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Marching for Our Lives on the Road to Jericho


Introduction

[1] Gun violence and its trauma have reached epidemic proportions. The term epidemic in this instance is both a public health appraisal of the impact of gun violence as well as a metaphor that might spark the civic imagination toward a more effective response. The metaphor is apt in a number of ways: it highlights the increasing number of incidents, the vulnerability of particular communities and groups, the awareness that no one is truly immune, the deadly and damaging impacts on the health and well-being of children and young people, and the primacy of prevention. It suggests that “law and order” approaches to the issue will ultimately be inadequate. The metaphor also invites healthcare ethics and healing practices to contribute to communal response.  As a public health issue, the epidemic of gun violence must also be addressed at a structural level and in multivalent, systemic ways.  The trauma of gun violence is both acute and chronic.

[2] This essay will consider the issue of gun violence generally, and school-based violence in particular, through a Christian ethical lens informed by insights from the field of public health.  COVID-19 has familiarized the general public with key elements of a public health approach to a crisis: prevention, containment, mitigation, access to treatment, and attention to the social determinants of health.  Advocates for an end to gun violence can capitalize on that knowledge.  Statements and guidelines from the field of trauma informed pediatric medicine and public health can help faith communities frame approaches to gun violence and childhood trauma.  Shifting from a “conflict of rights” model in addressing the tensions between gun ownership and the safety of children paves the way for a theological response rooted in the common good tradition of social ethics. 

[3] Scholar Bonnie Miller-McLemore has long been calling Christians to journey “at the pace of children” and this invitation has taken on new and revitalized meaning in the wake of school violence and mass shootings.[1]  What had been an invitation to journey at a slower pace, the pace of one who is learning to walk or one who stops in wonder and amazement at the details of God’s creation, is now also a prophetic call to pick up the pace.  A common good, public health perspective in the context of gun violence is better able to honor the moral agency of young people and their participation in social transformation as leaders who are setting the pace of the March for Our Lives movement

[4] The essay will proceed in four parts.  First, we will briefly assess the advantages and liabilities of using a health-related metaphor for an ethical analysis of gun violence.  There are potential dangers that need to be addressed if we are to avoid harmful pitfalls.  Second, the essay will highlight some of the voices of young people involved in the March for Our Lives movement. Part three reviews some of the insights of public health approaches that can help guide a Christian response.  Finally, these insights and the experiences join conversation with the social justice tradition of the Church and gospel reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan to frame a response that is pastoral, participatory, and activist.

An Epidemic of Gun Violence Impacting Young People

[5] Thinking about gun violence as an epidemic has clear advantages.  It enables us to acknowledge how frequent and widespread this violence is.  It highlights the impact such violence has on the well-being of young people in terms of both their physical and mental health – and this too is widespread and extends beyond the particular victims and survivors to young people generally.  The effects of gun violence are not merely personal and interpersonal but rather systemic and structural. It demands attention to root causes and co-morbidities that increase personal and communal vulnerabilities to its most devastating effects.  As an epidemic there are measures we can take to prevent it, treat it, and perhaps even eradicate it. Lessons hard-learned in previous epidemics also challenge the framing of an illness primarily as a consequence of personal moral failing.

[6] However, there is an underside to a health or medical metaphor and it is one that can also have devastating effects, particularly in a society wracked by racism and white supremacy.  Christians must reflect on the language we use in describing an epidemic and the ways in which that language has functioned to further entrench the oppression of people of color and other marginalized groups. 

[7] “Going viral” is now a part of our lexicon, our everyday vocabulary.  People use the term to describe how the news of events and phenomena spreads with unprecedented speed and extends far beyond the communal or local context to reach people everywhere.  Global awareness of an event or item becomes newsworthy itself.  But as COVID-19 has so clearly demonstrated, news of a virus can prompt both reasonable precautions pertaining to the virus and unreasonable fears of other groups of people.  Fear takes a toll on the fearful, and fear frequently has deadly effects for the feared.  Fear distorts the ability to respond in a meaningful way to restore health and healing. 

[8] Words like epidemic, and viral are frequently paired with words like contagion.  Their precise meaning in a medical context becomes blurred in a social context. The idea of contagion has been highly racialized and has provided cover for segregationist policy in everything from housing, to education, to migration within and between borders.  “Wars” (an even more problematic metaphor for both illness and gun violence) to end everything from poverty, to drug trade and drug addiction, to actual viruses like HIV and COVID, morph into wars on people who are poor, are immigrants, are addicted, and who are presumed ill (often according to the color of their skin or other stigmatized identities).  The vital knowledge that people of color are more likely to contract COVID-19, require hospitalization, or die from the infection than white people, can easily be misinterpreted in the context of racism as a sign of a biological or genetic difference rather than a signal of the social and structural causes in underlying medical or environmental conditions. A Christian approach to gun violence must retain the insight that this is a health issue without falling into racist and segregationist habits that undermine solidarity with victims, survivors, and activists both young and old.

