As narratives spiral out following the massacre in Las Vegas and we again shuffle onto the floor to participate in the same tired song and dance, I am struck by the weary tone in nearly all who speak.
Not that I’m surprised – I too am weary beyond belief with this gaping wound, this flowing blood we seem helpless to staunch – but I’m also struck. Struck by the jittery tears of late night hosts who again cannot muster a joke;1 by the religiously-tinged words of condolence from a famously irreligious man;2 by the news outlets’ psychologically harmful coverage of terrorism;3 and most of all, by the return to the script.
Perhaps you’re wondering to what “script” I’m referring:
The woman stares at the TV she can’t seem to turn off, though the news hasn’t changed for hours, the chyron reading: “Over fifty dead, hundreds injured . . .” She shakes her head and looks at me, saying, “Now everyone’s going to start blaming the guns. Those guns didn’t shoot themselves; someone had to pull the trigger. We don’t have a ‘gun problem,’ we have a ‘people problem.’
Hours later, two men talk across the room as the most recent update blares from the screen between them. The younger man says, “Now those stupid politicians are gonna fight over whether or not they should take people’s guns, but that’s not going to solve anything. They just want to score points” His father, nodding violently, says, “Yeah! It won’t solve anything because the problem isn’t with the guns, it’s with sin. We have a ‘sin’ problem.”
Ah yes, the “America doesn’t have a ‘gun problem,’ it has a ‘sin problem’” line; almost as popular as the, “Right now is not the time or place to talk about gun control.” The only problem is that those two lines are objectively false: America does have a gun problem4 and, due to the near daily occurrence of these tragedies5, if we are waiting for the “right moment” to discuss gun control, if we must be far removed from a mass shooting to talk, it will never happen. These transparent attempts to distance ourselves from the underlying issues cannot stop them from happening, but they can eventually lead to a psychological fatigue that will desensitize us to their impact, all but guaranteeing they continue indefinitely. If we can dismiss out of hand any possibility of slowing down the growing tide of violence by saying it’s a “sin problem,” meaning something inherent within us and therefore unfixable, we won’t have to deal with it.
Yet that always raises for me the question, if this is a problem inherent in the human race, why isn’t it like this everywhere? Why don’t other countries seem held hostage by rampant gun violence? Could it be that they have found a path that we are unable or unwilling to walk?6
Look, I’m not going to unveil a five point plan to shatter gun violence’s grip on this country. I know that America’s legislative system was crafted to move slowly and also that its climate is so polarized that, even though a majority of citizens support exploring measures to curb these events,7 we aren’t likely to see much movement from Congress simply because the political cost would be too great. That, combined with a uniquely bellicose national personality residing deep in our country’s bones, means change will come slowly and possibly not without massive political upheaval.
But for the sake of argument, let’s agree that America has a “sin problem.”
Great. Now what?
Many of my progressive-leaning friends struggle with this word sin. And by struggle, I mean they almost entirely refuse to use it or talk about it. “Sin” is the Voldemort of progressive Christians: say it, and it will appear and feed you to its creepy snake. On the other side, many of my conservative friends seem unable to talk about anything else: if we were to ever lose sight of our wretched unworthiness – our utter sinfulness – we would quickly forget the terrifying holiness of God and descend into a bacchanalian orgy worthy of Aaron’s rave around the golden calf.
Okay, maybe I overstated that a touch.
Yet, whether we refuse to name it or can’t stop naming it, the problem of sin remains, as well as its bloody effects on our life together.
I believe the primary reason for this divide and therefore its continued ability to wreak havoc in our communal lives is a poor definition of the concept itself. Any first semester Bible student can tell you, the primary word for sin in the New Testament, hamartia, means essentially “to miss the mark” or “wander from the path,” connoting the imagery of an arrow missing its target.
But what if when we sin, when we are submerged in our “sin nature” (you may even call it our “sin problem”), we are doing something more than simply misfiring? What if sinning is fundamentally about forgetting that we weren’t supposed to be practicing archery to begin with?
What I mean is that the life and Kingdom that Jesus and his prophetic forebears were calling people to live into was miles deeper than simply doing the right things. It was, as St. Paul would say, about adopting an entirely new mind (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10); it was the sort of upside down wisdom leading to Jesus naming every sort of outcast and loser as somehow “blessed” (Matt. 5:1-12), telling his followers that only when they stopped trying to “do it right” would they see their beloved Law fulfilled (Matt. 5:17-20).
