Cause and Effect

Isn’t everything connected? Aren’t there laws of cause and effect? If we don’t live in a causal world, why do we bother to teach and be taught, to influence and be influenced, persuade and be persuaded? While trying not to shock youngsters, we do our best to get them to understand that it is not a good idea to put paper clips into electrical outlets.

If everything is isolated, unrelated behavior, then all community efforts to the contrary are futile. But we don’t, at our core, believe that.

Some believe that taking responsibility for one’s actions is important and is a healthy, productive way to live in community and foster those qualities in the communities in which they live. Saying “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” grease the wheels of community life. In community, love does mean having to say you’re sorry, fluff fiction to the contrary.

We play the individual behavior card when we think it gets us out of responsible owning up to the basic connectedness of life. Sometimes it is when we don’t want to own up to the sins of omission or commission we might have committed, which contributed in horrible, horrifying consequences.

Case in point, the January 8, 2011 shootings in Tucson, Arizona which injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, among others, and killed six others. Some are saying it was the act of an “insane, deranged, lunatic” who acted completely on his own.

Individuals and groups are running for cover from the “connectedness” we all have to that carnage. The finger pointing that characterized Eden after the Fall comes to mind. Such finger pointing is never helpful. Still, general acceptance of some vague kind of collective guilt seems evident in the aftermath of the shootings. If not, why would members of Congress call for more civil discourse across the land? Why did they cross the aisle to sit with members from opposing parties during the State of the Union address? If there isn’t any connection to the “lone” act, why not just continue business as usual, in a growing uncivil, hostile, hateful manner?

Atmospheres of love, acceptance, courtesy, inclusivity foster atmospheres of those very things. Atmospheres of hate, prejudice, fear, xenophobia, jingoism, nativism create atmospheres that promote those things. And atmospheres have consequences. The environment fosters particular thinking, believing and acting. In response to the Tucson shootings Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote “violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate.”

To the argument that it was that “lone, deranged lunatic,” we must remember that there are those in society who are least able to differentiate between literal and metaphor. The alleged shooter may have been influenced by many, many factors in his unfortunate life as he descended into the chaotic abyss. Perhaps a brain that didn’t process information adequately, or a particularly dysfunctional home environment, perhaps abuse somewhere along the line, a school system unable or unwilling to see offensive behavior as noteworthy and action worthy, maybe callous and cruel behavior toward him in a work environment and perhaps lots and lots of hateful rhetoric splattered all over the airwaves.

But, of course, that’s never just it. There are always reasons and causes and unexplained behavior in the lives we live. Our minds naturally want to seek out “the answer,” even when specifics can’t be known. We want to play detective.

While not excusing personal responsibility for destructive action, it does seem that the system certainly failed the alleged shooter. Signs were everywhere that this young man needed help, a lot of it and fast. Where were his friends, teachers, school counselors, employers, or parents? Had there ever been church youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, elders, or pastors?

As with everything, the “cause and effect” argument isn’t perfect. There are always exceptions. The kid from the perfect family, perfect church environment, perfect community commits some heinous crime. But there are no “perfect” situations or perfect persons.

What is never easy to see and sometimes can’t be seen are all the influences that had come to bear on the moment. That multitude of influences is what directs us to our place of commonality. For whatever did or didn’t happen in a person’s past, whatever link can or can’t be found between cause and effect, nonetheless now is the time to affirm our connectedness, to cry a collective mea culpa, to hear once more the words of assurance about the forgiveness and unconditional love in the Gospel of Jesus.

Can we in our social connectedness have a modicum of sympathy, pity, or empathy for the alleged shooter? Is he one of us? The question is not just social; it is spiritual. The bottom line is the ancient mythic question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

From the biblical account, one can draw some causal relationship between the behavior of Adam and Eve, the subsequent expulsion from the garden and the first act of violence east of Eden. We could all wish there had been a family intervention for Cain so that he could have known he was, indeed, Abel’s keeper. Then he might have known not to be his brother’s killer. But alas, apparently the family of origin was still caught up in its own continuing dysfunction.

For those of us who are Christians, the intervention came with Jesus of Nazareth who willingly became the paschal lamb and the scapegoat, the one who endured all the violence, humanity could throw at him and in whose death and subsequent aliveness, evil, violence and death were evermore defeated. We are all children of Cain, called to be brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Robert E. Dahl is an interim minister in the United Church of Christ. He lives in Holland, Michigan.