A March for Our Lives

[9] Though it can be difficult to mine the data on gun violence in schools, in 2019, CNN reported that in the previous decade there had been 180 shootings and 356 victims (killed and injured).  Their analysis of the numbers revealed,

Over the past decade, there were at least 180 shootings at K-12 schools across the US. They happened in big cities and in small towns, at homecoming games and during art classes, as students are leaving campus in the afternoon and during late-night arguments in school parking lots.

And they are happening more often.

CNN analyzed locations, time of day, type of school and student demographics to better understand how this trauma grips the country. While school shootings disproportionately affect urban schools and people of color, mass shootings are more likely to occur at white, suburban schools.[2]

Mass shootings in particular garner national attention, grief, and outrage.  While the horror of these events justifies the public reaction, it may also be another indication of white privilege that leaves incidents occurring in schools serving communities of color underreported.  The school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 marked a turning point, or perhaps a breaking point.  Student leaders, while injured, grieved, and traumatized, did not passively accept the role of vulnerable victims.  Instead, they joined a noble tradition of youth activism for civil rights, environmental sustainability, the dignity of black lives, and gender equality.[3]  Just weeks after the tragedy, these students and their adult allies organized a massive protest in Washington, D.C. which has gone on to become an organization dedicated to changing legislation and public policy and empowering youth activism.[4]

[10] The speech given by MSD student Emma Gonzalez captured the experiences of young people,

“For those who still can't comprehend, because they refuse to, I'll tell you where it went. Six feet into the ground, six feet deep. Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kyra "miss sunshine," Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan, Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp, Helena Ramsay would never hang around after school with Max, Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch, Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never, Cara Loughren would never, Chris Hixon would never, Luke Hoyer would never, Martin Duque Anguiano would never, Peter Wang would never, Alyssa Alhadeff would never, Jamie Guttenberg would never, Jamie Pollack would never.”[5]

[11] Gonzalez’ words were poignant and powerful, as was her rhetorical use of silence.  They made the very personal losses vivid and palpable to everyone with ears to hear. The March for Our Lives activists turned grief to anger and anger to action for social change. These young people would not be easily dismissed by those elected to represent them. According to Evie Wybenga, then a student at Andover High School in Massachusetts, “Something that's been in my brain, something that I've been thinking about since this started, is that I feel like people underestimate the power of students when it comes to change like this.”[6] Indeed, student activists staged protests, school walkouts, wrote letters, and held voter registration drives to exercise the moral agency they possess as human beings and the moral authority that comes from surviving violence.

[12] Adult allies and mentors do play a crucial role.  A student from Massachusetts describes how his research into the topic of gun violence sparked a friendship with Dr. Michael Hirsch, pediatric surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center and Medical Director for the Worcester, MA Department of Public Health.  According to the student, "[Hirsch] opened my eyes to that I could still do something about it," and "Just because I was young, that doesn't mean I didn't have to stand by and wait until I was older in order to be a part of that process. I think he sort of encouraged me to still be a part of that process, especially after the Parkland shooting and after kids were being very involved in the political process of enforcing more legislation against gun violence."[7]

Insights from Public Health

[13] Noting the prevalence of gun violence in the United States, its potential to exacerbate other forms of violence, and its place among the leading causes of death, the American Public Health Association calls gun violence a public health crisis.  They advocate for primary prevention as a key strategy that incorporates “activities to interrupt the transmission of violence” which include:

(1) conducting surveillance to track gun-related deaths and injuries, gain insight into the causes of gun violence and assess the impact of interventions;

(2) identifying risk factors associated with gun violence (e.g., poverty and depression) and resilience or protective factors that guard against gun violence (e.g., youth access to trusted adults);

(3) developing, implementing and evaluating interventions to reduce risk factors and build resilience; and

(4) institutionalizing successful prevention strategies.[8]

The Centers for Disease Control also advocated for a public health approach to all forms of violence that encompasses similar steps: monitoring, identifying risks and protective factors, developing and testing prevention measures, and “assuring widespread adoption” of successful measures.[9] The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 2012 policy statement, highlights primary prevention strategies and prioritizes public policy that reduces the number of firearms in homes, regulation of firearms by consumer product safety standards, parental counseling of parents by pediatricians about the risks of firearms in the home, funding research into firearm injury and death, and increased education for pediatricians and other professionals dedicated to the care of children.[10]

[14] It is important to note key differences in the ways this health issue is framed that differ from the spread of a virus like COVID-19, but which can never-the-less creep into approaches to gun violence.  Absent are terms like containment, isolation, and quarantine which are part of daily life during COVID.  In a time when public health has become highly politicized, a public health approach to violence must be on guard against the temptation to isolate or seal off communities with higher rates of gun violence and the young people who live in them, keeping them and their families from education and work.

