Like many of you, my heart broke as I heard the news of the recent shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed. Sadly, because of the frequency of these tragic events, we have become rather numb to the news of these terrible acts of violence.
It was less than a week before that terrible shooting, that an individual drove a truck down a bike path in New York, killing eight people. In October, we woke to the news that a gunman had shot concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more. Even as I was preparing my thoughts for this column, another shooting was being reported. In this case, innocent children were targeted. This seemingly endless violence has wreaked havoc not only on the lives of those killed and injured, but also on the families and communities left behind. It must stop!
In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Pope St. John Paul II stated that “every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the church’s very heart.” As Christians, we ought to feel these assaults on life as our own. But feeling it is not enough. We must be moved to action.
One initiative we can work on is to recapture the sense of true, respectful dialogue. In the wake of these tragedies, many people have voiced their opinion on a variety of issues, including gun control, the accessibility of mental health services and what truly constitutes an act of terror. Regrettably, too often these opinions are voiced, not so much in a spirit of productive dialogue but rather with the intent to shout louder than the other side; a style of communication that has become far too prevalent in our society today. We are losing sight of our moral obligations of common respect for each other.
As a community, we need to listen more to others and trust they have good intentions, even when we disagree, and be willing to make sacrifices and offer compromise. Issues this complex and difficult are not resolved by one side acquiring everything they want. One-sided problem-solving leads only to resentment and further challenges in the future. However, if each side is willing to compromise, real progress can be made to reduce these acts of violence and murder. I call upon all of us to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with a common goal of solving these problems together.
We also must identify best practices when responding to a crisis situation like this. While we pray these things never happen at our schools, our churches, or our places of work, we must also remain vigilant. At the diocese, we are reviewing our current safety plans for our parishes and schools to ensure they are effective and improvements are identified and made where needed.
Keeping all of this in mind, we must acknowledge the ultimate responsibility of all to respect the sacredness of human life. Even if we develop policies and practices that are intended to prevent these tragedies from occurring, there will always be people who still disrespect the lives of others. Pope St. John Paul II recognized that we live in a culture where many people question the very idea that human life, in all its forms, is worthy of respect and protection. While we might dismiss this culture of death as the creation of “other people,” we must be willing to consider our own responsibility in fostering it.
As we embark on the beautiful Season of Advent, I ask that we look deeply at our own lives to consider how we have contributed to this culture of death. Do the television shows and movies we watch, or the music we listen to, and the books and magazines we read affirm the goodness of all people? Do we demean others with our words, treating people as second-class based on race, ethnicity, or gender? Do we treat our families, our neighbors, our coworkers, and the strangers among us as the image and likeness of God?
These are difficult questions and overcoming the culture of death will be difficult. It will take a radical commitment to self-giving love that sees the face of Christ in every human being and commits to honoring God in that person.
Brothers and sisters, this challenge is the conversion that Christ calls each of us to embrace. May the recent acts of violence give us a renewed vigor and purpose in accepting this call to love as Christ loves.
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.