In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.
At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.
What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.
I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.
The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.
Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:
Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.excerpt found here
Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!
Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.
Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.
If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.
The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?
In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.
Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”
So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?
I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.
And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?
The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.
The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.
These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.
What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.
Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.
It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”
I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.
I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”Ephesians 4: 32