February 14, 2018 should have been a pleasant oddity. Ash Wednesday (a day to reflect on one’s mortality and to begin a season of fasting, self-examination, and soul-searching) occurred on the same day as Valentine’s Day (when we celebrate romantic love).
In the midst of this blend of somber reflection and joyous celebration, the news gave us reason for national self-examination: A young man entered his former high school in Parkland, FL and murdered 17 people. Every few months, Americans try to wrap our heads around another mass murder. We grieve yet another shooting at a school. In the words of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again” as a sickening cycle continues. A mass shooting shocks, grieves, and angers us. Liberals say stricter gun-control laws would have kept the killer from getting weapons. Conservatives say that gun control will not solve the problem and innocent civilians need to be able to protect themselves. Arguments break out on social media and elsewhere. Politicians make pious and profound statements. But then, nothing happens, life returns to normal, and we find something new and trivial to obsess about, until it happens again.
Perhaps it is fitting that this shooting occurred on that odd date. America (especially American Christians) can use it as an opportunity for serious self-examination and soul-searching. American Christians can consider how Jesus’ great commandments—to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself—impact this issue.
Let me state from the beginning that I am not offering hard-and-fast solutions below. Much of what follows is merely food for thought. I am asking questions. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, ideas, additional questions, etc., in the comments section at the bottom of this post. (Please keep it civil: If you want to defend your Second Amendment rights, please prove that you can exercise your First Amendment rights in a mature, responsible manner! While conflicting viewpoints are welcome, comments that are vulgar, hostile, or rude will be blocked.)
As an American with conservative political leanings, I believe our nation should adhere to its Constitution. However, as a Christian, I believe the teachings of Jesus Christ must take precedence over any political party’s platform or governmental document. As a grandfather with two grandsons in elementary school, a granddaughter who will soon enter kindergarten, and a wife who works in a school setting, I find myself asking “What if this happened at one of their schools?” I can no longer defend unproven hypotheses, Facebook memes, and clichés if evidence and reason finds them lacking.
So, here are just a few thoughts on this subject:
Our society as a whole is not getting more violent, but there are more mass murders. From the mid-1960s until 1980, the homicide rate in the USA gradually increased, until it peaked at 10.1 murders per 100,000 population in 1980.1 By 2014, it was about half that amount. Even though it has increased slightly since then, it is still far below the rates we saw from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.
Christians usually point to mass shootings as a sign that our society is on the decline due to various moral and spiritual deficits. Yet, it may not be that simple. Murder and violent crime are not increasing as a whole, but we are seeing more large-scale violent attacks. While the perpetrators of mass shootings are not exhibiting godly Christian character, it is a fallacy to say that society at large has become more violent. The situation seems much more complicated than most people realize.
On the other hand, American society remains more violent than comparable developed nations. According to United Nations homicide statistics, the US’s murder rate is below the global average: 4.88 as of 2015, as compared to the global average of 6.2 and a staggering 16.3 for the Americas. However, as a friend pointed out to me, this puts the US in company with many less-developed (and often politically unstable or repressive) nations like Sudan (6.45), Somali (5.56), Cuba (4.72), and North Korea (4.41). When compared with other prosperous nations with democratic traditions (the ones we think of as being more like us), we do not fare as well: Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has a homicide rate of 1.68; that is even higher than Australia (0.98), the United Kingdom (0.92), New Zealand (0.91), Germany (0.85), Ireland (0.64), the Netherlands (0.61), and Japan (0.31). Even though our own homicide rate has declined over the last 37 years, we need to improve more to compare with these nations.
These numbers may bring us closer to the root of our problem. If you eliminate all gun-related murders (73% of American murders involve a gun), the US homicide rate drops to 1.32. That means that America’s non-gun-related homicide rate exceeds those of almost all of the developed nations in that list. Whether one agrees that we have a gun problem or not, we have a murder problem in America. We have a problem with violence, hatred, and sin.
I will add that many of those developed nations, with lower homicide rates than the US, also are less religious than we are. We say that a “return to God” will simply solve the problem, but majority-atheist countries are more peaceful than we are! I cannot find a justification for this in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we should take a look at the American brand of Christianity. Have we bought too heavily into the American culture, baptizing the Gospel in the waters of individualism, commercialism, and materialism? Can our adoption of such self-centered values, in the name of Christ, be contributing to the problem?
Finally, I do not believe that gun control is a cure-all for this situation. In 2012, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, I compared rankings of gun-control laws (from most lenient to strictest) with the rates of violent crimes in those states, and found that there does not seem to be a strong correlation between the two. Even if gun control can reduce the amount of violent crime, there are a host of other factors contributing to the crime rate: social, economic, political, cultural, and other influences must be acknowledged. This job is simply too big to be left only to the politicians. All areas of society (including the family and religious institutions) must play their part to make shootings like the recent one in Parkland, FL, a thing of the past.
Christians cannot afford to spout clichés or rely on simplistic responses. We cannot cling to the political partisanship that continues to divide America. Christians must ground our faith, our behavior, our beliefs, and our world view in the Word of God—not in a political party’s platform nor public-opinion polls. Jesus has called us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we must resist the culture of death whenever it rears its ugly head.
1In the following, “homicide rate” always refers to the average number of murders per 100,000 persons per year.
Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.