Jared Loughner squeezed the trigger of the weapon that killed and injured in Tuscon last Saturday, and he is responsible for his actions. But it is also true that the tragic events in the desert both could/should have been expected and could have been prevented if our institutions and those representing them had worked better. Others have written and spoken about his school, the police, his family, the media, and our general national atmosphere, and I have nothing to add to what they have said. But this whole horrible mess has prompted me to think more broadly this week about the failure of our institutions in general and wonder what can be done to improve them.

Consider:

  • “Fifteen-year-old students in the United States ranked 25th of 34 countries on an international math test and scored in the middle of the pack in science and reading, raising concerns that the United States isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy” (http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/us-teens-math-test/2010/12/07/id/379224)
  • “Everyone knows that the United States needs to fix immigration. But nobody knows how to do it” (LaVonne Neff, “On the Move, The Christian Century, January 11, 2011: 36).
  • Nurses, soldiers, pharmacists, elementary school teachers, doctors, and police officers were all considered more ethical and honest than members of the clergy, according to a recent Gallup survey (The Christian Century, December 28, 2010: 17).
  • According to the USDA, one in seven US households could not buy adequate food in 2009 (a historic high), and hunger was more prevalent in large cities than in rural areas and suburbs and was substantially higher among Hispanic and black families (The Christian Century, December 14, 2010: 17).

Surely such sad statistics indicate that our schools, churches, and our government are in deep trouble, which really is no news.

So what can we do?

We can throw up our hands and give up. We can predict the end of the world or cocoon in our homes. We can criticize all those other people we consider the cause of the problems, find some scapegoat, while never looking in the mirror and wondering where we went wrong.

Or we can commit to hope. At the very least, we can realize that our current crisis is what Strauss and Howe once called “the Fourth Turning,” a predictable turn of events following a cultural unraveling, ending with a new civic order (an upbeat time when institutions become strong again), when the cycle starts all over. (See William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and http://blog.lifecourse.com/ along with http://www.fourthturning.com/).

We can listen to our leaders and do what they call on us to do. President Obama has called on us to “do better” and to live up to Christina Green’s and all our children’s expectations. As he said in his speech applauded by left and right: “As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together”  (http://westorlandonews.com/2011/01/13/obama-we-can-do-better/).

His comments apply not only to the tragedy in Tucson and the current national climate. Every institution has people in it who want somebody else to take the blame, who are unimaginative and childish, whose ears are closed to any voice but their own. If we are going to make our institutions better, then we need cooperation, fresh approaches, and deep care for each other.

Finally, Christians particularly can remember and heed the call of our Lord. Jim Wallis, the well-known progressive evangelical, has written: “A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: ‘How am I responsible?’ What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?

“As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/an-attack-on-the-soul-of_b_807020.html).

In other words, you must be and do better. And so must I. May God help us.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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