Putting Our Grief to Good Use

Because the news cycle moves so quickly and there is no shortage of horrible, disheartening stories out there, it’s easy to forget that just one month ago—on November 30, 2021—Ethan Crumbley opened fire in his high school, killing four people and injuring seven others.  

In the days after the deadly shooting, we saw videos of students hunkering down in classrooms and heard stories from survivors. Flowers, stuffed animals, and candles were left on the school’s entry sign. A candlelight vigil was held at a nearby park. Signs reading “Oxford Strong” started showing up in front of local businesses. GoFundMe pages were created by the dozens to help the victims and their families.

These efforts to manage our collective grief happen so frequently they almost feel trite to me, a kind of performative ritual that must occur each and every time a young person’s life is cut short by gun violence. We soothe ourselves with platitudes and beautiful gestures and find comfort in the kindness of strangers. See, the world isn’t all bad, we whisper. There are still so many good people.

There were also tributes to the four students who died that day: Hana St. Juliana (14), Madisyn Baldwin (17), Tate Myer (16), and Justin Shilling (17). According to eyewitness reports, Tate Myer was killed while trying to disarm Crumbley. Soon after the news was released, a petition was created to rename the school’s stadium in his honor, garnering more than 83,000 signatures in just a few days.

I saw a post on Instagram detailing Myer’s actions and the call to honor his sacrifice, and rather than scroll past or give it a fleeting like or comment, I took screen shots. I was deeply bothered by the post, though I didn’t understand why at the time. The gesture is a kind one for certain. Students and members of the community want to lionize this young man, to remember his actions on that dreadful day. The petition’s organizer, Drake Biggie, said that doing so would allow “his bravery… [to] be remembered forever and passed down through generations.”

I thought back to all the schools I attended as a child (and there were many) as well as the ones where I served as a high school teacher for more than a decade. Each of these campuses had gyms, stadiums, auditoriums, or fields dedicated to someone—a famous graduate, a local celebrity, a benevolent member of the community. But I didn’t know any of them personally. No one I worked or attended those schools with seemed to either. The names on those buildings were nothing more than random collections of letters.

If the petition is successful and the school’s stadium is renamed after Tate Myer, there will be a somber ceremony made to commemorate the change. Speeches will be given, ribbons cut, and balloons released. People will feel as if something good has been accomplished. But in time (and sooner than anyone would expect), his name won’t resonate. People won’t remember who he is or what he did to deserve such recognition. It’s simply the way of things.

Actions like this are an attempt at closure, a way to redeem a loss or “bring about beauty from ashes.” But catharsis prevents real change. When we focus only on closing the loop or helping everyone heal, we lose sight of what caused this trauma in the first place: guns, poor parenting, a lack of mental health services, and good old human cruelty.

What an event like the one that happened at Oxford High School should do is make us righteously furious. It should lead us to “get into good trouble,” as the late John Lewis once said. We shouldn’t permit ourselves to be tranquilized. We should get angry and stay that way. We should protest every single factor that led to a sixteen-year-old boy having to throw himself in front of a gun to save other people.

If we don’t start addressing the elements that lead to school shootings, we’ll simply continue a pointless cycle. A violent act will lead to an investigation, but nothing will come of it. We will mourn both collectively and in the silent chambers of our own hearts only to move on. And a few weeks or months later, it will happen again in somewhere else in the U.S.

Another young man will express his rage with a hail of bullets.

Another child will lay down his or her life to save others.

More children will become statistics instead of college graduates, spouses, and parents.

More candles will be lit and makeshift memorials created.

How many times does it have to happen before we finally stop pacifying ourselves and put our grief to good use?

A World Without Weapons

I have dwelt too long
with those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak,
they are for war.

— Psalm 120:6-7 (CSB)


Like many white Americans, I grew up with guns. Nothing excessive. A rifle for deer hunting. My great great grandfather’s pistol that didn’t work (but no one had the heart to throw out). A .38 hidden in my parents’ bedroom, pulled out only to be cleaned or when my father was out of town on a business trip. I was neither drawn to nor enamored of them. They were simply there, part of the mise en scène of my family’s life, much like the laundry basket, the rotary telephone, and the oversized wooden fork and spoon decorating our small kitchen.

