Mass Shootings, Compassion Fatigue, and a Subtle Idolatry
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 15, 2018
Hi friends, we’ve witnessed more mass shootings in our country this past month. The two deadliest and most widely known were the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburg on October 27th and the Thousand Oaks shooting at the Borderline Bar in California on November 7th. These alone are enough to make one weep. I was further distressed to learn, however, that the Thousand Oaks shooting was not the second mass shooting since Tree of Life, but the twelfth.
The Gun Violence Archive defines a ‘mass shooting’ as a shooting in which at least four people were shot. (It’s one of the sources used here.) This means that ninety people were shot in mass shootings in the United States from October 27th to November 7th. Thirty-four of them died.
Let’s be clear: that’s not ninety people shot in the United States; that’s ninety people shot in mass shootings. In twelve days.
The damage this does to the communities in which the events occurred is, I think, obvious. Today I want to reflect on the less obvious impact it has on those of us who watch from afar. We live in an environment in which the sheer frequency of mass shootings does emotional and spiritual harm, even to those of us who are not directly impacted by the violence.
First, emotional harm. I want to be clear: when I use the word ‘harm,’ I’m not talking about how we feel sadness or anger or other negative emotions in the wake of a mass shooting. It is a sign of emotional health to feel sadness in the midst of suffering, or anger when we hear of a murder. What I mean by emotional harm is rather the damage done to our emotional faculties to empathize, to mourn, to lament. Simply put, when mass shootings happen so often, we become numb. We stop feeling them.
I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as compassion fatigue. I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it. We are, by definition, limited creatures. We must sleep, we must eat, we must breathe, we cannot work 24-hours a day. Likewise, we simply cannot feel compassion for every instance of human suffering we encounter on the news. It is increasingly the case that mass shootings tick by on the news in a series of statistics like the ones with which I began. Ninety shot. Twelve shootings. Eleven dead here, twelve dead there. This environment can exhaust the compassionate heart until it’s simply too tired to feel anything. One has compassion for a person; one cannot have compassion for a statistics.
I am not suggesting that each episode of suffering we encounter on the news should cause us to move with tectonic compassion. We would be paralyzed if it did. But if you do find yourself feeling detached from it all and feel moved to connect more deeply, here are the faces of the eleven people killed at Tree of Life. Here are the faces of the twelve people killed at the Borderline Bar. They have faces and stories, like you we do. Like Jesus does.
Or, perhaps you need to take a break from the news for a bit. That’s okay, too. Compassion fatigue is real. Just be sure it’s compassion fatigue you’re addressing and not simply a desire to avoid something painful.
Now, the spiritual harm is a bit less obvious. The regular occurrence of mass shootings convinces us that they are inevitable and that we are powerless to stop them. We see them alongside wildfires and hurricanes, which also seem to happen frequently, and so we begin to think of mass shootings as tragic inevitabilities.
This subtle shift of belief is spiritually damaging because it is not true. To speak of human actions as inevitable is to abdicate our role within God’s creation: we are beings who choose, who make objects of terrible power, who elect leaders, who pass laws and who break them. We are beings for whom mental illness is a possibility, for whom social media is a constant, and for whom free will is a great responsibility.
We are beings who tell stories. If we are not careful, the regularity of mass shootings may convince us that the only true story we can tell is one in which mass shootings are simply a tragic fact of being American in the way that flooding is a tragic fact of living in Texas or a tornado may be a tragic fact of living in Alabama.
But a mass shooting and a tornado are not the same thing. An active shooter drill and a tornado drill do not have the same moral weight. God made a world in which tornados are possible; we made a world in which mass shootings are common.
I believe in the power of thoughts and prayers. They matter, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and I believe that we are perpetuating a false story when we disparage their power. However, when it comes to mass shootings, it is simply true that thoughts and prayers do not represent our full power to respond. I am not claiming to have a solution. An American solution to this uniquely American evil will likely take more than one generation to emerge and establish a new normal.
For those of us who are adults right now in the midst of all this, repentance is a good place to start: we are Americans, and this is our societal evil. We don’t get to pass the buck. It may be that our kids or our grandkids are the ones who actually cross the Jordan into a land where mass shootings don’t happen. Or a land where they are at least so rare that we can remember all of them. In case you’ve forgotten, there were twelve between October 27th and Wednesday of last week.
Again, what is spiritually damaging in a country where mass shootings are so common is the slow, creeping belief that they are inevitable or that they are the price we pray for freedom. These are both lies. It is not clear what kind of freedom one enjoys if he survives a mass shooting in Las Vegas only to die in another a year later.
To see the choices, laws or culture of a human society as forces beyond human power to change is, for Christian people, a subtle form of idolatry. It’s subtle because it’s not as though we just decide one day to categorize mass shootings alongside natural disasters. We learn it, from each other and from the media and from public figures, slowly, over time. It’s a practice, a habit of speaking we develop and eventually come to believe. But remember: God’s decisions for human history and culture are irrevocable; ours are not. Idolatry is the word we use when we’ve lost that distinction.