We are a people who are understandably obsessed with causation. The moment something of great importance happens we turn our collective attention to the question of causes. In the case of moments of great joy and wonder, this rush to causation has the effect of “breaking the spell.” Rather than reveling in the moment, we must identify how the moment arrived. In the case of moments of great sorrow, anguish, or collective anger – like a mass shooting – this rush to causation forestalls the full exercise of lament, compassion, and meditation. Again, this is understandable especially in this second case. We hate feeling powerless. We want to do something. We want to figure it out. We want to stop it from ever happening again. The search for causes is natural.
But I can’t help but notice that what so many (including a great many Christians) mean by “causation” is really “immanent causation.” What I mean by this, is that when it comes to explaining phenomena like two mass shootings in a single day, the only causes that are taken seriously are causes that are entirely within the natural realm. This is why some people go berserk on social media at the mention of “thoughts and prayers.” I saw one meme shared by an atheist friend consisting of a picture of two reclining cats with the caption “I named by cats ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ because they’re useless.” In a secular society, offering thoughts and prayers is beyond cliche. It’s positively offensive. No, we must find a real cause, an immanent cause. It is only by doing so that we will be able to fix what is broken.
So, what is the cause of a mass shooting?
Perhaps politics. It is ghoulish how eagerly we look for the political affiliation of every mass shooter. It speaks to how “team based” our politics has become. We desperately want all of the idiots to be playing for the other team. The problem for people looking for a political causation is that murderous idiots can’t be counted on to be consistently political. One of the shooters yesterday was a Trump supporter. The other shooter apparently was a socialist who was planning on voting for Elizabeth Warren. Each side takes a ghoulish win and a loss.
Maybe it isn’t politics, but the rhetoric of our politicians. Maybe. I’m certainly not a Trump apologist. I think that the way he speaks about and to other people – particularly those in marginalized communities – is inexcusable for any person in a civil society ESPECIALLY the President. He has stoked racial tensions, playing into and playing up the racial resentment of so many. I despise it. So maybe Trump’s rhetoric caused these people to break. But what about the rhetoric coming from the other side that says “whiteness is a sin that must be repented of?” I have friends who regularly say things like this on Twitter. I don’t agree with it, but I think I know what they are trying to say. How confident are you that the average white guy in Dallas or Dayton knows what they are trying to say? I guarantee what they hear is that regardless of anything else about them or their lives they are evil simply because of the color of their skin. Begging your pardon if they aren’t familiar with the nuances of Critical Race Theory. Now ask yourself this question, when this person hears rhetoric like this, do you suppose that it will cause them to pause and reevaluate their life? Or will it actually do quite the opposite?
Or take this Tweet for example:
Aurora: White man
Sandy Hook: White man
Charleston: White man
Sutherland Springs: White man
Vegas: White man
Parkland: White man
Thousand Oaks: White man
Pittsburgh: White man
El Paso: White man
Dayton: White man
It’s not “senseless violence.”
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) August 4, 2019
What exactly is being accomplished by such a tweet? Is it merely therapeutic? This Twitter user regularly mocks the lack of efficacy in “thoughts and prayers,” but it isn’t clear what such a tweet actually does. Is he suggesting that white men be rounded up and caged or just that every white man be regarded with suspicion? What would this person say to someone who made the exact same point about Muslim terrorists? I wonder. My point is that the rhetoric of racial resentment is awful from both sides. None of this rhetoric helps and you could make the case that it actually hurts. But is rhetoric the cause of mass shootings?
But maybe emphasizing rhetoric misses the point. Maybe it is racism itself that is the cause. That seems to be true on certain awful occasions. Although what is the case in one shooting may not be at all the case in any other shooting. Again, mass murderers rarely conform to our simple description of causes which might explain why some resort of simply pointing out the race and gender of the shooters.
Or maybe the media causes shootings like this by unintentionally glamorizing the shooters? Or maybe social media causes shootings like this by weaponizing the easy tribalism that exists in places like Twitter? Let’s not forget about video games.
Mental health issues are certainly the cause of mass shootings, right? I would agree that we need better mental health care in our country, but does this sufficiently explain mass shootings?
And then there is the gun argument. I am sympathetic to this argument. I don’t own a gun, but I know plenty of people who do. We must admit that things like this don’t happen in other industrialized nations. The ready availability of guns – particularly certain guns – is a problem that invites serious conversation and policy proposals. But is the causation of violence captured simply by the recognition of the tools used in the violence? You could radically strengthen gun laws and thus maybe remove some violence. I should point out that this is a worthwhile goal, but you haven’t really identified a cause. A tool is not the same thing as a cause.
My point is that we are locked into immanent causation which leads us to believe that the solutions for all of our social and personal ills are also immanent. Write new laws, censor Twitter, open more mental health facilities, vote Trump out of office, smash the Patriarchy, etc. etc. etc. But we will remain frustrated, broken, and defeated because we have failed to recognize that evil does not merely have immanent causes.
In 1936, W.H. Auden wrote a poem in which he talked about the defeat of monsters like giants, dragons, and kobolds. Their defeat, however, paved the way for their greater triumph.
“The vanquished powers were glad / To be invisible and free: without remorse / Struck down the sons who strayed into their course, / And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.”
His point? We haven’t really disenchanted the world. We’ve only fooled ourselves into thinking that the monsters were just a part of our premodern imagination. No, by ignoring the monsters we have granted them the power of invisibility to rampage through our culture without resistance.
Speaking of the Freudian practice of psychoanalysis, Auden put a fine point on it:
Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: “Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please,” And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
Immanent causation is an illusion which has left us unprotected and vulnerable. What we need is to break the spell of disenchantment. In 1941, C.S. Lewis said, “Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”
There was a time when it was true that at least people of faith believed in things like demons and principalities. There was a time when it was true that at least people of faith looked at the events of their world and recognized the faint shadows of another world. These things aren’t popular to say – even among many Christians. Many see appeals to angels and demons, spiritual good and evil as old fashioned, embarrassing religious cop-outs. It’s like the person in the book of James who simply says “Go and be well fed” to the person who is hungry. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating that we abandon all human efforts in the face of great evil. By all means, if laws need to be passed, then pass them. If policies need to be changed, then change them. If neighbors need to be loved, then love them without reserve. If rhetoric needs to be changed, then let the change start with us. If racism needs to be called out, then let’s call it out with rigor. But let me add this one thing – when men are rampaging through stores and schools brandishing weapons and shedding innocent blood, people of faith should not hesitate to call this what it is. It’s not just racist. It’s not merely a mental health issue or a gun control issue. It is demonic forces without remorse striking down our sons and ravishing our daughters. I don’t know of a better technique for dealing with demons than praying in Jesus’ name.