Theological Reflection on Experience and Evidence

[15] How might Christian communities reflect on these experiences of gun violence among young people and the insights and evidence provided by public health researchers in light of the gospel?  How might these reflections be further shaped by the social justice tradition within Christianity to map out ethical responses to the harms and trauma? Contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan is a place to start (Luke 10:25-37). 

[16] Someone has fallen victim to a violent robbery on the road to Jericho.  We might imagine a young person a victim of gun violence, and perhaps even young perpetrators of violence, in a “dangerous” neighborhood.  Perhaps this victim had been mistaken for a robber by someone who out to have known better than to shoot first. We might imagine parents and children who lie awake with worry about each other traveling this road each day. The officials who ought to have responded, turned away in the moment and neglected to address the conditions on the road when they got to their destinations. The one who is truly neighbor stops and responds to the acute nature of injuries.  The neighbor also provides the means for ongoing support and the time needed for healing.  And presumably, the neighbor sets out on the road again, entering what might be called a chaotic situation with a spirit of compassion and mercy.[11] 

[17] Let’s notice too that for victims to become survivors, they need not one neighbor but many, and as in the parable, they need them to come from every quarter.  Neighbors might be high school students who are fed up with being afraid and ignored, LGBTQIA+ and Black Lives Matter youth who are both disproportionately victims of violence, a 63 year-old trauma surgeon who has stitched together too many young bodies, legislators who keep proposing gun reform to no avail, the public health researchers who have been keeping track of injuries on this road, of who is being injured, how, and why in the hopes of preventing such tragedy, mental health professionals attuned to trauma and resilience, ministers who denounce violence from the pulpit and take a prophetic stance on gun-reform, teachers who have adopted abolitionist and anti-racist pedagogy, and everyone who walks the Jericho road and has been made invisible. The neighbor could be you and me.

[18] Imagine the neighbors, young and old, courageously pouring out onto to the road to Jericho, filling it with righteous anger, calls for legislative reform and an end to the way of violence both interpersonal and systemic, and songs of hope to sustain the effort. They take up so much space that there is no longer room for violence. These neighbors pledge a response characterized by 1) solidarity across difference rather than stigma and fear, 2) prevention and the practice of presence with those who are most at risk, 3) social justice that places rights in the context of our responsibilities to one another, 4) honoring the moral agency and leadership of young people, and 5) every widening circles of inclusion and participation in the effort.  The work of addressing the epidemic of gun violence and the trauma it inflicts, particularly on children and young people, is social justice work.  It is also participating in the healing ministry of Jesus which is ultimately about restoring the bonds of human community.

 

Mary M. Doyle Roche is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

 

 



[1] See Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994); Let the Children Come: Re-imagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003); and In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

 

[2] CNN, “10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims” https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/07/us/ten-years-of-school-shootings-trnd/

(Accessed 8/29/20).

 

[3] For a brief description see, Mary M. Doyle Roche, “Cultivating Resistance: Youth Protest and the Common Good,” Jason King and Julie Hanlon Rubio, eds. Sex, Love, and Families: Catholic Perspectives (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2020):293-303.

 

[4] March for Our Lives, https://marchforourlives.com/

(Accessed 8/29/20).

 

[5] Emma Gonzalez’ March speech is available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u46HzTGVQhg

 (Accessed 8/29/20).

 

[6] Harry Bruinius, “After Parkland, a new generation finds its voice,” The Christian Science Monitor, https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2018/0221/After-Parkland-a-new-generation-finds-its-voice (Accessed, 8/29/20).

[7]Parkland shooting, interest in finding solutions to gun violence help teen, 63-year-old surgeon develop unique friendship” Mass Live,  https://www.masslive.com/news/worcester/2018/05/for_a_16-year-old_worcester_ac.html (Accessed 8/29/20).

[8] American Public Health Association, “Gun Violence is a Public Health Crisis Fact Sheet”

https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/gun-violence#:~:text=Gun%20violence%20is%20a%20leading,this%20growing%20crisis%20is%20necessary. (Accessed 8/29/20).

 

[9] Centers for Disease Control, “The public health approach to violence prevention,” https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/publichealthissue/publichealthapproach.html

(Accessed 8/29/20)

 

[10] American Academy of Pediatrics, “Policy Statement on Firearm-Related Injuries Affecting the Pediatric Population,” https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/child_death_review/Pages/Gun-Violence.aspx

(accessed 8/29/20).

 

[11] James Keenan, The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefied, 2017).




Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.





© October/November 2020
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 20, Issue 6