'm not speaking about Batman or Spiderman, but real meaningful and substantive mentors. There is a vital place that elders have played in the lives of churches, communities and families over the years. Unfortunately, we have lost much of that. It must be recaptured. For people of faith there has always been a social/spiritual narrative that includes stories of the heroes of faith, stories about Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Esther, Ruth and more. Our restless souls still need real heroes who lived in a real world, endured, overcame and exhibited real faith in a real God.

Not too long ago, I met with a cross section of four key generations in a church I pastored in New England and asked them about their heroes. The room was full of people from 18 to 82. As I asked several questions of them, perhaps none more important than this one: "Who were the heroes of your generation?"

The oldest couples' answer was definitive: "Oh, our heroes were FDR and Eisenhower."

The Baby Boomers said: "That's easy -- John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr."

It was the young adults' answer that caught me by surprise. One of them shook her head and spoke up quickly and articulately: "Our generation doesn't really have any real heroes. All our 'heroes' are celebrities and sports figures and ... and, we really don't expect them to have integrity."

Tragically, today's "heroes" don't come from the Old Testament or the New, but from celebrity sites and the lenses of paparazzi. But, celebrities are not worthy heroes. Nowhere close. Mere fame or renown is no validation of a person deserving emulation. Fame does not a hero make; rather, heroism is something born of character and integrity. While mythical characters intrigue the mind, moral heroes compel the soul and shape character.

Hollywood puts hundreds of millions into creating virtual characters for the big screen; let's put our best efforts into our next generation and cultivating the kind of character and faith within our own lives that will compel them to do more than buy a ticket to a movie, but rather give their best to a worthy cause. The Bible asks, "Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord" and then it answers "the one who keeps his promises even when it hurts" (Ps. 15:1b, 4c).

The Connecticut crisis and the Aurora tragedy both beg us to keep a watch on our weapons in this country and an even closer watch on our character. Our challenge is more about our sons than our guns.