It is entirely too easy to dismiss as irrational the recent comments from Mike Huckabee when he asked why “we should ‘be so surprised’ at the violence when ‘we have systematically removed God from our schools,'” or the more inflammatory remarks by the now infamous members of Westboro Baptist Church, who “sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment” upon Connecticut for passing new same-sex marriage legislation. Of course, these comments are absurd, and should be consistently challenged and even shamed in the public square. But there is a deeper, more theological, issue at stake in these kinds of public comments. They are not simply irrational (although they are that); I would go further and say they are blasphemous. That is, they speak about God in a Biblically and theologically untruthful manner, and what is worse, they do this amidst innocent human suffering, pouring salt upon our collective wounds over the unnecessary loss of life.
In his commentary upon the book of Job, Gustavo Gutierrez suggests that the main question of the book is “how to speak about God amidst innocent suffering?” At the end of the book, God speaks directly to the three friends who have come to comfort Job, but who have insisted that he must have done something to deserve God’s punishing wrath (Gutierrez calls this a “theology of retribution”), while throughout the book Job maintains his innocence and demands, pleads, and argues with God for an account of why his unjust suffering is occurring. Here is God’s response to Job’s friends: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
A theologically and Biblically appropriate answer to the leaders of Westboro is that they deeply misunderstand the nature of God, for God is with Job – and with the people of Connecticut and everyone else in the world suffering from this tragedy – not condemning them. And to be fair to Mike Huckabee, his comments are of a slightly different nature than those of Westboro. In defense of his remarks, he clarifies that he is not claiming that God is directly punishing anyone in particular for removing God from public schools, but rather that removing God-talk from our public discourse creates a different kind of social and moral atmosphere where violence is more likely. But even this slightly more nuanced response is theologically inadequate, because it assumes that the answer to the problem of 19 mass murders in the last five years – let me say that again, 19 mass murders in the last five years – is as simple as believing in God and changing how we talk about religion in the public.
Which leads me to my second point. Claiming that we all just need more faith and more talk of God in the public is just one more way to create an opaque veneer over the kinds of difficult social, economic, and political questions that this shooting is finally challenging us to ask as Americans and about our culture. I do not for a minute believe that anyone in this country who owns a gun, or who supports the NRA, or even who manufacture weapons and pay lobbyists to advocate for less gun restructions wanted anything like this to happen. I am not going to go the easy route of pointing fingers out of anger. In fact, I look forward to the comments tomorrow from the NRA and I hope they will join in this discussion with constructive proposals.
At the same time, however, we cannot deny that the manufacturers of weapons and munitions that are designed to kill human beings have directly influenced our gun control laws. As my former professor at Notre Dame, Todd Whitmore, pointed out in a recent Facebook post, we as a society have deemed through our legal system that someone serving alcohol at a bar can be held legally accountable if they knowingly serve someone who becomes intoxicated and proceeds to kill someone in a drunk-driving accident. Similarly, through a long series of public and legal battles, cigarette companies have been held accountable for the damage that their products knowingly cause to those who legally and of their own free will purchase them and use them. In terms of assessing the degree of complicity in providing products that are perfectly legal but are known to cause direct public harm, weapons manufacturers are certainly at least as responsible, and likely more responsible, as those who sell liquor or cigarettes.
Let me bring this back into the realm of Catholic moral theology. Catholic social thought upholds that a just society requires the delicate balancing of both individual and corporate rights and of the common good. In fact, it is fundamental to the common good that certain basic, natural human rights be protected through appropriate legislation, enforcement, and the backing of the judicial system. However, rights alone do not make a just society. Rights must consistently be contextualized within the complex social structures and systems that we all live in the late modern world. Therefore, when the claims of my individual rights, or the corporate rights of an organization to which I belong, begin to infringe upon the rights of others or of the common good as a whole, we have reached the limits of rights language and must begin to speak of my responsibilities toward the greater good. The challenge is to identify and name that point where even legitimate rights go too far and they begin to impinge upon the well-being of the entire community as a whole. Very few people (though there are some) are challenging our second amendment constitutional rights to bear arms, any more than I think we should outlaw cigarettes or alcohol. But it is time to recognize that our gun laws are shaped by one of the most powerful lobbying institutions in our nation; that is, the gun lobby, and that their rights-based claims to provide our society with a steady stream of weapons and munitions designed, created, and intended to kill human beings is destructive of the common good, and of the rights of every other American to live in safety.
Grief and anger are natural reactions to this most recent shooting. In fact, just again this morning I was brought to tears over another story I heard on NPR about a young girl who spoke for the first time since the shooting while she was petting a therapy dog that had been brought to Newtown. And I believe there are many possibilities for hopeful and necessary change that can arise from the collective sense of mourning and anger that we feel as a nation and as a world. I have suggested two here. First, let us learn to speak truthfully about God amidst this senseless suffering – God is present amidst it, not an agent of it. Secondly, I believe that this shooting has pushed us toward a tipping point in our culture where we recognize that there is not an unlimited right to manufacture, buy, sell, own, exchange, and profit off of, weapons that facilitate the rapid destruction of human life. It won’t be easy to go against the gun lobby or to change our current legislation and practices, but our collective safety and the common good of our nation demand it.