The Life that Christ came to bring was fundamentally mystical, an experience intended to bring us into union with the Divine by breaking through our natural dualistic tendencies and knitting our “true self” to God:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:20-24).
The Christ lived a life free from sin. Growing up, I took that to mean Jesus of Nazareth literally never transgressed any legal, religious, or moral line. I’m not here to comment on the purity of Jesus’ earthly life, but I do believe that the freedom Christ claims to bring must be more than simply seeking to conform our actions to a new and even more unachievable moral code – one which only brings more shame and anxiety when we inevitably fall short.
The freedom, the Grace of God to which we throw ourselves is not the trepidation of those who have tirelessly repressed themselves only to still “missed the mark,” but is rather the vast open field of participation with the One in whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” The Power which is “Before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).
We do indeed miss the mark; we do stray from the path. We do have a “sin problem.” But it’s not that we have failed to uphold a moral code, but rather that we have wandered from our Divine calling to true humanity, to be the priests who offer the world with thanksgiving back to God. We miss, we stray because of our penchant for living into our egos; living disunified lives, cut off from the Source that alone can bring recognition, Life, peace, and healing.
This “sin problem” is certainly the reason we respond to each other with such reckless violence; why we always seek new and swifter and more brutal ways to solve our problems. Jesus, himself a victim of defensive scapegoating and redirected violence, recognized that we had forgotten who we were when spoke from the cross, saying we “do not know what we are doing” (Luke 23:34).
This “sin problem” is the reason a man with no history of mental illness or depression, no ties to radical political or religious ideology, seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, opened fire on a crowd of unknown and defenseless people. It’s why we hope for some excuse that explains his actions for us since, “We don’t even know enough about him to hate him yet”;8 why we desperately look for flaws in this man’s life, hating the reflection of the selves we try so hard to forget.
This “sin problem” is why we cast about for any explanation that gets us off the hook. Why we blame poorly understood theological concepts and divert the conversation away from practical changes that might make even the smallest dent in this out-of-control issue.
So what do we do?
What do we do when our sin, this proclivity for unthinking violence, converges with innovative methods for harming hundreds people in a moment? Where do we start?
Perhaps we should first recognize that our “sin problem” has a gun problem.
Perhaps we should begin by talking about it. Stop deflecting and blaming and adding fuel to the cycle of hate. Perhaps we should begin to look at societal and legal changes that could stem the needless flow of blood.
And perhaps, once we’ve begun dealing with our gun problem and as these events slow down (even a little), we can stop reeling, take a collective breath, and continue working on our sin problem, seeking for the path of unity we stray from every time we forget not simply what we do, but who we are.
1. Russonello, Giovanni. “Jimmy Kimmel Seizes on Las Vegas Shooting to Champion Gun Laws in Emotional Monologue.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/arts/television/kimmel-vegas-shooting.html.↩
2. Frum, David. “A Presidential Speech Steeped in Hypocrisy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Oct. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/a-speech-steeped-in-hypocrisy/541758/.↩
3. voxdotcom. “Strike-Through: This Is Your Brain on Terrorism.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZohjYKGZJM&list=PLJ8cMiYb3G5cghzLdchzalWpQJnhRYZgO&index=16.↩
4. Lopez, German. “America’s Unique Gun Violence Problem, Explained in 17 Maps and Charts.” Vox, Vox, 2 Oct. 2017, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts.↩
5. LaFraniere, Sharon, et al. “How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/us/how-often-do-mass-shootings-occur-on-average-every-day-records-show.html.↩
6. Lopez, German. “The Research Is Clear: Gun Control Saves Lives.” Vox, Vox, 4 Oct. 2017, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/4/16418754/gun-control-washington-post.↩
7. Struyk, Ryan. “Gun Control Policies with Support in Both Parties.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2 Oct. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/politics/bipartisan-gun-control-policies-majorities/index.html.↩
8. “Fox News Has a Hard Time Processing the Las Vegas Shooting – The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.” The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Comedy Central, 3 Oct. 2017, www.cc.com/video-clips/6gn8y5/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-fox-news-has-a-hard-time-processing-the-las-vegas-shooting?xrs=synd_facebook_100417_tds_1.↩