America’s collective consciousness has been assaulted of late by the rapid-fire reports of mass shootings across the country. What was once an almost unthinkable rarity has become a commonplace crime. This has lead to the posting of travel warnings by foreign governments, looking after the safety of their own citizens traveling to the US. Scarcely a week passes between tragedies, and in the case of this past weekend mere hours. When these events occur we are caught between simultaneous impulses to morn and to memorialize the lives lost and give them their due respect. When these event occur in quick succession, we are spurred to move on to the next tragedy before we have had the chance to morn, much-less memorialize the first.
The mind will create innumerable ways to address this constant carnage. Anger. Rage. Cold calculation. Political gaslighting. Denial. Emotional distancing. Even acquiescence. When the carnage becomes significant enough, we de-name and enumerate the dead. We afford our consciouses rest by robbing the victims of their dignity. Mass murders become body counts. Mass migrations become invasions. Sacrifices in service become force depletion; the innocent dead become collateral damage. While we have reckoned this type of distancing as a rare necessity, the unfortunate cost is displayed in the increasing frequency of its use. When we reduce persons to numbers we inadvertently reduce our ability to recognize their inherent value. There is a comfort to be found when we avert our eyes from reality and from the eyes of those around us, but it is a lonesome comfort.
Case in point. In response to the recent weekend’s events, the shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH, Media star and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to the nation’s angst via twitter by adding some scientific context that was quantitative, if uncaring:
“In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors
300 to the Flu
250 to Suicide
200 to Car Accidents
40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”
Tyson’s morally flat assessment was met with almost instant criticism. But his analysis was far closer to the mainstream of thought than we would like to admit. We are quickly becoming a culture that is unable to discern between the judicial use of force and the unlawful use of violence; between the “acts of God” and the “acts of man.”
The cold utilitarianism behind Tyson’s reasoning inevitably leads us to conclude that because people die every day, sometimes intentionally sometimes unintentionally, overall the population is merely thinning itself out. The human herd is being culled, whether by suicide or sniper and our emotional response if we have one, should not be predicated on any moral judgments as to which way is better or worse. To respond to one human being killing 9 or 22 other human beings is a “spectacle.”
That people die of a variety of causes is a source for sadness no doubt, but that we kill each other senselessly should be, for Tyson and the rest of us, the cause of spectacular sorrow. This sorrow only manifests in the hearts of those who view humanity as distinct in
Those on the right, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Tyson, quickly rushed to claim the high ground and decry his failure to acknowledge human worth. And yet… They have their own fallen stars. President Trump has been roundly criticized for standing idly by while his campaign rallies rhetorically descend the moral ladder. Recently he lamented the “Invasion” of Mexicans crossing the border and rhetorically queried the audience, “How do you stop these people?” which prompted a cry from the crowd “shoot them.” His recent response aside, there is an uncaring trend in Trump’s weekly rhetoric, which shows a lack of appreciation for human worth. Whether he is a mirror to culture or its shaper is up for debate.
The president’s political opponents rarely have names, rather they have pejorative nicknames, and his geopolitical foes whether asylum-seekers or immigrants are frequently reduced to hordes and mobs of murderous invaders. While it would seem that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Trump have little in common, they share a shyness when it comes to moral absolutes and reticence to call evil by its name. But they are who they are because that is who we the people want them to be; Trump’s aversion to nuance is just as appealing to his base as Tyson’s scientific dispassion is to his; so neither man is likely to change. Trump’s speeches and Tyson’s tweets did not kill those helpless souls last weekend. But the underlying tendency in both men’s rhetoric to diminish human worth is the same tendency necessary to pull the trigger.
The Essential Christian Calling
This same moral ambiguity is common in foreign policy and international relations. There, moral certainty is easily hidden behind cultural diversity and religious pluralism. “Who are we to say” is as common a rallying cry in the Hague as “Send them back” is at a Republican rally, both share echoes of the same reasoning.
One of the reasons Providence exists is to articulate the distinctive Christian conception of human worth into a public policy arena often devoid of such distinctions. The reality that faces secular and political scientists alike is that a person’s worth is not predicated solely on their utility or their political affinity. Every human being is created in the image of God and their worth is inherent and inviolable. This reality of human worth transcends policy and confounds statistics; and this reality should cause us to see equal dignity in all men and women, whether they’re facing asylum, abortion, or an AR-15.
Christians often struggle in times such as these to find their place amidst the culture. Are they on the right side or the left? Do they favor this policy or that? Are they part of a nationalistic movement or a super-national/supernatural order? What hath Jerusalem to do with El Paso or Dayton? In Christianity and Democracy, Jacques Maritan elucidates the Christian contribution and call to culture with refreshing clarity,
“Christianity announced to the peoples the kingdom of God and the life to come; it has taught them the unity of the human race, the natural equality of all men, children of the same God and redeemed by the same Christ, the inalienable dignity of every soul fashioned in the image of God, the dignity of labor and the dignity of the poor, the primacy of inner values and of goodwill over external values, the inviolability of consciences, the exact vigilance of God’s justice and providence over the great and the small.
For Maritan, it is the duty of those who lead us “to manage the goods entrusted to them,” chief among these “goods” is the “call to all to share in the freedom of the sons of God.” And it is the obligation of those who are being led to remind their leaders of this duty. Now that task falls on us. So we mourn and we remember; we remember the distinct worth of the fallen and the inherent dignity of the foreigner, knowing that if we forget either then we deny our own humanity.