On the shooting of children and adults in Connecticut – Bishop Paul
Prayers – Bishop Paul

Monday after Newtown – Bishop Paul

By Bishop Paul Marshall
Diocese of Bethlehem

Well, Sunday liturgy has passed and it is the time I have invited in this space spiritually informed reflections

I am grateful for the restraint we have seen and the depth of prayer and reflection that has been reported to me from all corners of the community.

I would like to share some thoughts. I need to say that, like you, I do not have the combined qualifications of sociologist, psychologist, economist and criminologist, etc., etc. That is to say, I have general concerns that I hope experts will address. It is also to say that since nobody has all the skills, discernment is practiced in community.

On the other hand, as a voter, a citizen, and a Christian, I have certain results I hope for from those trusted to govern this democracy. I speak from the hope that is in me.

The most obvious and yet most painful point in this discussion is that access to firearms is an American dilemma of long standing. A low estimate for firearms murders (vs. deaths) in this country is 13,000 a year (FBI site). There are some obvious problems:

--existing gun laws are simply not enforced on the state and national level.

--there are unintentional collisions of rights involved: for instance, Pennsylvania keeps psychiatric records strictly private, a very good idea. At the same time, on the background check for gun purchases, all one has to do is lie about whether or not s/he has been involuntarily hospitalized for a psychiatric illness, and there is no way to check that, a very bad result. Just lie and the gun is yours.

--there are existing technologies that limit a gun to firing by the electronically-identified owner of the weapon; these technologies are not required (some of us who remember the debates over seat-belts have a painful memory here).

--no matter what we do, there are in existence right now more than 194 million guns at large in the U.S. If we stopped manufacture of all firearms right now, there are guns at hand for generations. What do we do about that?

American attachment to guns is a marvel throughout the world. Guns are fascinating machines, pleasant to operate, and powerful tools for the hunter. They are also phallic symbols, agents of aggression, and in the wrong hands, instruments of devastation. Gang members, by the way, usually do not know how to use and care for guns, and end up disposing of them rather than cleaning them, and are often injured by the misuse of their own weapons.

Gun sales always rise after mass murders. A revolver that cost six dollars when I was a youth is now a $500 investment, even though low-end guns are made very cheaply and often imported from South America and Israel.

We cling to gun rights with frontier memories and fantasies of the individual standing between self and forces of destruction. The problem is that we extrapolate flintlocks into Ak-47s. Rambo, Bruce Willis, and other film figures populate our heads. I accidentally watched the last minutes of a popular TV show last night and understand that the heroics there give people entirely unrealistic impressions of combat. Most of our lives do not have film editors.

There are facts to balance the fantasies. Few of us imagine the amount of training (physical and psychological) it takes to draw a gun on someone. The movies just do not indicate the strain, even on trained policemen, involved when a normal person engages in a combat situation. I am among those who has stood between his children and an armed home-invader. While I am willing to die for my generally peaceful principles, and couldn't punch my way out of a dry-cleaning bag for a lady's evening gown, I will not sacrifice my children to those principles, and have had to prove it. Although the encounter was almost thirty years ago, it is like yesterday. At the same time, there is no reason for any civilian to have a rapid-fire semi-automatic weapon handy (please don't call them assault rifles). What it took to subdue our armed New Haven invader was a steady frown and a revolver. I hope you never have this experience, but it is unsentimental reality for me. Any of you who has worked with a law-enforcement person who has had actually to employ deadly forces knows how this experience haunts a healthy person.

All of these factors need to be balanced in ways that honor our laws and make no room for convenient rationalizations. As you know, generally speaking, the police have no legal duty to protect you as an individual, and you have no recourse should they fail to do so. If middle-class people are not to abandon the cities, those who live in some situations need to maintain protection. At the same time, nobody needs combat weapons.

Pennsylvania does not require any training or display of competence to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. It does require that to drive a car. To buy a machine gun (a fully automatic weapon), all you need is the signature of your police chief or first selectman (and a lot of money--they are not cheap). There is no reason for any civilian to own a machine gun, and yet you can do it.

What doesn't help: Many of the loudest public advocates for gun control have been guarded by persons with full-automatic weapons, putting us once more into a debate where congress has one standard of health care and pensions, and we have another. Until the playing field is leveled in either case, there will be no motivation to make this a safer, healthier country.

America is unrealistic about mental health.

In the last few decades, most mental hospitals were closed. Government and other payers decided it was cheaper to turn troubled people loose and hope they would take their medication.

As someone who volunteers time each week with troubled people (under supervision, as I am many hours away from a license) I am keenly aware of the risks we take. The involvement of my very small (less than 6 hours) patient load with law enforcement is astounding. Some have gone to jail repeatedly and others have simply disappeared. Others live on the streets and comprise the largest single class of murder victims in the country. The cover for this abandonment of the seriously ill is their civil rights. Again, the ghost of the bill of rights is killing us.

