March 23, 2013 was the 10th anniversary of Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine. The award-winning documentary plunged deep below the surface, exploring reasons for the Columbine High School massacre of April 1999. Among other ways it stimulated thought, the film showed many angles of gun culture in America -- a culture that, following the Sandy Hook shooting of December 2012 -- is back in the headlines and being hotly debated. As medical professionals, parents, gun owners, and politicians passionately dispute gun laws, Colorado limits firearms and expands background checks; Kansas considers open carry of guns; and President Obama, acknowledging both sides of the issue, urges common sense among all.
Meanwhile numerous spiritual leaders approach the issue from the perspectives of human nature and quality of life: "Judaism teaches that when someone arises early in the morning to kill you, you must strike first," says Rabbi David Wolpe, whom Newsweek magazine named one of the most influential rabbis in America . While Judaism permits self-defense and is therefore not a pacifist religion, he explains, the glorification of violence is an anathema to Judaism.
"We pray for peace, shalom, more than any other ideal or value," he elaborates. That said, he continues, human beings have a deep love for destruction -- an inclination that needs "to be combated more than indulged." The proliferation of guns, he says, "especially those designed to wreak carnage," goes squarely against the ethos of peace ; and peace, he says, is the essence of God's name.
Unfortunately, says Sharon Salzberg, a leading Buddhist meditation teacher and New York Times bestselling author of books including Real Happiness, Faith and Lovingkindness, "We are taught that revenge is strong and compassion is weak. We are taught that power is more important than love." The root cause of mass shootings, she says, "is disconnection -- from unawakened inner resources, perhaps from those trying to help us, finally from life itself. And when such profound disconnection is combined with ready
access to guns, horrible things can happen."
The desire to destroy appears to stem from hate -- which many spiritual leaders see as the antithesis to the nature of God, the embodiment of love and peace . A man, a gun, and hate have in fact been behind the many incidents of mass shootings. The disconnection of hate holds the wish that the others cease to exist. Give hate a gun, and voila: the deadly incidents in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and more. Does the gun kill? No. Does hate kill? Yes.
Hate in an individual is like toxin in a cell, causing a state of disconnection from the whole. The human body is healthy when all cells honor the diversity of their respective functions, working together in harmony. When a group of cells create their own rules and grow uncontrollably, however -- impervious to the needs of all other individual cells and the body as a whole -- the deviant cells become a "cancer" in the body and threaten the life of the entire organism. Similarly, when an individual gets stuck in one way of thinking, sees all other perspectives as invalid, cuts himself off from the whole, and approaches others as enemies instead of partners, that individual becomes a cancer in society, threatening our collective humanity.
"In Buddhist teaching," says Salzberg, "ignorance is considered the fundamental cause of violence -- ignorance... about the separation of self and other... about the consequences of our actions." Just like cells in a human body, we as individuals create healthy society through constructive bonds with each other, and we activate social destruction by disconnecting from one another.
Disconnection breeds hate. Take the example of the youth service group I facilitated a number of years ago: Seven 13-year-olds created this group, with the mission to manifest respect and peace in the world. During one meeting, a girl of one ethnicity maneuvered the group, to shut out a boy of another ethnicity. The next hour and the subsequent two meetings focused on overcoming the hateful speech and actions among the seven teens, effectively postponing the teens' work on their service project. For a few weeks, the mission to respect one another in New York took precedence over the task of supporting the orphans in Uganda.
"Human beings are born split; we have inclinations to good and to evil," Wolpe comments. "When evil arises, it must be not only pacified and coaxed, but fought." By visualizing the world they wanted, the teens were empowered to create amazing acts of goodness. When injustice reared its head in their interactions, however, the big idea was undermined by the small actions. To move forward in unity and harmony , the teens needed to take pause and fight their inner demons -- fear, prejudice, and yes, even hate.
I have witnessed my own intolerance arising from an "us vs. them" mentality. Salzberg mentors me with her insight: "In our own lives and in our communities, we need to find a way to include others rather than exclude them. We need to find a way to allow our pain and suffering, individually and collectively. We need to redefine community and find a variety of ways of coming together and helping each other." All perspectives are valid, in other words, as long as we stay connected to each other with respect, honor and the common goal of social health.
To honor the diverse views of today's debate, state and federal governments perhaps should approach gun laws from the angle of promoting the quality of human life -- both through limiting the destruction potential of weapons and through bolstering educational programs that promote respect and connection, increasing our tolerance for one another. Maybe if the young perpetrators of tragedies such as Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook had self-respect and a sense of connection with others, there would have been no space for hate to creep in, grab a gun, and take innocent lives.