Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 20, 2022 / 19 Iyyar 5782
Summary: In this Oasis Songs column, I grapple with hate and gun violence and explain why I signed on to two state petitions which argue for new gun controls and why I think you should also.
Reading Time: Five minutes
We live in an age of hate.
A couple of weeks back, we dealt with attacks against the Jewish and Muslim communities here in Portland. This past week has continued to shock and dishearten us. In Laguna Woods, California, a Chinese émigré to America entered a Taiwanese church killing one and injuring five. The death toll would have been far higher if not for heroic action undertaken by the elderly members of the church. The shooter harbored anti-Taiwanese bias. In Dallas’s Koreatown, a black man entered a hair salon and shot and wounded three women. According to his girlfriend, he seethed with a deeply ingrained anger against Asian Americans that in this case was directed at Koreans.
In the most deadly and widely publicized attack last week, an 18 year old white teen killed ten people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, NY, leaving behind a 180 page vitriolic screed filled with anti-Black and anti-Jewish sentiment and a noxious “white replacement” ideology.
All of these crimes share three major features. The criminals used guns to execute the innocent, and they were motivated by hatred directed at entire groups of people. At this telling, each of the perpetrators also suffered from mental illness.
Let’s deal with this last issue first. It bears repeating that while most of our mass shootings are committed by people wrestling with mental illness, most people with mental illness are not violent nor do they commit atrocious acts. We are in the middle of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. Our country hasn’t always been the best at recognizing or maintaining the dignity of those who have mental ailments and has been guilty of warehousing people for an illness they did not choose any more than someone with breast cancer. The last thing we should do is stigmatize the mentally ill when we hear of another mass-shooting, or blame gun violence on the mentally ill.
Simultaneously, the mentally ill are like any of us—we all build an image of the world from the materials around us. The stories we tell, the ideologies we promote, the images we disseminate are absorbed by us and, in more or less productive ways, we all act on those materials. In an age where hatred, polarization, demagoguery, and hateful language are rampant, we all end up infected. We create a story about the world that often repeats the worst of what we hear.
Take Rolling Stone Magazine. In responding to the Buffalo massacre, Talia Lavin argued that the Buffalo murderer was not a lone wolf, but was representative of the entire Republican party, and by extension, nearly half of America. As Bari Weiss put it, “Believing that half the country is a mentally ill murderous cult isn’t going to help.”
I agree and disagree with both Weiss and Lavin. It’s not that half the country is a mentally ill murderous cult. Rather, every one of us, regardless of our politics, lives in an age of hate. Maybe our rage is limited to swearing at other drivers, or penning well-written articles that demonize half of the nation. Maybe we harbor secret resentments against our spouse, parents, children, or coworkers. The hate is real and most of us are awash with grievances.
How should we respond to this? It’s easy to throw up our hands, overwhelmed by compassion fatigue. What normal human could continue to care when we are continually bombarded by bad news and atrocities? At a certain point, everyone has moments when they feel like they are being pulled under by unstoppable waves of powerlessness and despair.
Yet we are not powerless and despair is a tool of the sitra achra, of the destructive side of the human soul. Despair is a strange medicine, for it numbs us and thus allows us to muddle along. Hope is a better medicine, yet when it fails to result in a better outcome, it is easy enough to return to feeling numb or hopeless.
In an age of hate and continued mass-shootings, what course of action can we take that will restore our hope and allow us to dissolve some of the hatred with love?
I have signed IP-17 and IP-18. These two initiative petitions aim to implement major changes to Oregon’s laws for high capacity, paramilitary guns. I am proud that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Cahana, is one of the chief petitioners and I urge you to click the above link and sign on as well.
I recognize that America already has several hundred gun laws. I know that it is difficult to measure the real-world impact of such legislation. I am aware that more ghost guns are being fabricated at home with new technologies that will make the implementation of these gun laws imperfect. I am cognizant that we have millions of assault weapons in the hands of average citizens, that these guns are durable, and that signing new laws today is unlikely to have a short-term or perhaps even a longer-term effect. Examples abound of legislation that fails or even exacerbates a situation. In some ways, I am a hard-nosed realist.
But that’s not all I am. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslov wrote ain davar k’ye’ush b’olam. Despair is not a fundamental part of the world. It is a mental attitude or spiritual capitulation to the evil around us. I have signed on to these petitions because, like Johnny Appleseed, we need to plant for tomorrow today. I have signed on because sometimes what the world most needs are acts of spiritual rebellion. Adding my name feels like such an act.
I have also signed on because, like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” As I signed, I did so without rage or rancor, without blame or anger. I signed from a place of love and the hope that when we each roll up our sleeves, we can bring the messianic age a little bit closer.
Won’t you join me?
Shabbat Table Talk
- How do you cope with compassion fatigue?
- Do you find yourself more optimistic or pessimistic these days?
- Imagine an America without gun violence. What would it look like? Add as many details as possible to your vision.
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