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Rush-to-judgment pundits left and right are opining about the two shootings this weekend. Nothing they or anyone else says will bring back to life the 31 who died. Words won’t repair the spirit of those who loved them or heal the bodies of the many who were injured. But for the rest of us, before the blame game goes into extra innings—let’s take a deep breath.
Leo Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with this now-famous line: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s true about eras in American history as well.
The 1960s had four infamous assassinations: Two Kennedys and two African American leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It featured race riots in more than 100 cities. The toll was enormous. In 1965 Los Angeles, 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured. In 1967 Detroit, 43 dead, more than 1,000 injured, and 1,400 buildings burned.
One book of the Bible has the name Lamentations, and the two mass shootings are certainly an occasion for lament. But no book of the Bible has a title, The-Sky-Is-Falling. That’s because in ancient times and modern times God holds up the sky—so this is neither a time for panic, nor a time to say America is in worse shape than ever before.
National Brotherhood Week (NBW) became an American institution in 1936, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first honorary chairman, giving a national radio address on Feb. 23. It became particularly significant during World War II, when Roosevelt took pains to lay out the difference between Americans and Nazis: “We are fighting for the right of men to live together as members of one family rather than as masters and slaves.”
That was the aspiration. In 1946 Frank Sinatra won an honorary academy award for a short film in which he broke up a gang doing religious/ethnic bullying. He sang “The House I Live In,” a hit song that asked, “What is America to me?” He offered an answer: “The children in the playground / The faces that I see / All races and religions / That’s America to me.”
Two decades later that sentimental flag was frazzled. In 1964 and 1965 satirist Tom Lehrer sang this about NBW: “Oh, the white folks / Hate the black folks / And the black folks / Hate the white folks / To hate all but the right folks / Is an old established rule.” He concluded with a wry comment about NBW: “It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”
Over the years the Week idea weakened and presidents stopped proclaiming it. Maybe President Donald Trump should Make NBW Great Again. He’s added to the problem by portraying opponents as enemies and using dehumanizing language. His political opponents also bear responsibility, but as possessor of the “bully pulpit” that goes with his office, President Trump has a special calling.
A back-and-forth now about who turned debate into warfare is not helpful. It’s better to emphasize some areas where left and right can agree, and others where left and right can agree to disagree without creating enemies lists.
First, can we agree not to encourage either “send her back” or “jail to the chief” chants? When tempted, watch Sinatra’s song on YouTube. Better yet, read Chapter 3 of James in the New Testament, where the apostle explains, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness … a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Second, let’s not thump each other over the head with big Bibles in an attempt to stake out a definitive Biblical position on guns and government. The one Bible verse I know about sword control summarizes a Philistine regulation: “Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears’” (1 Samuel 13:19). That’s descriptive rather than prescriptive, and not much to hang a policy on.
Third, the Bible does feature an analysis of human nature that goes well with what history teaches us: From both we see we are sinful people who misuse weapons, but we also have sinful governments that slide into dictatorships. The two sides differ on whether a home with a gun in it is safer (by deterring criminals) or more dangerous (by mishaps, homicides, and suicides) than one without. But it’s clear that if every Eastern European Jew during World War II had had a gun and was willing to use it, Nazis would have had a much harder time killing 6 million of them.
Fourth, while that was an extreme situation, the Constitution does include a right to keep and bear arms precisely because the Founders feared tyranny, so any ban on all weapons should require a Constitutional amendment, not just legislative or judicial finagling. An originalist argument could be that the Founders did not know about AK-47s and the like, so a ban on them (allowing individuals to keep single shot rifles and handguns) could be constitutional.
None of these four suggestions will solve the problem, but they might help. James 3:8 summarizes the deeper problem: “No human being can tame the tongue.” We by nature are haters. Tongues sooner or later express what we think and feel. Happily, only a few turn murderous thoughts into murderous actions, but for them and all of us, the only lasting remedy is a heart change that only God’s grace, because of Christ’s sacrifice, will bring about.