Faith Commons

The direction of healing is toward one another

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Governor Greg Abbott makes it clear he will never reduce access to guns. Even after recent high-profile brutal killings of innocents in Uvalde, Cleveland, and Allen, Texas, his answer to gun violence is to expand mental health programs and to pray. 

We all respond to the incessant sorrow and horror of gun violence in our own way. But a response to gun violence is not a strategy to reduce it. It should go without saying that we at Faith Commons support the expansion of mental health resources and encourage prayer to help cope with the moral injury gun violence inflicts on us all. But it is the responsibility of policy makers and public officials to do more. Their job is to create laws that protect the public square, rather than promoting unbridled private autonomy that keeps us all vulnerable to the next mass shooting. 

Many recent perpetrators of mass shootings have been individuals trained in war tactics and groomed on screens, divorced from normal daily social interaction with other human beings. A government that allows a lonely, socially-isolated individual to access an assault weapon more easily than a pack of cigarettes is dangerous.

We urge vigorous new laws to limit access to guns as the most immediate means of reducing violence. And we also know that attention to what is happening in our society that gives rise to these tragedies is necessary, too.

The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The report links both to mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. Homicide and suicide rates are highest in populations that are targeted or ignored because they don’t fit in to someone else’s norm, and higher still among young people in those groups. 

The Surgeon General’s report suggests that the corrective to many of the mental health issues and diseases plaguing Americans of all ages is more engagement with other human beings, in person and in groups, sharing real-time lived experience. Mental health programs provide essential tools for healthy social engagement. 

The temptation, however, is to focus in these moments only on the lone wolf, the individual who commits the crime, rather than the whole milieu that gives rise to the perpetrator. Mental health tools are no match for culture and policy that direct us to exclude, shun, torture and debase whole categories of people because of aspects of their identity that we don’t understand or like, while we simultaneously normalize the proliferation of lethal weapons.

Our very survival as a species depends on reclaiming our competency in human-to-human interaction. The muscle that forms and nurtures relationships atrophies when not forced to do things that feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, and even painful. Discomfort is not the same thing as danger: Casting others as dangerous because they look, talk, believe or identify in a way that makes us uncomfortable is alienating for them and for us. Using the U.S. Constitution as a weapon to combat laws that would reduce gun violence is dangerous.

Engagement is risky. It requires ceding control and encountering things that are unexpected or unfamiliar to us. But when fear mongering and vigilantism are popular and profitable, we must take the risk. Exposing ourselves to unfamiliar people trains us to feel connected, safe, and hopeful. It is up to individuals and groups to differentiate between discomfort and danger so that we can actually reduce fear, regain trust, and forge the path to a healthy and sustainable future.

This is where prayer comes in not only as consolation but as prevention. Prayer reinforces our interconnectedness, and our resilience. Prayer gives us strength to handle the vicissitudes of life with courage and humility; to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we must learn to live with. Prayer reminds us of our job—making God’s love and compassion real in this world.