Proper 20C / Ordinary 25C / Pentecost +18
September 22, 2013
Luke 16:1-13“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1)
On Monday, September 16, just before 8:15AM, Aaron Alexis walked into Building 197 in the Washington Navy Yard, “drawing no particular attention as he flashed his ID card and joined the stream of workers passing by the armed guards posted at the brick-and-wrought-iron gates” (Washington Post, “Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis … “, 9/17/13). He went into a fourth-floor men’s room, pulled an altered Remington 870 shotgun out of his backpack (legally purchased in Lorton), and began firing at the atrium and cubicles on the floor below the fourth floor balcony. One official said “It was [like] fish in a barrel” (ibid.) By the end of the day, 12 people were dead, as well as the shooter himself, killed in a firefight with police.
I first found out about the shooting when I received an automated e-mail at my work-desk that morning that said, “Active shooter incident at Navy Yard. Please click one of the options below to indicate your status:
1. I am safe
I blinked, clicked “I am safe,” and numbly went on with my day, watching the tally of dead gradually tick upwards on the Washington Post online’s front page.
I have a family member whose office is off of that atrium in Building 197. He was at home that day, on leave. If he weren’t … I don’t really want to think about it. I called him the day after to check and see how he was. Luckily, the people in his office were all safe and accounted for. I told him I loved him and to “take it easy”, hung up, then went downstairs to do my cardio and stare at the SyFy channel.
Op ed writer Petula Dvorak wrote on the day of the rampage, “Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown. And now Washington … We’ve been here before so many times. And each time, we wonder whether this is the mass shooting that will finally wake us from our numb indifference” (Washington Post, “How can we tolerate another mass shooting?”)
Scholar Walter Brueggeman says that people in an affluent culture are prone to what he calls “royal consciousness,” which is “a subjective consciousness concerned only with self-satisfaction” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2001, pp.37). We might call today’s version of royal consciousness “consumer culture”. We think that if we can buy or eat enough things (or watch enough stupid television), that we won’t have to dwell on life’s unpleasantness. Brueggeman notes that royal consciousness “leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death” (pp.41). We watch our SyFy channel, mindlessly scarf down half a bag of corn chips, set the alarm and prepare for another day of productive non-caring in the workplace (where we could be gunned down like “fish in a barrel”).
Brueggeman also states that “It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering and death” (italics in the original) (ibid.) The prophet Jeremiah – featured in the Hebrew Bible reading for this week – is known as “the weeping prophet”. Few Biblical texts – maybe with the exception of Job – express grief to its fullest extent like Jeremiah does: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18). Brueggeman says of Jeremiah that he not only wept for the slaughter of his people at the hands of the Babylonians, but he also wept “because no one would listen and no one would see what was so transparent to him” (op. cit., pp. 47).
I am not at the all-out weeping phase yet. I am still in consumer-culture-numbed shell-shock, walking around with a vague feeling of unease – of knowing something is very, very wrong in my day-to-day world, but not being able to pinpoint it. Maybe the thing that is wrong (in this case) is the fact that we live in a country where gun ownership is regarded as a hallowed right, but our right to live and work in a safe environment is not.
“Oh, be reasonable. You can’t blame guns. This man was clearly insane.”
How many more “isolated incidents” with “lone shooters” will it take to make a trend? How many more bodies need to pile up? The problem with being reasonable is that we talk reasoned circles around the problem without doing anything about it. And meanwhile, the arms manufacturers – who get paid to ensure that we remain numb and reasonable – still get to make their profits while the public pays the price. Yes, “common-sense gun control” is not the only answer – we also need vastly better mental health resources – but it would be a welcome start. Any start would be a welcome start.
What if we all took a day off work, and stood in a public place with placards showing how many people we know who have been killed by guns? What is your number? (Mine is “2”.) Maybe if people stopped being reasonable, lawmakers would start paying attention to our grief and stop paying attention to the dollars that the gun industry is stuffing into their pockets.