Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How church groups jumped the gun after the Tucson, Arizona shootings

By now we are all familiar with how various media and political figures (including the Sheriff of Pima County) used the murderous acts of one Jared Lee Loughner to slander everyone from Sarah Palin, to the Tea Party, to broad swaths of conservatives and the “right-wing”. Implicit in these slanders was that we were accessories to mass murder; that our political discourse created a ‘climate of hate’ which incited Loughner to act, targeting Rep. Gabriel Giffords in particular.   Less discussed has been how some church groups raced to assign blame, jumping the gun  with nary a fact in hand (Lest there be any doubt: I use that phrase intentionally to illustrate how silly it is to try to censor political speech in the name of civility).
Let’s start with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who describe their mission this way:
AFSC is a Quaker organization devoted to service, development, and peace programs throughout the world. Our work is based on the belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.
Here’s a portion of the AFSC response to the Arizona shootings:
Today’s strident political atmosphere escalates tension and helps to set the stage for incidents like this one. Our world is increasingly swept up in a tide of intolerance. We are all too accepting when political and spiritual leaders use rhetoric that demonizes those with different beliefs; when those who should call us to higher purpose, instead, contribute to an atmosphere that provokes the most vulnerable, disturbed among us to acts of vandalism, violence, and assassination. We all must take responsibility for correcting a political climate that has become so polarized and vitriolic.
They then proceed to do exactly what they warn against, namely “demonize those with different beliefs” thus adding to the “polarized” and “vitriolic” political climate they claim to decry:
It is not an accident that this tragic shooting took place in Arizona, where punitive laws and anti-immigrant scapegoating have only resulted in misunderstanding and divisiveness in our borderlands. These laws have brought us no closer to creating humane, workable policies that respect the rights and needs of those living on either side of the border. This is one of many examples that show how our nation’s political conversation is counterproductive to developing solutions that address our society’s fundamental needs.
So there you have it!  Without a single fact in their possession to determine Jared Loughner’s motives, the AFSC deduced that these shootings occurred because of “anti-immigrant scapegoating”.  AFSC goes on to say:
The American Friends Service Committee urges our elected officials, spiritual leaders and community leaders to commit now to act with civility and common purpose to heal our society. Real healing goes beyond civil words and tamped-down rhetoric and looks to the root causes of violence in our society, the conditions of inequality and injustice.  A political culture devoted to honestly and reasonably addressing those conditions would be a healthier one for all of us.
We call on national, state, and local leaders to respond with compassion to the needs and aspirations of those who have been disenfranchised by the political system and excluded from the economic recovery. This is a time to fulfill the promise of “justice for all.” This is a time for leadership towards “a more perfect union.”
Really? Was Jared Loughner “ living in conditions of inequality and injustice” , “disenfranchised from our political system” and “excluded from economic recovery”?   I look forward to hearing his lawyers use this defense at trial.   Okay, he might have been “excluded from economic recovery” (i.e. without a job) but even if one were to stipulate that that were true, to what extent was that a motive for his mad acts?  Should we live in fear of all the unemployed now?

Ironically, the legislative organ of the Quakers, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) was somewhat more circumspect in their assessment  and they make some sensible statements about mental illness. (The fact that the Quakers have a lobbying arm in Washington, D.C. makes it appear that they are more of a political than a religious organization, but I digress). Alas, included in the common sense is another attack on “metaphors”:
The shooting rampage appears to have been the act of a single disturbed person. His actions take place, however, in a culture where violence and demonization of those with whom we disagree appear to prevail. When violent metaphors permeate our society's discourse, we risk making violence more acceptable. Verbal violence, even if used without ill intent, may sow the seeds of hate and physical violence.
The shooting rampage in Tucson may point to the woeful state of mental health care across the United States. News reports indicate that many people were concerned that Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old charged in this attack, was mentally unstable and that he might become violent. Mental illness does not justify or excuse this heinous crime, but it may help us to understand why the congresswoman was attacked. We wonder whether proper treatment could have prevented the attack.
Moving on, we have the National Council of Churches:
Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 37 member communions -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.
Here is their response to the Arizona shooting (where they presume to speak for 45 million people):
"It's hard to assess the tragedy in any way that makes sense," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "Clearly the overheated political climate in this country is provocative and unhealthy. The constant use of guns and ammo metaphors in political rhetoric may lead an unbalanced person to think it's okay to bring guns to public meetings."
The Rev. should have stopped at “It’s hard to assess the tragedy in any way that makes sense” instead of drawing foolish, nonsensical conclusions which first blames “metaphors” and proceeds to assert that Loughner must not have known that it’s not okay to bring guns to a public meeting (as if that were the extent of the crime).  I’m actually a bit surprised Kinnamon didn’t go on to say we need to spend gazillions of dollars on education for the “unbalanced” so they would know what the guidelines are, and not make an error in etiquette. 

