Commentary
By Jamie D. Aten 2-23-2018

If the church is going to bear witness of Christ’s love in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., we must not just proclaim the good news but also demonstrate the hope to which we hold.

I have tried in the past to steer clear of controversial topics in my work and ministry. But gun violence is one issue on which my feelings have grown too strong to stay quiet.

This week, I joined other evangelical Christians who believe it is time for the church to take stand, to couple our thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors of gun violence with action. I became a founding signer of the Petition for Prayers & Action for Gun Safety in America, which started as a vision of Rev. Dr. Rob Schenk and began percolating in the evangelical community after the devastating mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November. Signed by other evangelical leaders, including Lynne Hybels and Max Lucado, this petition upholds the power and importance of prayer in response to this crisis. It also acknowledges that as Christians, we are called to do what we can to help work toward a solution.

As a Christian, a husband and father, a friend, a disaster ministry expert, a researcher, and a psychologist — I believe we need to take action to stop gun violence in our country. Here’s why:

As a Christian: We have a biblical mandate to demonstrate love for our neighbor and to protect life. I have read too many obituaries of innocent people whose lives were cut short by gun violence. We owe it to the victims and survivors of mass shootings, and to each other, to do what we can to try and prevent this from happening again, and prioritizing that in our policies. As Christians, loving our neighbors well right now also means being willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues. White evangelical Christians are less likely than the American public to support stricter gun laws in America. There are many reasons we may have different opinions about how best to protect lives and prevent mass shootings from happening, but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. As a starting point, this chart lays out some proposed policies, ranked by experts for their likelihood to reduce mass shootings, or reduce the number of people killed in them.

As a husband and father: I was volunteering at my daughter's elementary school Valentine's Day party hundreds of miles away from the Parkland school shooting when my cell phone started flooding with text messages alerting me to the unfolding situation in Florida. My heart broke as I thought about the tears being shed in Parkland while I was surrounded by so much innocence and joy. I can’t pretend to understand what parents of this situation are going through. But I do know that as a father of three school-age daughters, I want to do everything I can to keep them safe. As the risk of school shootings continues to grow, I can’t sit back and do nothing while more and more children are killed in their schools.

As a friend: In July 2016, a friend and fellow researcher was attending a protest in downtown Dallas when the sound of gunshots created chaos in the crowd. He was able to run away and get to safety without being injured, but five lives were lost that night. Hearing his story of what he experienced that night drove home the reality that many people across our country have similarly lived through mass gun violence, or have waited for a loved one at a mass shooting scene to respond with an “I’m safe” text. That night, even though I knew he was safe, it took hours for me to shake the worry and anxiety I felt. It’s human nature to want to avoid thinking about bad things happening to us or our loved ones. Yet we must face the reality that right now, our loved ones are not immune to being affected by mass gun violence, and we must take action accordingly.

As a disaster ministry expert: I have dedicated my career to helping churches and communities prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. I've also provided trauma support for mass shooting survivors, and after the shooting at an elementary school in Newton helped create tools and resources to help communities heal after mass shootings. Disaster ministry focuses on preparedness, and in the context of natural disasters that means knowing what to do and how to care when the worst happens. But when it comes to human-caused disasters like mass shooting, it’s also about doing what we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

As a researcher: I collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings, and since then have been part of similar studies with survivors of mass shootings all over the country. Over and over again, we see that these events often cause significant, and sometimes long-lasting, spiritual and emotional trauma. Other research has shown that survivors may experience other struggles as well, like increased rates of fear, stress, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, and “prolonged and complicated grief.” This impacts not only those who were present during the shooting, but the entire community. It also impacts survivors of past events, who may be triggered by reminders of their own trauma. This “ripple effect” has increasingly devastating implications for the long-term mental health of too many people.

As a psychologist: We need to be cautious how we as Christians discuss mental health and mass shootings. Research shows that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides, and that the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3 percent. When we over-focus our conversations around gun laws and mental illness, we perpetuate the myth that people who struggle with mental health issues are dangerous and violent. There is a long and complicated history of limiting access to guns for the mentally ill, and it’s a conversation that requires great nuance and care, not generalizations and stigmatization.

Christians, keep praying. But also join us in doing what we can to try to prevent future mass shootings from happening again to more people.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten, or see his work at jamieaten.com.

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