Every time (how awful is it that I have to phrase it in this way?) we have a mass shooting in this country, there’s an idea that surfaces. I believe it can come from a place in the heart which is truly wearied and sick of the tragedies. With some, I get the sense it’s almost a shrug though – something akin to the “it’s all gonna burn anyhow” attitude. I’m referring to the idea that these mass shootings over the past few years are a heart problem, often couched in a zinger, “America doesn’t have a gun [or race, or drugs, or…] problem, it has a heart problem.”
I’m not here to discuss our laws – where they fail and where they work – or how far they should go. I strongly lean towards more regulation or even bans, for what its worth, but others have gone there in a much more informed way than I can, so if you want a rational plan you’ll have to look elsewhere.
So let’s talk about the heart, because frankly, I agree that the heart is a huge issue here. But how deep do you want to go here?
How much do you want to parse this declaration? As I said earlier, I do believe that a statement like the one above can come from a place of deep feeling, but what solutions do you have in mind? It can also be a statement which serves to other the problem in one’s mind. If you don’t believe that better laws will address the issue, let’s turn the focus more inward, more local in proximity, shall we? I’m addressing Christians here, because I am one, and because I usually see this sentiment coming from Christians.
Why don’t we name gun culture as a heart issue? It’s become an idol, eliciting strong reactions when threatened.
“The government can take my guns over my dead body!”
“My rights are guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment!”
“Guns are our protection against tyranny!”
Ever heard any of these or others along these lines?
You want to lament heart issues, well, look inwards to your own communities and churches or even homes. I’ve been there, seen that – the obsession with accessories and gear, the word “tactical” in every other product advertisement, talk about “militia”. We can pretend it’s about “taking care of varmints” or self-defense against intruders, but get real. It’s obsession with power, it’s dangerous hobby, it’s “peace through superior firepower”, it’s manhood measuring, it’s death. And children grow up in it. Yes, even in churches. There is a toxic subculture running just beneath all the talk of self-defense and constitutional rights.
Now might be a good time to understand the concept of toxic masculinity. No, not from the ones who seem to think that feminism sees toxic masculinity as men opening doors for women or heroically saving children from burning buildings. I mean the subtle or overt teaching that our identity as men is wrapped up in domination, that we’re owed love if we put effort into attracting a potential romantic partner, that we’re owed respect we have not earned. We’re raised on “big boys don’t cry”, to have little emotional intelligence or maturity. We learn bifurcated systems of virtue, with so-called feminine virtues considered less important to strive for. We mock women for emotions and estrogen, but the rule of testosterone over our actions is winked at, if not rewarded – boys will be boys, after all. We’re taught women need us to protect them, and feel spurned when, as women become more empowered, our “protection” is not wanted. Unable or unequipped to understand ourselves or find healing, we work our insecurities out on others: we solve problems with violence, we measure ourselves by domination, we tie our identities inextricably to conquest.
Take gun culture and toxic masculinity together, and there’s real problems.
Let’s talk about racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Let’s talk about fear. Let’s talk about jealousy and resentment. When troubled young men reach a breaking point, where and how do you think they will take out their rage and frustration? Think about the rhetoric you hear – again, yes, even in churches.
“They come to our country illegally and take our jobs”
“It’s not safe to be a man these days”
“There’s a war on manhood and men can’t be men anymore”
“When women went left our homes and went to work, they took our jobs”
“Integration ruined our schools”
What about mental health? No, mental illness isn’t a heart issue. But how it’s viewed just might be in a crucial way. It’s truly appalling how mental health is seen in various Christian circles: the way depression and anxiety are used interchangably with negativity, worry, and lack of faith in God; the distrust in psychology and medications, and the fear and stigma associated with a diagnosis. Isolation and shame, along with misguided spiritualized attempts at treatment, are terrible responses to mental health, and yet too often this is the reality. There are no excuses in this information age to remain ignorant on this subject as a spiritual leader. The cost is too high. When folks reach a breaking point of isolation, helplessness, and shame, and when they’ve been fed rhetoric which places the blame on others, what do you think can happen?
Heart issues? We’re seeing the awful cost, if so. Pastors, leaders, how have you approached this? You’ve given weight to sexual purity, doctrinal faithfulness, family structure, and others, but how about this issue? Is expository preaching an easy out, allowing you to avoid stepping on the toes of community sins? Have you or your tradition othered these “issues of the heart”?
Don’t “not all men” at me: I just plead with you to look inside and around and be aware of the lives we mold and the ideas which shape us. Does it have to be like this? Don’t pass this off to the groanings of creation in a depraved world, and remain ignorant of the ways we have been complicit in creating monsters. Don’t preach the power of the Gospel to save souls but pass over the real consequences of preventable ignorance. Don’t promote Jesus as The Great Eraser of all the world’s ills, while benefiting yourself from the hard work of others before you. He said he’s coming back one day, but when it comes to practical solutions and responsibility, Jesus “ain’t walking through that door”. We can’t force hearts to change, or “legislate morality”, we say, but in the meantime what cost is acceptable?
Think about the possibility that maybe you are complicit in a self-fulfilling prophecy: “gun laws won’t fix anything! It’s about the heart!” Well, maybe they won’t, as long as the “hearts” of your countrymen fight tooth and nail for their rights and perpetuation of a violent culture. Take your own words deadly serious. That’s all I ask.
PS: I focus primarily on men here, because the extreme vast majority of mass killings which have occurred in this country have been committed by males. The spotlight is on us.