01/07/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

What Images Do We Shape for Ourselves? The Formative Effects of Dignity, Violence and a Battleground Congress

A joint session of Congress met Friday, January 4, to certify the results of the U.S. presidential election held last November 6th. Tellers read the results of the states and the District of Columbia one by one: "The certificate of the electoral vote of the state of Connecticut seems to be regular in form and authentic and it appears therefrom that Barack Obama of the state of Illinois received seven votes for president and Joseph Biden from the state of Delaware received seven votes for vice president..." "The certificate of the electoral vote of the state of Kansas seems to be regular in form and authentic and it appears therefrom that Mitt Romney from the commonwealth of Massachusetts received six votes for president and Paul Ryan from the state of Wisconsin received six votes for vice president." No guns. No violence. It was dignified, even inspiring in its quiet way. The outcome, of course, had been known; the win was substantial: 332 votes for Obama/Biden to 206 for Romney/Ryan.

Three Fridays before a different set of numbers. Guns. Violence. We know those numbers, too: 20 children, six adults killed in Newtown Connecticut.

The task force on gun violence President Obama appointed, being led by Vice President Biden, is to address the issues of mental health resources, keeping society from glamorizing guns and violence, as well as tightening gun laws. Will they as a task force, will Congress, will we as a nation truly engage the images we shape for ourselves and change what needs to be changed?

The issues are complex. Granted. I offer no simple solution. But I do know this: "What was the motive?" isn't the only question. Real life violence is not merely a mystery novel. Surely each of us is a mixture of motives not easily decoded. And the question, "What 'triggered' the assailant?" with its ironic verb, only conceals longterm causes.

Likewise we must not be satisfied with "studies-do-not-show" arguments meant to settle the issue. In the field of statistics there is a vast difference between "cause and effect" and "correlation." And even when studies show "no direct correlation," usually only one or a very few factors can be researched in any given study. We need to look honestly at the image of guns and violence in our society, and really see the formative effect of having guns in the home and of our addiction to ever more violent films and games. Games also play us. Statistics provide some information, but not enough understanding.

What shapes us as individuals and as a people may be hard to quantify but is observable. How are we formed? What environments, images and actions will we choose?

On another Friday, Dec. 21, President Obama spoke at the Memorial Service for Senator Daniel Inouye at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The heart of his message was an ordinary yet profound story of his traveling at the age of 11 with his mother, grandmother and sister on vacation on the "mainland," watching television in motels at night when the networks were all showing the Watergate hearings. Barack Obama remembers as a boy seeing Senator Inouya, from his home state of Hawaii, with dignity and wisdom playing a part in restoring democracy to a nation on the edge. Obama said, looking back, that those images began to shape his formation of being a public servant.

Formation may include one event (in my case the death of my father at age 11), or many, of vacations with family, or no vacations, living on one street or another, what we see on the way to school. We are shaped by one another, and formed in community. In a culture which statistics show is becoming "spiritual but not religious," the images these past weeks of the power of faith communities and interfaith services should not be underestimated. Acceptance, respect, care. We can choose these.

What we see and experience has a formative effect on who we become, what we do, our purpose and mission in life. There are enough real-life struggles of poverty, illness, abuse, so that we need each other in order to create supportive, nurturing communities, not invest in violence or commit ourselves to combative ways of relating.

The news image that we saw Jan. 4 was not that this democracy once again made a transition, as it does every four years, without guns, without violence, but "Republicans getting their troops ready for battle for three more fiscal fights." We heard this might "sideline" other concerns such as fixing immigration and infrastructures, working on clean energy production and climate change, as though this is all a sporting event with eyes fixed only on the final minutes of the game. The Violence Against Women Act was allowed to expire. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor flatly refused to bring the Senate bill to a vote unless stripped out was protection for Native American women raped on tribal lands by non-native men. Violence is accepted; dignity denied. What are our commitments and their formative effects? How are we shaping each other? And how will we live into those images?