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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is the senior pastor of a nondenominational congregation in Washington, DC.

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Those Who Mourn

December 17, 2012

These past few days, like the rest of the country, I have been filled with absolute shock and horror at the carnage that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, where so many people were killed, most of them children. We are likely to never know just what triggered Adam Lanza to commit this heinous act, but right now there are more important points of emphasis. We are grieving over the lives lost and extending ourselves in support to the surviving children and adults affiliated with Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as their families. They now have the difficult task of reconstructing a sense of safety and stability, as we strive for something similar in our respective communities. Despite the reality this world's darkness, illuminated so intensely during times like this, I -- along with many others -- refuse to mourn as one without hope.[1] Still, as Max Lucado shared, this event undeniably amounts to "raw evil demonstrated."[2] This somber time will be forever etched into the annals of our consciousness, principally due to the number of child that were murdered.

As a by-product of such devastating loss, countless issues quickly rise to the surface of public discourse. For sure, in the coming days and weeks gun control will be front and center. To this novice of constitutional law, the fact that guns -- even the semiautomatic type -- can be obtained with such ease legally or illegally in America is incompatible with the heart of the Second Amendment. Protecting oneself and loved ones against an armed intruder or assailant is one thing, but having military-style weaponry on-the-ready seems excessive, to say the least.[3] In considering ultimate individual and societal good, the risk/reward ratio is dangerously imbalanced with that type of mindset. Any notion of liberty must always be tempered by healthy checks and balances. Security measures in schools are likely also to receive intense debate. Questions will abound about if "panic rooms" and metal detectors should become standardized instruments in schools to help provide an extra layer of protection from these kinds of attacks. Increased security is a natural next step, I suppose, but a cumbersome sense of fragility very well may accompany it. Therefore, even in our well-intentioned plans to respond with swift, relevant, and effective reform, we are wise to tread lightly. Frightened, impressionable young souls hang in the balance.

These and other issues associated with this tragedy will be incessantly debated amongst institutions of higher learning and media outlets, and at the office water cooler. In barbershops, beauty salons, and the hallowed halls that our elected officials traverse, solicited and unsolicited contributions will be offered as to what can and should be done to solve the complex issue of gun violence that holds us hostage. As a concerned citizen, on most days I probably possess a handful of good ideas on the subject, but nothing earth-shattering or overly innovative. There are those much more knowledgeable about the frustrating nuances of such things. I would, however, like to raise an eyebrow to what is puzzlingly overlooked during times of "unexpected" violence like this.

Psychological and physical trauma is damaging to anyone,[4] but children specifically. It robs them of innocence, often stunting their emotional, social, and even intellectual potential, as they find ways -- whether helpful or not -- to cope with confusion and pain. Violence amongst adults is bad. Violence in the face of children is worse. Exposure to breaches of this level can cause a psychic break, which very well may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. Mental health professionals and professors like Chanequa Walker-Barnes[5] and Jill Snodgrass[6] can speak more fully than me about the clinical impact of trauma. Though, it suffices to say that the atrocities thrust upon this otherwise safe, small New England town will not be easily recovered from. As these types often are, the shooting has been called an "act of random violence." But, there are not so quaint cities across America where gun violence (and violence of many types) is not so random or infrequent. In fact, it is consistent if nothing else, and those forced to endure it are victims to longstanding issues of racial and class inequality.

Washington, DC; New Orleans, Louisiana; Flint and Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Oakland, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami, Florida --Take a casual afternoon drive through sections of these cities (which represent only a sampling of the larger reality) that have not yet been gentrified or otherwise sanctified with whitewashed accoutrements of upward mobility and you will see a sickening number of homegrown memorials that have been spontaneously erected on street corners in homage to children and young adults snatched away by gun violence; t-shirts, teddy bears, and photographs taped to lamp posts alongside "rest in peace" murals spray-painted on the sides of buildings.

The disparity is blinding, but concerted outrage and attention to the plight of these overwhelmingly African American and Latino citizens is nowhere to be found. Are their lives somehow less valuable to us because they reside where gunplay has come to be an expected occurrence? What does it say to a community that its inhabitants are routinely slain and little-to-nothing substantive is done about it, yet when those from more appealing zip codes or tax brackets experience gun violence first-hand, albeit in the shadow of one massive episode, the nation bears sackcloth and ashes? Who will empower, counsel, and protect the young people and adults whose communities are domestic war-zones, where attending school or aspiring for a stable career and family life take a backseat to the simple hope of awaking each morning as evidence that you have survived another night of nauseating Babylonian gunfire?

When life is only truly valued inside the surreal security of Suburbia an obvious moral disparity has occurred. I, for one, don't believe that America has reached some saintly level of altruistic goodwill and equality just because the recently reelected president is African American. While deeply appreciative of this rich development in America's historical tapestry, I am not oblivious to the snide racial and class-based commentaries overheard in the mall, in line at Krispy Kreme, on the treadmill at the gym, or in the hallway at church. In all fairness, though, these prejudiced proclamations and actions cut both ways, mind you. Racial and socioeconomic disenfranchisement doesn't give anyone a license to hate and, quiet as it is kept, minorities can sling it as well as they may receive it. As a country we have accomplished a lot, which it is right to be proud of and thankful for, but we do a disservice to act as if there are no longer any 13,000-pound elephants in our midst.

In light of this sad incident, we better begin to value life as God values it -- across lines of race and class (and other divides) -- if we desire to do more than blow hot air on our problems.[7] Let us comfort "all" of those who mourn in the active presence or aftermath of gun violence even as we, too, mourn the loss of lives so ripe with such potential, flowers forbidden to blossom. With honest dialogue, slowly achieved trust, and fortified concern for the well-being of those who may not live where we live or live as we live, perhaps we will grow to ensure that everyone, children especially, has equal access to the high-quality of life that all deserve who reside in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."


[1] 1Thessalonians 4:13-14.
[2] http://www.christianpost.com/news/max-lucados-prayer-in-response-to-conn-school-shooting-86681
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/us/lanza-used-a-popular-ar-15-style-rifle-in-newtown.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[4] See Lenore Terr, Too Scared To Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood (New York: Basic, 1992), Bessel A. van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, Lars Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society (New York: Guilford, 2006), Laurence Heller, Aline Lapierre, Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2012), and Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
[5] Dr. Walker-Barnes is an assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia.
[6] Dr. Snodgrass is an assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland.
[7] 1 Corinthians 13:1.


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