The people I talk to are ineligible for care by for-profit therapists, or never see the same therapist twice. Many of them can get medications, but these are dispensed with about the same precision it takes to drop a nuclear weapon, and titration (the balancing of these meds)  just doesn't happen unless a major incident takes place.

Tragically, people with the most dangerous disorders often prefer not to take their medications, and yet they walk free, a danger to themselves and others.

My continued personal experience is that most physicians in expensive specialities have little of no knowledge of the whole person, find it not cost-effective to know my name, and have been taught next to nothing of psychology. My classmates who are psychiatrists are the first to say that they have sought analytic training precisely because their psychiatric residency was about pharmacology not feelings.

The sad truth is that just as guns simply must be controlled, some people need to be off the streets lest they harm themselves or others. Again, like my experience with the house-breaker in New Haven, this isn't theory for me. I know people who have very little mental process to stand between their urges and the use of fists or knives, including women who wish they had access to guns so that they could kill themselves or others (only about 13% of killers are women). None of them knows Freud's advice that civilized people insult rather than strangle each other. The most chilling story I know is of a person keenly aware that at a different time they would be hospitalized and much less at risk, a person who has been hauled from the brink of suicide more than once, a person whose tragic life is always at risk. This person knows she would be safer in a hospital and that society lacks the courage and the cash to put her in a safe environment

We have, as a diocese, set an example for the culture. I'm not always sure that we know this, but I am grateful for it. With the New Hope program, and before it with the efforts made in AIDS work, and of course at New Bethany and REACH, we have put ourselves on the line for others. Some of our smallest and most at-risk parishes continue to collect food and clothing for the needy.

We have learned to sacrifice. We increasingly learn to discipline ourselves as we face new and somewhat unexpected circumstances.

We work on the moral formation of young people. This is an up-hill battle because so many things compete for attention, and because many, many parents are simply exhausted when Sunday rolls around. Is it possible that we have a contribution to make to the art of parenting? Is it possible that Sunday is not the ideal time to make our contribution?

The culture as a whole has been in a tail-spin since the 1950s. Paying the bill for greed, stupidity, and arrogance will take generations, and then only if we wish to embrace the discipline. Whether you blame the recent financial collapse on the greed of bankers or the delusions of borrowers, we all acknowledge that the culture needs to change. Those of us who have spent the last 40 years preaching self-restraint have the not-very-gratifying experience of having been proved right. Those of us who unblushingly embraced the much-despised "middle class morality" with its virtues of honesty and fidelity in the face of feel-good trends find that we still have a product that needs selling.

The choice to tighten belts is no longer an option. The question will of course be, whose belt must be tightened? Currently the focus is on the rich. When we who are not rich find that it is our turn, let us not shirk from our duty.

The larger question is, do we have a culture? Are there values that the mass of Americans, and more important, their rulers, actually embrace and work for? This is not at all clear to me. Our church has not been particularly energetic about evangelism. It is my hope, perhaps my last professional hope, that the sight of a culture in such disarray that mass murder has a very short news shelf life will motivate the most hardened hedonists to change. We can direct them if we choose.

Long ago we decided that our model was not "Christ against culture," but "Christ transforming culture." I think that the present crisis invites each of us to take each moment of the day, in all the roles we play, in all the relationships we have, to represent Jesus and his gospel as people grope for identity and meaning. I believe that as Christian citizens we have to make our commitments known to those who hold the power of government. I disagree with right-to-lifers, but I admire their determination and their organization. Cannot those of us who stand for basic values not exert the same energy for the life of our country?

I believe that communication is evangelism. I do not believe that journalism is evangelism. That is, our reportage to the culture must point beyond ourselves to the author of our salvation. We must love God more than what we communicate about God. This is hard to hear in a time of unrestrained narcissism, but let us remember that narcissism proceeds not from an over-inflated sense of self, but from the lack of self. Jesus has authentic identity that is given to all who will have him. In a few short days we will sing "where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in." (O Little Town of Bethlehem) Our invitation to our neighbors is to join us in receiving that great reality as it is offered to us day-in, day-out.

Following Jesus is not a sentimental journey. It is tough stuff, requiring self restraint, generosity, realism, and the willingness to pay the bill. It is the determination to love those around us however they appear, and deal justice in its reparative, restorative, and when necessary, retributive form. At bottom, this is a time to re-kindle some of the eschatological flavor of the gospels, not because I expect the world to end, but because I know the urgency required if it is to continue.

Ours is a persecuted religion. Some of the opposition is subtle some is not.  We have to honest and honorable about who we are, for the sake of a world in deep, deep trouble.



The comments to this entry are closed.