When tragedy strikes, partisan politicking offers cold comfort (COMMENTARY)

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Brittany Gaddis prays during a candlelight vigil for victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting, in Winston, Ore., on Oct. 3, 2015. The gunman who killed his English professor and eight others at an Oregon community college committed suicide after a shootout with police who were on the scene within five minutes and exchanged fire with him almost immediately, authorities said. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 5, 2015.

Brittany Gaddis prays during a candlelight vigil for victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting, in Winston, Ore., on Oct. 3, 2015. The gunman who killed his English professor and eight others at an Oregon community college committed suicide after a shootout with police who were on the scene within five minutes and exchanged fire with him almost immediately, authorities said. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 5, 2015.

(RNS) Less than 24 hours after a gunman began killing people at Umpqua Community College, our country’s political fires were raging at maximum intensity.

President Obama was clamoring for more gun control laws.

Gun rights advocates were blaming “gun-free zones” for making it possible for public places to become killing fields.

An out-of-context comment by Jeb Bush spread like wildfire through social media, as if to prove that heartless conservatives care more about guns than people.

Witnessing all the fury, I can’t help but feel like this unspeakable tragedy in Oregon has just become — if possible — even sadder.


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There once was a time in American life when a crime of this magnitude would bring people together. We carried with us a sense of patriotic grace, a river of pathos flowing underneath common ground. Moments like this hushed our lips and led our hearts to reflect. More often than not, that reflection led to empathy: “That might have happened here. That could have been my child. What if I had been there? Oh, God — give us peace.”

Those sentiments dissipated all too quickly this week. Perhaps due to the callousness of our hearts or the fact that mass shootings have become common, we now rush to the computer to vent our frustrations rather than turn to God and to each other to express our grief.

I understand how the feeling of helplessness intensifies the desire to just do something — to promote some person or push some policy. Make a statement. Pass a bill. Do whatever it takes to help us at least feel like we’re making progress in preventing these senseless horrors.

What troubles me is not that these tragedies lead to advocacy for policy change, but that our country’s imagination is held captive to the idea that the only place where such change can take place is in the legislature or courthouse. That’s why the conversation turned immediately to governmental blame and governmental solutions:

  • From the right: Government is to blame for preventing good citizens from being able to act quickly and protect people in situations like this!
  • From the left: Government won’t pass common sense legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals!

All sides of the gun control debate seem to think government is partly to blame and government is our only hope.

But this raises an interesting question: Why do we turn to government first? Are there no other places to turn for comfort, for consolation, for change?

Perhaps our public discourse has been impacted by our country’s gradual secularization. Polls and surveys show that secularism in the United States does not do away with religious observance; it does however relegate the role of religion to the margins of civic life, where it occupies a small compartment of privatized belief and therapeutic benefit.

Is it possible that, in the absence of religion, political activism has grown up to take its place? Where do we turn in times of tragedy? If not prayer, then policy. If not church, then state. If not the warmth of a common humanity, then the fire of our partisan divides.

“For more and more Americans, politics has become a religion,” writes Peggy Noonan. “People find their meaning in it. They define themselves by their stands.”


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Noonan is right. Our country is still faith-filled; it is just that today our faith is misplaced. Too often, it’s directed toward government, not God. And many of our frustrations come when we realize government can’t ultimately save us. It was never meant to.

This explains why we so easily fall back into the trenches of our political warfare, and why our political wrangling is so exhausting. Noonan adds: “When politics becomes a religion, then simple disagreements become apostasies, heresies. And you know what we do with heretics.”

There will always be partisanship. That’s not something we should rule out, or something we should “rise above.”

But to put the political process in perspective requires us to remember and reaffirm truths that transcend our party lines. It means we must extend to one another grace, and soundly reject political cheap shots and manipulative sound bites.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

I hope that, in the wake of the Oregon tragedy, we can reaffirm the commonalities that unite us, and then lean on that common ground when we engage in the inevitable debates about the best way forward. I hope we can assume the best of our political opponents and not immediately tar them with the worst possible motives.

For that to take place, however, the embers of our commitment to one another must burn hotter than the flames of our political discourse. Tragedies should stir up those ancient embers, not fan the new flames.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/AMB END WAX

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  • Bernardo

    As noted many times:

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

    In the 21st century, we have tasers, gps monitoring, 911, professional 24/7 security systems, OnStar and analogous systems, home and car monitoring (cameras, motion detectors, silent and shrill alarms, smart phone apps for off-site updates, window locks and alarms) so why do we need guns to protect our cars, homes and families?

    “New Jersey police: 6-year-old dies a day after being shot — by a 4-year-old”

  • Larry

    http://www.armedwithreason.com/militia-myths-why-armed-populations-dont-prevent-tyranny-but-often-lead-to-it/

    “Pro-gun arguments typically follow at least one of four paths:
    -Our own Revolutionary War shows militias are effective at protecting liberty.
    -Militias promote liberty.
    -Armed populations deter tyrants while unarmed populations are defenseless.
    -Disarming a population is the gateway to genocide.

