When the really hard stuff happens, when we witness the true face of evil, Americans have a predictable habit. Even as cameras feed the latest bubble-shattering violence into our family rooms, we start looking for someone or something — anything — other than the actual perpetrators to stone. We panic for a scapegoat.
We hunt tirelessly for the person (a parent, an educator, a cop) who didn't catch the warning signs, who failed to read a memo — anyone on whose shoulders we can cast our collective fear — then rush as many measures into place as possible, no matter the cost in treasure or freedoms, to regain an illusion of safety and impenetrability.
One iteration of that really hard stuff happened at Sandy Hook. The backstory is eerily familiar. A young man, left to stew in our culture's juices, fleshes out the nightmare in his broken soul, and deals out tragedy in living color as if the holy innocents of Newtown were mere pixels on a screen, points in a twisted "shooter." Now, just four months later, it's a swept-away moment of terror and sadness that everyone just wants to forget because it's unthinkable to think on it any longer.
Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown each stopped the nation in its tracks but we eventually moved on, and before anyone might guess, well over 3,000 more have died by gun violence in America since December.
Now yet another national argument about gun violence, like the dead children and educators, recedes from view, even as parents by the thousands volunteer at school entrances, more districts install metal detectors, and communities frame ever more elaborate emergency response plans for future scenarios. We conclude that it's somehow easier to increase vigilance as we shut our hearts to all but an ever-narrowing circle of friends and family.
We want to legislate, administrate, and innovate our way to a land where unspeakable days like these can't happen again, living in denial of human nature's slavery to sinfulness, the reality of evil, of our record as a race from Cain onward.
In this environment of suspicion, of pass-the-buck games, some Christian leaders seek to call out these denials at the heart of our public response. They remind us of a cosmic battle between good and evil and underline our civilization's traditional wisdom: that acts of mayhem are primarily the responsibility of those who commit them (not those who failed to prevent them), that temporal justice in a nation of laws is sought and imperfectly found by the prosecution of alleged wrongdoers.
Yet, there's a form of denial that's just as dangerous. Reacting to American's now excessive tendency to blame anyone — anything — other than those to whom the best evidence points, some leaders and advocacy groups wish to downplay — sometimes to the point of absurdity — any external cause for random acts of evil.
It may comfort some to blame our national rash of gun killings on the killers themselves. We ignore any collective responsibility we have for the crimes that have occurred, any responsibility we have for each other. Yet we remain, conscience reminds us in better moments, our brother's keeper.
Too many Christ followers dismiss experts like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman that suggest violent video games, immersive virtual environments of gore, and bloodstained television and films desensitize those who interact with them, foster detachment in marginalized young men and may contribute to real world bloodbaths. Recent studies show our drone operators have a similar instance of PTSDs as those who come home from live combat.
As individuals, we are responsible for our choices, especially the choice to kill, but something in our collective heart appears diseased. We cling to guns, it seems, more tightly than we cling to God. Perhaps we should change the national motto to "In Guns We Trust?"
Yes, "guns don't kill people, people do," and, yes, there is a constitutional right to bear arms that has its hard-won place among our legitimate freedoms, but America's love affair with guns — our Christian worship of guns — including our participation in virtual worlds of blood and mayhem, is a serious idolatry, indeed a preoccupation with some young men, at odds with the man we worship as God.
With each successive wave of national controversy some Christians celebrate and advocate gun freedom more fervently than they ever promote the freedom they find in Christ.
Just after the children died by the dozen in Newtown, I came across a powerful slap at this idolatry in Peter Weir's 1985 film Witness, the story of an Amish boy named Samuel who sees an act of corrupt violence in a Philadelphia train depot and the conflict that ensues between those who seek to protect or silence him.
Samuel takes a handgun belonging to a wounded city cop who's hiding from the bad guys among the boy's rural Amish clan. His mother discovers the weapon and Eli's bearded owl of a grandfather takes Samuel in his lap as they talk about the shiny black hardware on the family table.
"This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life," says the grandfather. "We believe it is wrong to take life. ... Would you kill another man?"
"I would only kill a bad man," the boy replies.
"Only the bad man. ... I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this 'badness?'"
"I can see what they do. I have seen it."
"And having seen, you become one of them. Don't you understand? What you take into your hands" — he pauses, placing his hand on Samuel's chest — "you take into your heart."
More than a renewed defense or denial of reasonable gun rights, more than a fear-driven fury to implement more measures that daily lessen our freedoms and sow further seeds of distrust in our hearts, more than building higher walls against our neighbors, and, yes, instead of venerating molten objects designed solely to deal out human death, we need a great deal more of the prophetic and sacramental wisdom this old Amish grandpa articulates and embodies. I pray we find it.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Mich. Follow him on Twitter: @kennethtanner.