Imagine a particular township in which literally hundreds of people were dying every year from heart attacks.
Sadly, in this one municipality (unlike the others that surrounded it), the cardiac fatalities had become so common that they now went largely unnoticed, except for the extreme exceptions—or when the paramedics came to your front door.
In response, some citizens from a variety of backgrounds, began to study the situation and to form possible solutions that would involve a variety of factors: diet, exercise, smoking, family history, and better medical testing.
This wouldn’t end all heart attacks, of course, but it might stop some.
“Finally… one citizen began to think. Perhaps we could do something to reduce this blight that strikes only here with this kind of stupid frequency.”
But then imagine if a well-meaning Christian offered this:
“Stop bringing up all this stuff about diet, exercise, and smoking! Clogged arteries are a heart issue—and only Jesus can heal hearts.”
How would we respond to such a person?
THE TROUBLE WITH FALSE CHOICES
While I can think of several less charitable phrases, let’s pretend that we are in a mood to be compassionate (since I wrote about that recently).
After all, the well-meaning Christian is not entirely wrong.
We might point out that “Yes, heart attacks are ‘a heart issue’—but they are not just that.” And because they are not just that, it would be foolish to go about preventing them with only prayer and preaching.
The reason, however, has nothing to do with prayer and preaching being weak.
Even “heart issues” require a variety of responses.
They have many causes and, thus, are not reducible to bumper-stickers. They require nuanced, both/and thinking, and they are not solved by false dichotomies: trans fats vs. lack of exercise; family history vs. sugary sodas; stress vs. smoking.
It’s not either/or—it’s both/and. And yes, it is also “a heart issue.”
Unfortunately, in our current climate, such both/and thinking seems almost anathema, and especially in the land of social media–where nuance goes to die.
It is either “a heart issue” or “a gun issue.”
It is either “a failure of parenting” or “a failure of the mental health system.”
It is either “what happens when we turn away from God,” or “what happens when even self-advertising psychopaths can easily access their own private arsenal.”
Never in my life have I seen so many false choices.
In response, one is tempted to scream: “IT’S ‘ALL OF THE ABOVE’!!! And we won’t begin to fix it till we recognize that!”
Behold the challenge of discussing mass shootings in America.
JESUS AND FALSE CHOICES
Which brings me to Jesus.
One day after the horrific massacre in Florida, a student in my Bible class asked this:
“In the Gospels, why does Jesus almost never give people a straight answer to their questions?”
It’s a great question, and I was just about to answer it. Then I remembered Jesus. So I proceeded to ask questions and tell stories.
“Do you remember what was written on the whiteboard today when you came in?”
Upon entering the room, I had noticed that another professor had apparently given his or her students a choice of essays. The topic was school shootings. OPTION ONE was to craft an essay entitled “Take away all guns,” while OPTION TWO was to “Give them to the good guys.”
(It’s possible, of course, that this way of framing the debate was designed to illustrate the silliness of such extreme dichotomies. And if so, kudos to whomever wrote it…)
Still, I asked this: “Is it possible that those might NOT be the only two solutions?”
What if framing the debate in such simplistic and false-dichotomizing terms actually prevents someone from answering the question intelligently?
What if that’s why Jesus rarely accepted the premises of his partisan questioners?
“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9.2)
“Whose wife will she be in the Age to Come?” (Mt. 22.28)
As someone mentioned recently, it’s as if the binary codes that run our social media (all ones and zeros) have infected us. We have been conformed to their electronic image. And now we too must be all “ones” or “zeros” on every complex issue.
Brothers and sisters, this should not be.
It was a cruel twist that the latest in a long line of school massacres took place on Ash Wednesday—a fact painfully pressed home by the gray cross smudged across the forehead of a grieving mother.
In such moments, “Eloi, Eloi” comes to mind.
And as with Jesus’ cry upon the cross, the question hangs unanswered.
In the end, I don’t know how to solve all school shootings. They have many causes, and I suspect they will require many nuanced solutions—all of which will cost us something.
But I do know this: We’ll continue getting nowhere so long as we fall into our partisan talking-points of “gun issue” vs. “sin issue.”
It’s time to stop being “ones” and “zeros” and start being people.