I’ve been thinking about mass shootings lately—not because I want to, but because, if I dip into the news at all, they are impossible to avoid. Mass shootings are increasingly endemic in American culture, and I’ve been pondering the long-term consequences. I’m thinking about Henry’s recent comment that at the Chicago-area parade shooting on Independence Day, children were teaching their parents how to respond, based on school shooter drills. I find myself wondering: If opposition, strife, struggle, violence, and war are so prevalent throughout history, is living with trauma actually our cultural norm?
I first wrote about my growing understanding of the intergenerational consequences of trauma back in 2018, and I’ve also been reflecting on it more recently. The longer I live, the more it seems that opposition to others is the norm and love for all is the exception. Richard Rohr has written (I forget where, as I’ve edited so many of his books over the years) that Jesus never expected his way of life would become the cultural norm. His message was always profoundly countercultural.
Being countercultural, his way was challenging—even lethal—to sustain. Perhaps as many as millions of early Christians died at the hands of cultural leaders who found Christians’ commitment to radical equality a threat. Yet faithful followers of “the Way” were willing to risk gathering together in the name of Christ because his message of love was so powerful and life changing. The gifts of love and community offset the power of generational trauma for millions of early followers.
Eventually, autocratic leaders began to coopt the Christian faith rather than oppress it. Starting with Emperor Constantine in 313, running through a long series of “Christian” kings across Europe, and continuing today with American white nationalists, Christianity has consistently and frequently been used and abused by those in power to maintain their dominance.
Unfortunately, those who are not dominant end up traumatized in the process—and that trauma is another common thread running across the millennia, right up to this day. Children are traumatized by school shootings and the consequent shooter drills. Parents are retraumatized every time there’s another school shooting, wondering when it will be their own children’s turn. Women are traumatized by rape and retraumatized by the policing of our very bodies.
For much of human history, war was the cultural norm, whether it took the form of border skirmishes or pitched battles (the image above is of bullet holes in Jerusalem’s Zion Gate). Far too many books have been written about battles, normalizing the resultant trauma to soldiers and civilians alike. I propose that America’s mass shootings today are skirmishes in a wider cultural war that is traumatizing everyone.
So, what do we do with all this? To begin with, we need to stop denying the impact and pretending that we can get “over” and “through” this. We need to lament. We need to recognize the trauma. We need to keep watch for opportunities to make a holy difference in the lives of others, to counterbalance that trauma in some way. After all, Jesus said, “the Reign of God is among you.” It wasn’t some future vision of heaven, but right here, right now.
What do you think Jesus would say about all this? What conversation or prayer would you like to engage with him about it?