    Response:
    – Militias were largely ineffective in our own Revolutionary War.
    -Militias in the modern era have overwhelmingly fostered tyranny, not liberty.
    -Liberty and the degree of gun ownership in a society are uncorrelated.
    -gun control leads to tyranny is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
    -the historical examples gun advocates supply don’t hold up under closer scrutiny.”

  • Jon

    Maybe next time Trevin can avoid hurting more people by acknowledging that everyone isn’t Christian. By writing this as if Christians are the only ones who matter, he adds insult to injury for those non-Christians (be they Pagan, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, or other) who were hurt by this tragedy. Trevin writes: “… today our faith is misplaced. Too often, it’s directed toward government, not God. …..” Trevin, what about those who find meaning someplace other than “God” or Government? What about “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, or “Life”, etc? You treat those Americans as if they don’t count, and by doing so perpetuate the idea of Christians as uncaring. Many of these Americans already have had to deal with Christians telling them again and again that they weren’t “true Americans”, and now you too. Maybe look at yourself before writing next time. .

  • Larry

    Another nonsense article by Mr. Wax to support his SBC paymasters at the expense of sensible thinking.

    “Why do we turn to government first? Are there no other places to turn for comfort, for consolation, for change?”

    Because one wants to actually do something about an intolerable situation. As far as we have seen, God does not prevent mass murders anywhere, anytime. One can either take action which could be fruitful or they can putter around making pointless gestures.

    “…our public discourse has been impacted by our country’s gradual secularization. …secularism in the United States does not do away with religious observance; it does however relegate the role of religion to the margins of civic life, where it occupies a small compartment of privatized belief and therapeutic benefit.”

    Which makes sense in a pluralistic democratic society. Where one has to share existence with people of all faiths in a civil manner. Something Mr. Wax seems to take issue with.

  • Jon Trouten

    This country is plagued by weekly mass shooting sprees, not to mention everyday shootings that don’t meet the numbers criteria to be considered mass shootings.

    So forgive us if people have gotten to the point that we instantly shift into political solutions. It’s either speak for change, or accept that random nuts will shoot up our kids’ classrooms or kill us at the movie or the mall or wherever.

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  • The Great God Pan

    “Why do we turn to government first?”

    Because even believers have noticed that your God doesn’t seem to take much of an active interest? For all your grandstanding, even you haven’t offered a concrete alternative. “Leaning on our common ground” doesn’t mean anything.

    By the way: for your younger readers who may be unaware, Peggy Noonan isn’t some apolitical nun living in a tower somewhere. She is a highly partisan Republican who still prays at the altar of her former employer, Saint Ronnie. Hypocrisy is a hell of a drug.

  • Fran

    There won’t always be partisanship…God’s kingdom will replace all of man’s governments (Daniel 2:44) and bless all nations of man on earth (Genesis 18:18?) by ruling with love, justice and compassion (Isaiah 11:1-9) instead of corruption, selfishness and greed! That kind of rule is on it last legs!! ?

  • Vi Brown

    I especially like your comment about our faith being misplaced. Most Christians I know put their faith in political leaders than God.

  • What bothers me about this article is that it takes another shooting out of the context of repeated past shootings. So looking to the government for help here is presented as something inappropriate and a sign of being incomplete. Such is the conservative view of government. Government, according to many conservatives, is an alien force that must be strictly contained so we can harvest its benefits while limiting its problems.

    But if we looked at government as the institution that represents us the American people instead, then looking to government would be the same as looking to ourselves and to each other for help. It would be what Wax longs for but feels we lost: a bringing of people together.

    That government behaves the way it does all to often affirms the conservative accusation. And that is because we’ve combined democratic processes with the Free Market’s emphasis on competition in order to usurp control over others. And in so doing, we’ve revealed our own spiritual…

  • Jeff

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

    Your article is neither well thought out, nor well researched. You minimize the importance of responding to the world around us. In your basic theology, does social justice mean nothing? You mock the political structure that is in place by inferring that “passing a bill” is void of meaning. Other countries (Australia, Canada, et. al.) have passed meaningful legislation and the impact of that legislation is easily quantified. You picked the right title for your article — “Our tragic response to the Oregon tragedy”, but you completely whiffed on the content. The real tragedy is that we don’t enact changes that will help us avoid these senseless killings in the future. The problems around access to guns by mentally ill people are real AND obvious and they need to be addressed.

  • Mark

    According to orthodox Christian belief, the first century “magic man” you refer to was neither illiterate, nor is he “long dead.” Your caricature of Jesus Christ is a bit offensive, and prohibits rational discourse. Also, you seem to be guilty of what C.S. Lewis would term “chronological snobbery.” So, I’d like to ask…

    1. If our 21st century society is so advanced with all of the tools for protection, why can’t we stop mass shootings?

    2. I own lots of guns. Why haven’t I used those guns to shoot a bunch of people?

    I look forward to some rational, adult conversation.