Eventually  Kinnamon blames the NRA and implies that they are an Ungodly organization:
The NRA "is known across the country as the best place to go to learn how to use guns safely for hunting and sport," Kinnamon said. "It's hard to understand how a rational safety program can coexist with lobbying for the right of people to own semi-automatic concealed weapons that can carry more than 30 rounds in a clip. It doesn't make sense, nor is it consistent with the gospel."
I’m not a Biblical Scholar, so I have to ask:  Is there anything in the gospel which specifies exactly how many rounds one may carry in a clip?  How about references to semi-automatic unconcealed weapons? 
The NCC goes on to provide reactions from members of America’s religious hierarchy, some more restrained and thoughtful than others.  Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas (Catholic) was in Jerusalem at the time and we learn:
After news of the shooting broke, Kicanas said Catholics in Jericho asked how to prevent further brutality. "I wish I knew the answer," the bishop said.
"But as the world continues to seek an answer to that question, we can, each in our own way, strive to respect others, speak with civility, try to understand one another and to find healthy ways to resolve our conflicts."
Fine. But this presumes that the perpetrator is sane and capable of responding to conflict resolution.

A brief, welcome note of sanity:
Religious leaders across the country offered similar sentiments on Monday, balancing lamentations about the dire state of political dialogue in the U.S. with cautions that Loughner's motives remain murky.
After that respite we’re soon back to making stuff up:
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said a lack of respect for human dignity -- political opponents included -- underlies society's incivility problem. "It's a failure to understand, from the perspective of the Abrahamic faiths, that we are all made in God's image," Gutow said. "There is a real problem in our society when things like that happen."
It’s a problem of “incivility”; no mention of the possibility that this could be the result of “insanity”. Another Rabbi speaks, and begins by blaming  a “culture of violence” in “political discourse”:
Even though the accused shooter's intentions are unknown, Americans cannot ignore the country's increasing culture of violence, particularly in political discourse, said Rabbi David Saperstein, whose Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has worked closely with Giffords.
I see scant evidence that political discourse itself is violent.  Innocent people are mowed down everyday in criminal acts that have nothing at all to do with politics (say, in the course of committing a robbery, because of gang wars, and so forth) while political assassinations are very rare, and few of those politicians who are assassinated are the victims of sane people motivated exclusively by political differences. 

Finally!  The issue of the “mentally ill” comes up but that gets lumped in with the “ideologically extreme”.  Who gets to define “extreme”?  Liberal members of the church establishment? Is it not fair to say that one man’s mainstream conservative is an other man’s “extremist? :
"Dehumanizing language and images of violence are regularly used to express differences of opinion on political issues," Saperstein said. "Such language is too often heard by others, including those who may be mentally ill or ideologically extreme, to justify the actual use of violence."
Sheesh. Unless people are talking to themselves, language is usually heard by others.  Buehler? As for evidence to back up claims about the ‘regular use’ of violent images in political discourse, very few examples of images have been unearthed. To whit, we have Palin’s “crosshairs”; a DLC map with bull's-eyes targeting districts Circa Bush era, and a few other innocuous examples (and of course it’s preposterous to claim these examples “justify the use of violence”).   Other than commonly accepted phrases like “battleground states” (which few would categorize as “dehumanizing”), I’m at a loss .  Perhaps Rabbi Saperstein is referring to language used in private homes and not in the public square?  Do people whip out maps with bulls-eyes on them while sitting around the dinner table, thereby inciting family members and friends to go out and shoot innocents? I think not.

Finally we come to a statement which I cannot find fault with!:
"While we as bishops are also concerned about the wider implications of the Tucson incident, we caution against drawing any hasty conclusions about the motives of the assailant until we know more from law enforcement authorities," said New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Alas, next we then get hints about conservatives being culpable:
Giffords, a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in Tucson, is a moderate Democrat who supported the health care reform bill and opposed Arizona's new illegal immigration law, both stances that drew heat from conservatives.
But then this analysis has a refreshing moment of clarity:
It is unclear, though, whether Loughner was motivated by partisan politics. In a video posted on YouTube, the 22-year-old rails against government conspiracies to brainwash Americans through grammar and rants nonsensically about currency. Loughner's former philosophy professor described him to Slate magazine as "someone whose brains were scrambled."
Sadly, in the end they return to the same finger-pointing meme:
A number of religious scholars and leaders urged politicians to weigh their words carefully and recognize the potential consequences of using violent imagery. "No one questions the power of well-chosen words and images to sell automobiles or beer or pharmaceuticals," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a good-government group based in Washington, and former general secretary of the NCC.  "Surely we should acknowledge that when poorly chosen they can provoke despicable acts like those we've now witnessed in Tucson."
Surely Judeo-Christian groups who are grounded in Biblical principles should lead by example, hold their fire, and wait for the facts to come out before rushing to judgment.  Surely those whose cause is “justice” should not unjustly allege others are essentially complicit in the slaughter of innocents.  Surely those whose cause is “peace” should not make statements which divide us and disturb our domestic tranquility.  Surely churches should not isolate their own congregants who have principled differences (on, say, immigration reform) and scapegoat them for their political positions.  Surely this is not what the gospel teaches.

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