By Josh Britton
On Saturday I watched my social media feeds fill with photos of friends and neighbors attending the March For Our Lives on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Having lived in D.C. for a decade, I’ve observed quite a few large demonstrations. There will surely be more to see in the years ahead.
I’m the father of two young children, and I’ve mourned the recent spate of mass shootings in schools and other public places. I want the world to be a safe place, and I believe we all share a responsibility to do what we can to make that possible.
I didn’t march on Saturday, but as I realized that so many people I love – many of whom are fellow Christians – were taking part in Saturday’s march, I couldn’t shake a feeling of unease. What motivated them to take part in the march? Why didn’t I want to? And was I wrong not to have joined them?
What does marching mean?
Saturday’s march, at least according to its organizers, had a clear mission:
“March For Our Lives is created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar.”
This is an admirably clear statement of purpose, and the event’s organizers were effective in rallying hundreds of thousands of people to their cause.
Some of the signs carried by marchers on Saturday proclaimed sentiments that were easy to affirm, such as “I Have the Right to a Safe Education” and “We Stand Because We Care.”
But other signs bore caustic messages such as “No More Thoughts, No More Prayers, No More Death” and “If Guns Don’t Die, Children Do.” Another sign crudely mocked “Catholic” Senator Marco Rubio (scare quotes included), depicting him with a bloody cross on his forehead and the hashtags “#NRAb—-” and #kidkiller.”
You may have marched on Saturday to show your support for the teenagers who survived the Parkland shooting, or to lament publicly over that and other recent acts of mass violence, or even to introduce your own children to the rituals of active citizenship.
But when you lend your voice in support of a broader movement, you also assume responsibility, in part, for its outcomes. What happens if, say, other marchers use extreme rhetoric that degrades our civic culture, or if the energy of Saturday’s marches is harnessed to enact legislation or to elect politicians that you later decide you wouldn’t support? Celebrities and major media outlets generated immense attention for Saturday’s event, but our own act of speaking or of joining a march is one of profound moral consequence that we should consider with great care.
Why silence does not equal violence (or apathy)
Another common slogan on t-shirts and signs at recent marches reads, “No More Silence, End Gun Violence.” The implication of this is that those who don’t join the protest are, by their “silence,” giving tacit approval to shootings.
But Christians ought to reject this uncharitable assumption. Although the social media environment of 2018 privileges speech over silence, the book of Proverbs warns that “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” In his silence before the mob accusing the adulterous woman in John 8, and later, before Pilate, Jesus shows us that choosing not to speak can sometimes be the wiser course. Because of this, we ought to be cautious about pressuring others to speak. We will someday have to answer for our speech, and for our silence, but it won’t be to any political faction or to our social media followers.
For marchers to insist that others speak, lest they be accused of complicity with murder, is to assume too much about the motives of people like me. I lament with the Parkland victims, and long for the day when God will put an end to all violence. But I also worry about putting too much hope in legislative action to solve the complex problems that confront our world, and can’t help thinking of how often such attempts have gone awry in the past.
It’s hard not to feel helpless watching shootings unfold on TV and social media and hearing the poignant stories of those who survived. And that helplessness leads naturally to a desire to do something to make it right.
But we need to humbly acknowledge that our human efforts to do so are prone to error. The writer Leah Libresco last year described her surprise at analyzing data on gun violence and discovering that the proposals most likely to be effective were “narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.” But none of those narrowly tailored interventions appeared on March For Our Lives’ official list of legislative priorities.
Even so, those who refrain from marching still have a responsibility. We should pray for the safety of the demonstrators, even when – especially when – we don’t agree with their approach. We should also affirm all of the common goals we share with the marchers: That life is precious and must be protected. That we genuinely desire peace in our schools and in our world. And that children should not have to live in fear.
Reasonable faith, not rampant fear
A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that young people cite gun violence and crime as their biggest fears. The March For Our Lives mission statement asserts: “Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear.” Students at Saturday’s march spoke of their fears of terrible things happening to them at school. With my own two children soon to be of school age, I can relate to these concerns.
These fears are real, but they may not be reasonable. Although mass shootings are becoming more common, gun violence overall is declining, both in schools and in America more broadly. If we are getting safer, then why are we also getting more fearful?
Our media environment is partly to blame. Terrifying video of the Parkland shooting from students’ cell phones spread across social media and TV news, giving an awful immediacy to the crime. Similar images have emerged from Las Vegas and other recent attacks. Although the hyperrealistic images drive home the terrible nature of what happened, they also generate profound fear that reaches far beyond the immediate area of impact.
In fact, this type of coverage makes the problem worse. My friend Ari N. Schulman last year summarized the growing body of research about the “contagion effect” of mass shootings. In short: sensationalized coverage of these events motivates other would-be shooters to carry out their own spectacles of violence. It also undoubtedly contributes to the fear that plagues millions of schoolchildren every day.
As Christians, how can we speak to this? We can surely acknowledge that these fears are genuine, and that every innocent life lost to gun violence is a tragedy. We should advocate for policies grounded in humility, a sober assessment of the facts, and careful reflection on what we believe justice requires of us. And we can remind ourselves and others that, in any circumstance, God is sovereign over all that makes us afraid.
But we who have not been given a spirit of fear should not exacerbate others’ fears. The vast majority of children are safe at school, and they shouldn’t be terrorized by gun-control advocates who want to generate issue intensity to advance an agenda. The heartbreaking images of fearful children at the marches are a warning that advocacy, no matter how well-intended, can itself be harmful.
Our Grave Responsibility
The concerns of those participating in Saturday’s demonstrations are not trivial, and those of us who didn’t join them shouldn’t respond flippantly. Indeed, God hears their cry of lament and their call for justice, and we all ought to hear it too.
In America in 2018, we are daily reminded—in hi-def streaming video—that we’re broken, that our culture is broken, and that our world is broken. We have the tremendous freedom and terrible burden of deciding when to speak and when to remain silent in response.
But we as Christians have further obligations, too: to care for our neighbors, to reject fear, and to consider our words with great care. May God help us all.
Josh Britton works for a public policy organization in Washington, D.C.