There’s this great scene in the “Mr. Bean” movie wherein the titular character travels to America under the supposedly absurd notion that every American carries a gun everywhere they go. He engages in some overly enthusiastic cultural cosplay and is arrested.
It was supposed to be a joke. Instead, it has become cutting cultural commentary about U.S. gun culture.
I support reasonable gun control; I’m partial to requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance, but I’m on board with any reasonable package that stands a good chance of making a difference.
If we are interested in solving the problem of school shootings, let’s definitely look at gun control.
If we want to solve the problem of school shooters, however, we’ll have to dig deeper.
More than simply reducing homicide, we must grapple with the more insidious problem of homicidality. Effective gun control would turn a homicidal-maniac-with-a-gun into a homicidal-maniac-in-search-of-one, and that’s not good enough for me. I do not want to merely live in a world of would-be-shooters, fortuitously denied gun access.
Policy can treat symptoms, but to treat the underlying illness, we still have work to do. Hard work. Heart work, even.
There are so many examples of people who did hard heart work and blessed the world with their changes.
Malcolm X traveled to Mecca and converted to Islam, and nonviolence.
Benjamin Franklin went from slave owner to abolitionist.
Perhaps my favorite of is John Newton, the former slave-ship captain who did the hard heart work and is now known as the man who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.”
In theological circles, the word for this work is “repentance.” Or conversion, if you prefer.
It’s hard to talk about religion in the public square these days. And would the Uvalde, Texas, shooter, Salvador Ramos, have been saved by more public school prayers and monuments of the Ten Commandments? Not likely.
That’s perhaps why Kate Cohen wrote critically in The Washington Post recently about those who use their faith as a screen for doing less in policy terms. I’m glad she called them out.
“So … what if we all renewed our faith, put God back in classrooms and embraced religious belief — how exactly would that keep people from shooting children? Seriously, Congressmen, please explain. How would it work?”
I’m not a congressman, but let me reply.
I’ve seen faith make people better. I once served as a missionary. I remember one day approaching a man sitting on his porch and making a direct appeal: “We help people change. Can we help you?” He broke down in sobs. He couldn’t quit drinking. The drinking was destroying his family. We worked with him for two months — two months during which he got sober, found a support community and began walking the path back to his family.
Some people joke about “finding Jesus.” I know a man who wouldn’t have dared. He told me about his former life. “Young man, I hustled more drugs than Van Camp’s hustles pork and beans,” he said. Then God changed him. When he spoke of “finding Jesus,” it was with solemnity and gratitude.
Will conversion make a difference with our thorniest societal problems? I suspect nothing less will. Salvador Ramos certainly needed better gun rules and better mental health service, but the cure we need goes deeper than what any social policy can provide.
As the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put it, living the gospel is better than a thousand compensatory government programs, which are “so often, like ‘straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic.’”
Conversion is that kind of most fundamental possible change: not a software update or even a refresh of the operating system. It is refreshing the software on the motherboard, or perhaps a rewiring of the hardware itself.
Salvador Ramos needed a repentance moment, but so do we.
In scripture, both individual and societal turning toward something better often come from a prophetic truth teller — one called to warn the people and encourage them to be better.
I’m happy to argue, another time, about which is the right prophet to listen to; right now, we are refusing to listen to any of them. My prophet is a heart surgeon in Salt Lake City, but I also gladly confess to being inspired (and indicted) by the words of the Dalai Lama. I have felt the need to be better because of Pope Francis, Jane Elliot, David French, Arthur Brooks, Bishop Barron, the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I have had profound, even spiritual experiences listening to the words of the prophets of rationalism like Carl Sagan and moral humanism like Jonathan Haidt. There are prominent atheists who have helped me be a better disciple. And there are good Muslims who have made me a better Christian.
Prophets abound, if we will only listen to them.
And we could also surely stand to return to the altars of America’s civil religion a little more often.
My secular friends may be wondering where this leaves them. I hope we don’t discount religion’s power to change people for the better while pursuing a big-tent approach to what Arthur Brooks calls “a coalition of the virtuous.” Anyone who wants to be decent —more patient, more kind, more honest, more willing to exercise moral courage — is welcome.
Maybe you find my belief in prophets is quaint. Maybe you find the notion that religion and conversion are core to solving our country’s problems silly. When you hear this, it may even strike you as offensive.
But can you really shake the sense that something is deeply wrong in this country? That there are problems that more laws and more spending can never correct?
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis was asked about the greatest threats to the United States. His haunting answer: Americans have lost affection for one another. Arthur Brooks has observed that we ought to be the happiest people in the world for our GDP and economic power, but our happiness is down across the board. Our institutional trust is at historic lows, something that terrifies me (and should terrify you). We’ve had the January 6 fracas, racial tensions, the turmoil surrounding the Supreme Court and Roe. Then a plague. Inflation. War.
And then, of course, the school shootings.
What Salvador Ramos’s family needed is offered by our religious institutions and places of worship. What Salvador Ramos needed was moral accountability in his home. What Salvador Ramos needed was a “mighty change of heart.”
And maybe if we’re humble enough, we’ll realize it’s what the rest of us need, too.
Benjamin Pacini is a former middle school math teacher and assistant principal. He now teaches future teachers at BYU-Idaho.