When tragedy strikes, partisan politicking offers cold comfort

(RNS) Less than 24 hours after a gunman began killing people at Umpqua Community College, our country’s political fires were raging at maximum intensity.

President Obama was clamoring for more gun control laws.

Gun rights advocates were blaming “gun-free zones” for making it possible for public places to become killing fields.

An out-of-context comment by Jeb Bush spread like wildfire through social media, as if to prove that heartless conservatives care more about guns than people.

Witnessing all the fury, I can’t help but feel like this unspeakable tragedy in Oregon has just become — if possible — even sadder.

There once was a time in American life when a crime of this magnitude would bring people together. We carried with us a sense of patriotic grace, a river of pathos flowing underneath common ground. Moments like this hushed our lips and led our hearts to reflect. More often than not, that reflection led to empathy: "That might have happened here. That could have been my child. What if I had been there? Oh, God — give us peace."

Those sentiments dissipated all too quickly this week. Perhaps due to the callousness of our hearts or the fact that mass shootings have become common, we now rush to the computer to vent our frustrations rather than turn to God and to each other to express our grief.

I understand how the feeling of helplessness intensifies the desire to just do something — to promote some person or push some policy. Make a statement. Pass a bill. Do whatever it takes to help us at least feel like we’re making progress in preventing these senseless horrors.

What troubles me is not that these tragedies lead to advocacy for policy change, but that our country’s imagination is held captive to the idea that the only place where such change can take place is in the legislature or courthouse. That’s why the conversation turned immediately to governmental blame and governmental solutions:

  • From the right: Government is to blame for preventing good citizens from being able to act quickly and protect people in situations like this! 
  • From the left: Government won’t pass common sense legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals!

All sides of the gun control debate seem to think government is partly to blame and government is our only hope.

But this raises an interesting question: Why do we turn to government first? Are there no other places to turn for comfort, for consolation, for change?

Perhaps our public discourse has been impacted by our country’s gradual secularization. Polls and surveys show that secularism in the United States does not do away with religious observance; it does however relegate the role of religion to the margins of civic life, where it occupies a small compartment of privatized belief and therapeutic benefit.

Is it possible that, in the absence of religion, political activism has grown up to take its place? Where do we turn in times of tragedy? If not prayer, then policy. If not church, then state. If not the warmth of a common humanity, then the fire of our partisan divides.

“For more and more Americans, politics has become a religion,” writes Peggy Noonan. “People find their meaning in it. They define themselves by their stands.”

Noonan is right. Our country is still faith-filled; it is just that today our faith is misplaced. Too often, it’s directed toward government, not God. And many of our frustrations come when we realize government can’t ultimately save us. It was never meant to.

This explains why we so easily fall back into the trenches of our political warfare, and why our political wrangling is so exhausting. Noonan adds: “When politics becomes a religion, then simple disagreements become apostasies, heresies. And you know what we do with heretics.”

There will always be partisanship. That’s not something we should rule out, or something we should “rise above.”

But to put the political process in perspective requires us to remember and reaffirm truths that transcend our party lines. It means we must extend to one another grace, and soundly reject political cheap shots and manipulative sound bites.

I hope that, in the wake of the Oregon tragedy, we can reaffirm the commonalities that unite us, and then lean on that common ground when we engage in the inevitable debates about the best way forward. I hope we can assume the best of our political opponents and not immediately tar them with the worst possible motives.

For that to take place, however, the embers of our commitment to one another must burn hotter than the flames of our political discourse. Tragedies should stir up those ancient embers, not fan the new flames.

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