"This was not a typical mass shooting day," he said. The words struck my heart as the newscaster described the variation in what had become a ritual in his reporting. It was early Thursday morning, the day after the deadly attack in San Bernardino. "Only a couple of other times among the 160 mass murders in the past few years has it been more than a solitary shooter." The newscaster was describing his Wednesday and what his Thursday would no doubt be. These days had come to be typical--normal. The only thing new was the number.
I, too, had a typical day ahead, of teaching. As a professor at a Lutheran Seminary, I lead class conversation on the belief systems of a particular Christian denomination in our pluralistic culture. A could advise students to turn the TV off so they have time to study. However, they need to read not only Scripture but also the daily news.
By evening, we learned through the news, whether by television, computer or other electronic device, that there were two shooters, not three, and they were Muslim. They had a whole arsenal of guns. How and where had this U.S.-born man been radicalized? Was this a work-place grievance or an act of terrorism or a blend?
After each mass shooting, neighbors' responses to reporters' questions routinely are, "I can't believe it could happen in a neighborhood (town) (country) like ours." This time, a San Bernardino woman interviewed said she didn't feel safe at all, adding, "I don't know, I just don' know . . ." Her certainty had been shaken. But lest ours be as well, the program switched quickly to an ad showing a family on a pleasant beach around a bonfire. The father said, "My parents worked hard so we could enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and now I'm doing the same thing for my family." An insurance company would "help you protect what you love and grow your future."
A feel-good, "God-loves-us-best" "American Dream Christianity" is not and dare not be the national religion of the United States. However, we do have a history of a civil religion, being a "chosen people" in a "promised land" and "American Exceptionalism." It has its own Holy Days, Shrines, Holy Writ, Hymns, Symbols, Saints and Martyrs, Priests, Pastors and Prophets, its Rituals, Gods, Creeds and Mission. The USA has not so much felt it needed a Redeemer as to be a Redeemer--a leader--nation to the world. Repentance was missing from the myth of origin; also missing were the true stories of all, particularly African slaves and the more than 550 distinct Native American tribes already here when America was "discovered."
With a belief system of exceptionalism and being God's special chosen people, it is not strange that people deny that "we" could be capable of violence, and that "our kind" would intentionally kill. We are not "monsters" or "savages." "Those people" are. And so we fear, while we add to our typical week the ritual of watching another shooting, seeing the chase scene, creating a shrine of candles and flowers, holding a public memorial service with holy writ and hymns. Pastors of all types, including community leaders care for the grieving. And we add to the number of martyrs, hundreds (thousands more killed by guns in all kinds of incidents). Mass shootings do not fit the belief system about ourselves. Will we continue to blame the stranger and the "other"?
Watch how we talk about the victims. After the Planned Parenthood clinic shooting in Colorado, we heard "body parts," "anti-Obama," and "abortion industry," even though the two victims were not at the clinic having an abortion. We rightly heard the story of the heroism and family of the policeman killed. Absent were human-interest stories of the two other victims, for days referred to merely as "civilians." Understandably there are privacy concerns and privacy laws for medical patients. But one received the impression those who go to Planned Parenthood for any reason, and are killed, are not only victims but villains, particularly because following the Colorado shootings, Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Obviously there was no parallel vote to defund county health departments. If people who serve at or need the medical services of Planned Parenthood are constantly under threat of violence and nearly ½ the county health services people attending a holiday party were killed or injured, as Harry Reid said on the floor of the Senate, "If we do not act we will be complicit in our inaction." (Huffington Post Dec. 3)
When violence becomes typical, what do we believe? We need to add to our ritual of grief and communal care a mission of being change-agents in a country in great need.