When I first heard about the campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University, I was preparing dinner, my baby boy babbling in his highchair.
Seattle Pacific is my alma mater, and I stared at my Facebook feed, reading updates from friends, shocked that the horrible phenomenon of school shootings had finally come to my community.
My program at SPU never took me to the campus, but I have friends who were not far from the shooter’s path, their offices all on lockdown, the sound of shots, like popping balloons, punctuating the air as the shooting claimed the life of a 19-year-old student and injured two others.
Even after hearing that my friends were all accounted for, I could not shake the loose, unhinged feeling in my chest.
What was I afraid of? The shooter was caught; my friends were safe. But I kept looking at my son, securely strapped in his highchair, happily munching on bread, and all I could think was, “I am keeping him home forever.”
To me, the many shootings that have occurred since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High are horrifying not simply because they have killed people but because their existence reveals the intimate wounds of our public life.
The people who have picked up guns usually are male, many with mental illness or difficulties with relationships; they bring assault rifles, bags of knives, lists of names. Sometimes the campus they target is a place they attended, but in the case of Aaron Ybarra, the Seattle Pacific campus was just a random selection, a public place to execute a twisted, private longing.
More than failed gun policies or the stigmatization of mental health issues, the phenomenon of school shootings shows that in American society some thread has unraveled. People are isolated in the midst of their families and friends, left alone with their fears and anger.
And even when appropriate measures are taken (as in the case of Elliot Rodger, whose family reported him to police and mental health services before he brought a gun to a Santa Barbara campus), it seems that our attempts to stop these shootings are shortsighted and incomplete.
I do not want to minimize the importance of policies in addressing this crisis. But I do believe that the polarizing, conflicted messages we receive across the political spectrum concerning such violence fail to recognize something profoundly central to what it means to be human.
It is significant that shootings occur in places that are both intensely public and intensely personal, places where people gather to learn, eat and live life together. It can be said that a college campus, like a parish or church, is a picture of our humanity: coming together for common causes, for learning, worship, relationship. These shooters, in many ways, are lashing out against places that train us to live fruitfully together, and that is a sign of the symptoms that plague us.
And it can also be said that while people are capable of horrific things, our ontology points us to a greater purpose: “The glory of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive.” It would be wrong to chalk these shootings up to a simplistic depravity, shoulders shrugged, as if there were nothing new under the sun and nothing to be done about it.
So what do we do? How do we live? My husband and I asked these questions that evening at the dinner table, our minds turned toward our upcoming move to Boston, where my husband will pursue ordination as a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church.
“This thought is both terrifying and wonderful,” he said, handing more bread to our son, “but the life we are pursuing is something that, in a way, fights this kind of evil.”
Will liturgy and communion stop someone from shooting up our future parish? Can a baptism keep guns out of the hands of unstable people? It would be dangerously naive to think so.
But what my husband noted, and what seems to be true, is that the motions of church life erase the lines between private and public; that what is offered in the Gospels, and in the life of the church, is an invitation for our hearts to be healed. And each of us, parishioner and pastor alike, has the ability to extend that invitation in profound ways to our neighbors, ways that recognize and treat the inner wounds that are so exposed by these tragedies.
I am not saying that an invitation to a church potluck would have changed Adam Lanza’s course of action in Newtown, Connecticut. Or that participating in worship would have stopped Ybarra or Rodger.
But I am saying that my desire to keep my son at home forever is not the desire I should follow.
Instead, as I did that night, I should give him a bath and plan a picnic for the next day, one that would take me and my family to the public park behind our house, where, despite my fear, I would smile and watch as a mom and a grandfather helped their kids share the swings.
I should take the dog for a walk and chat with the elderly man who is weeding his yard, keeping me longer with his stories than I really want to stay.
I should, in the daily motions of my life, seek to bless the bonds between myself and others.
In the face of such complex, heart-stopping violence, we can and must live out the passing of the peace that we share on Sunday mornings in ways both ordinary and courageous. For what else does the Great Commission do but command us to go out, and to be not afraid? And for what else do we pass the peace, if not to help restitch the threads that are broken between us?