In the wake of the 74th school shooting since Sandy Hook less than two years ago I am hearing two narratives making the rounds. These narratives are the same ones that surface each time a tragedy happens like one in Troutdale, or Seattle, or Las Vegas, or Isla Vista, or Indianapolis, or Chicago. The dual narratives are whether or not we need more or less gun control and the need for better mental health care in this country. Both of these are valid narratives and important conversations to have: why is it easier to get a gun, which is designed to kill, than it is to get a license to drive? why has the paranoid schizophrenic father of a friend of mine been told he his being dropped by the practice that provides the prescriptions for the medicines that keep him balanced? These are huge topics and major discussions to have, but so often they end up becoming nothing more than TV talking head shouting matches and no one listens to the others and nothing changes.
This is where I would like to propose a third narrative. This is the narrative of scarcity vs. abundance. If we wish to get to the root causes of violence, and particularly gun violence, we need to address this narrative. By doing so, I believe we can begin to heal the disease instead of just treat the symptoms. However, discussing this narrative is far more dangerous than having a shouting match over whether guns are good or bad, or whether there is adequate mental heath care. It is dangerous because it causes us to become players in the story. When we begin to really have a conversation about the nature of scarcity and abundance we must include ourselves, we are not allowed to create an “other” or a “them.”
If we really begin to dig into the stories of the persons committing the most acts of gun violence, be they on the streets of Indianapolis and Chicago or in the fluorescent lit hallways of a school, we hear the stories of people who have given up hope. Given up hope at finding a job. Given up hope at finding love. Given up hope at finding stability. There is an abject sense of hopelessness. This hopelessness is rooted in the belief that there is not enough. Scarcity.
This belief is rooted in experience. If you were to ask a gang member why they have decided to join the gang, in my experience, it is because by doing so there was a place for them. There was a family. There was money. There was a way for them to supplement the poverty they had previously known. Poverty breeds desperation and hopelessness. It puts one into survival mode because scarcity is the dominant story.
It doesn’t help matters when politicians are more concerned with the welfare of a corporation than with the people in their charge. Or when the benefits that help lift people from poverty are laid on the chopping block of racialized greed. It is a travesty when one group is ostracized for being leeches on the system and they happen to be of a certain color, while those of another color somehow are not the faces on the posters proposing cuts to the programs. The body politic is fostering the narrative of scarcity by repeating the chorus that there is not enough; that there is not enough to provide food assistance or debt reduction because, well we have … well, you don’t line my pockets.
The story of scarcity skulks the streets and alleyways of this nation, and it is not just here in the inner city. It is in suburbia as well. Persons of means are constantly told they don’t have enough and that they need more and more. And when they can’t live up to an over sensationalized sense of self-worth, they, too, seek to find meaning elsewhere.
The story of scarcity breeds violence. It forces people to live in a survival mode. To do what needs to be done in order to survive. It fosters the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that if you act out against me it is my duty to retaliate – survive; if I hit you with enough force you will stop and I will win. Of course this only breeds more retaliation. Survival mode is what causes it make sense that the first thing to do is grab a gun when you feel put down. It is what causes one’s defenses to be drawn up so high that dehumanization is the only rational response to an affront.
The story of scarcity also eats away at community. It causes people to withdraw into themselves and protect what they have by whatever means. As people withdraw into themselves they begin to see people not as neighbors but as potential threats. The story of scarcity is a beast destroying lives. The story of scarcity is the sickness that is destroying us.
But as I said, this narrative has a second part and that is of abundance. Those of us with a voice should – while honestly debating the merits of gun control and mental health – we should be working to shift the narrative from scarcity to abundance. It is possible, but it is dangerous and hard because we need to confront our own narratives of scarcity. This isn’t a narrative that can be change by some great hope coming from the outside, but rather is a lived narrative that can bring healing one step at a time.
This narrative is suited for those of us in faith communities, particularly the Christian tradition. After all, our tradition is rooted in a community that lived in community together. A tradition that is rooted in the Jewish tradition of hospitality and care for the least among us. One of the things that made the early church so dangerous was its radical care for and solidarity with those on the margins of society – the widow and orphan. Its danger came in its radical egalitarianism that said at the Table of the Lord there is no slave or free, just sisters and brothers. The church is rooted in the narrative of abundance: at the Lord’s Table all eat.
That is not to say others don’t share in that narrative, but the church has a unique lens through which to read this story.
For all of us, regardless of faith tradition or not, the narrative of abundance requires that we engage our neighbors; that we hear their stories and share ours; that we begin the re-humanization process that the story of scarcity seeks to destroy. Unlike the story of scarcity that only requires we think about ourselves, the story of abundance asks that we think outside ourselves. It asks that we see the world as others see it and try to build bridges that embrace commonality and unity rather than difference and discord.
When we being to shape a narrative that seeks to connect us rather than divide us we can begin to hold each other accountable. We have an authority that comes when a community is formed that we do not have as solitary individuals. As we shape a narrative of abundance we are are able to say to someone that their actions are destroying community rather than building it. There is a power in a collective story.
If we really are tired of all the blood on our streets, it is time to change the story. It is time to realize that talk of gun control and mental health, while important, are only bandages on a gaping wound. The real healing will come when we begin to change the story. There is hope in the narrative of abundance.