Most of the folks behind Love Not Fear live in Florida, so maybe that’s why the school shooting in Parkland looms larger than the too-long list of mass shootings our country has endured over the last 20 years. It shouldn’t, because each of them has been horrible enough to have captured our attention, and the sum of them has led us to grow numb to the horror and shocked that we have gotten to that point of numbness. But here we are.
Policy is important, and I don’t mean for this to replace the discussion about the range of policies that might reduce the risk of harm from these shootings. This is not “instead of” gun and mental health and school hardening and all of the other political issues.
It can seem Pollyanna-ish to talk about choosing love and not fear when students, worshippers, moviegoers, frankly all of us have to cope with the reality that we could very well be in the line of fire of the next guy with a gun (and I say “guy,” because so far the mass shooters we’ve seen have been mostly young men). In that moment when bullets fly, maybe fear is the only response; it’s certainly the natural one. In this moment of dreaded anticipation of the next mass shooting, maybe fear is the only response as well.
But let me offer this. One of my heroes is a guy, Father Greg Boyle, who started the largest gang intervention program in the country, Homeboy Industries. He makes a point of saying that in 30 years of working in California prisons and with gang members, he has never met anyone who is evil. (And you would think he would have.) He has met many who have done evil things, for sure, but when you get down to it, he has realized that they all suffer from a one or a combination of three things: 1) A lethal absence of hope for their future. 2) Unspeakably painful childhood experiences that they have never been able to process, such that they can only transmit their pain rather than transform it. 3) Mental illness. He claims (and I don’t have the experience to counter) that it is always one or more of those three things at the heart of the awful behavior he witnesses.
Homeboy succeeds as a gang intervention program by offering a wide range of services that help former gang members create new lives, services like job training, tattoo removal and legal services that provide hope, counseling and support groups that address and transform pain, mental health care that addresses mental illness. But what has made Homeboy work for 30 years is the community of kinship and compassion that it has built. When others looked at gang members with fear, Boyle welcomed them with love.
But along with those changes that are being debated, we need to find a way to bend our culture toward love. We need to love the odd kid rather than fear him. We need to reach out to the kid who has had a hard life rather than avoid him. We need to get help, real and sustained help, for the kid who might be dealing with mental illness rather than stay away. That’s way easier said than done. But if we are to address the “supply side” of the mass shooter equation, it’s by working to build a circle of kinship and compassion such that nobody stands outside of it, leaving nobody to cycle from isolation, anger and illness into unspeakably evil acts.
There is this, too. In Parkland, as in every mass shooting before it, the bios of the victims are heart-wrenching. What is striking about the people who lost their lives are the stories of heroism – the assistant football coach who threw himself in front of students to shield them, the teacher who unlocked a classroom to give kids a route to safety, the kid who was holding the door open so others could flee. Even in that moment, they chose love, not fear.