But for every person like me, who grew up with a few weapons and no real feelings about them one way or the other, there is person who who was raised to adore guns, a person who—if given the opportunity—would perhaps build and altar made of them and lay prostrate before it.

Don’t believe me? National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti has captured some stunning images of people with their arsenals artistically laid out before them for an upcoming exhibition she’s calling “The Ameriguns.” According to her research, “Of the all the firearms owned by private citizens for non-military purposes in the world, more than 40% are in the USA. Their number exceed that of the country’s population: about 400 to 328 million. In proportion, that’s more than 120 for each hundred; more than one per person.”

And those guns aren’t simply sitting on shelves or in safes either. They’re out and doing irreparable damage. According to Everytown Research, “Every day, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns and more than 230 are shot and wounded.” There are in average of 38,826 gun deaths in this country each year, 60% of them suicides and 36% homicides. And, lest you think the homicide percentage isn’t that bad, be aware that the United States’ gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other high income countries.

It’s one thing to see weapons glamorized in films or in video games, which I don’t support. It’s another to see them touted in commercials by people who are running for public office. These individuals are supposed to be reasonable and balanced, people we can trust to make good decisions at the local, state, and federal levels in our name.

Recently, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the representative for Georgia’s sixth district in the U.S. House, ran a commercial promising to “blow away the Democrats’ Socialist agenda” using a 50 caliber gun to destroy what looks to be a perfectly good Prius.

But this (aside from the tacky raffle aspect) is not new in Georgia politics. During the 2018 campaign, the state’s current governor, Brian Kemp, ran a series of ads designed to appeal to red state voters, many of them featuring weapons and explosions. He claims he’ll “blow up government spending” and that he proudly “owns guns that no one’s taking away.”

Both Rep. Greene and Gov. Kemp are Christians, which makes their embrace of weapons and bombastic aggression even more troubling. We are meant to be a people who turn the other cheek and love our enemies. We are told that the highest ideal is not to be warmongers but peacemakers. It is by seeking peace that we will be known as sons and daughters of God.

And they’re not alone. Many fellow believers take their love of God and guns very seriously. There are extreme examples like The Rod of Iron Ministries in Texas, which thankfully are well outside the norm. However, in many of your average Southern churches, it is common to find hyper-masculine men’s retreats featuring everything from paintball and turkey hunting to gun ranges and tactical courses. (If you are interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s amazing book, Jesus and John Wayne.)

Beloved, I am so unbelievably tired of it. I’m numb down to my bones, and my heart is heavy with grief. The church is meant for beauty and truth. It is our highest calling to make the love of Christ manifest to the world. But for the most part, I can’t help but feel we are failing at that task. Failing quite miserably, in fact.

That’s why I’m not interested in aggression or “defending” a certain way of life. I do not feel threatened by those who are not like me. I’m with Chef José Andrés, founder of the amazing charity World Central Kitchen, who says, “instead of building higher walls, let’s build longer tables.”

I sometimes feel hopelessness pulling at me like a rip current, threatening to pull me out into a cold and lonely sea, but these two images have helped me stay afloat and fight against the bitter tide.

“Christ Breaks the Rifle” by Otto Pankok
Image courtesy of https://profetizamos.tumblr.com/post/627636704068714496/christ-breaking-a-rifle-by-otto-pankok-1955
“Christ: Swords Into Plowshares” by Kelly Latimore
Image courtesy of https://kellylatimoreicons.com/collections/signed-print/products/christ-swords-into-plowshares

Both are currently hanging in my library where I can see them when I sit down to read. Each day, they remind me that I don’t serve a heartless god, one who revels in bloodshed and human suffering. I serve Jesus, the humble servant who laid down his life for the world and who tells me the Christian’s highest goal is not victory or domination. Instead, he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

He promises me that one day God “will dwell with [mankind], and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

My savior says, “He will settle disputes among the nations and provide arbitration for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not take up the sword against nation, and they will never again train for war.”

Breathe in, beloved. Breathe in and remember that Jesus doesn’t take up arms. He takes them in his nail-scarred hands, breaks them over his knee, and drops them in the dirt where they belong.

If you are aching for a world without weapons, without anger, and without fear, you’re not alone. I’m with you. Countless millions are standing alongside us, praying and hoping. And that day is coming. Until then, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”