“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction. “ ~ President Barack Obama, October 1, 2015
A student sat in my office before class last night and sighed deeply, “Of course, my spirit is just so heavy tonight thinking about the people affected by the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “I feel like I’m at a point where I should be able to know what to say at times like this. I’m going to graduate soon. And people are going to come to me and expect me to have the answers.”
I don’t teach students to have The Answers at times like this. In fact, many of the most stentorian religious voices that come forward with answers after times of tragedy generally make me cringe or want to go crawl under a rock.
It’s also difficult (impossible?) at times like this not to feel as though anything one says is just some script that was written years ago and we are only rehearsing the all-too-familiar lines yet again. President Obama in his address expressed his frustration over just this feeling when he remarked, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it.” Everything that is being said today has been said already, usually by the same people. It’s hard not to feel like it’s all just shouting in the wind.
Nonetheless, I seek to equip my students with the tools they need to think through complex events; to address violence, oppression, and injustice; and to work with communities in creating plans that lead to liberation.
This week in my Theology as Living Conversation class, we discussed one such tool for analysis that I think can be used effectively for faith leaders and communities as we seek to respond from a theologically sound basis to events like the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Every experience, including high profile, tragic experiences such as this one, occurs as an event (or episode), which is part of a larger situation, that is itself embedded within a broader context. (See the graph included below.)
According to Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology, an episode is a singular event that happens in a particular place at a particular time. A situation is the pattern of events and circumstances that contribute to the occurrence of that episode. And the context that encompasses each of these refers to the broader, interlocking systems that come together in such a way to give rise to these situations and episodes.
Using this method of analysis, we will want to certainly pay attention to the particular details that apply to why yesterday’s shooter chose to enter Umpqua Community College and slaughter people. It is also gives us a way to talk about what makes our responses to these events so routine, in the President’s word. These constantly scripted and rehearsed responses are part of the pattern of events that comprise episodes of mass shootings.
I think it also gives us a way out of these scripted responses, as we seek to understand even those responses themselves as being bound up in larger, complex systems that may not only help to bring these scripts about, but likely benefit from them becoming routine. (I couldn’t help but hear echoes of my mother lecturing me as I listened to the President’s clenched-jaw frustration yesterday, “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times!”)
Consider for a moment how the perpetuation of a feeling of futility and impotence is precisely what is needed to maintain the status quo.
I suspect that most of us tend to be able to talk about individual episodes of violence, and we are also good at reciting our scripts about the situations that give rise to these episodes. We fire off facebook posts about gun laws, offer simplistic mental illness diagnoses, or call for more armed security guards. While each of these do point to systemic issues, our public discourse about these things rarely draw out those interlocking systems in fruitful ways. Where we need more attention is precisely in our ability to grasp the systemic issues at play.
We don’t need to have the answers at times such as this. But faith leaders need to be equipped to talk about events like yesterday at all three of these levels in order to help our communities discern an incisive theological response that drives people out of futility and into effective, hope-filled, and just action.
Resources for Further Inquiry
Below are some web-based resources that can help inform your analysis of the context in which mass shootings occur.
In 2011 a paper was given at annual meeting of the American Political Science Association analyzing the attribution of blame after mass shootings, looking at the roles of partisanship and education play in how people understand events such as this.
Don’t count on journalists doing their research before they report. Here is site that you can use that is intended for journalists that offers excellent resources. Produced by Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public.
Dr. Jennifer Davidson is Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter: @momentofbeing.