A woman from northern Wisconsin engaged me in an email exchange about recent posts I have written (as well as an old post against gun violence), challenging my thinking (hopefully in positive and productive ways). She raises four points (with which I disagree, and will attempt to explain here):
- Negativity is NOT a decision and only partially within our control. What happens to us determines our ability to respond.
- Focusing on the negative is essential and indispensable – you cannot eliminate an evil by not focusing on it.
- Fighting against the evil is as important as fighting for the good; there is limited capacity for good until evil is reduced.
- To be Christian is to be cynical; an uncynical Christian is apathetic and irrelevant.
Okay, bad things happen. People do bad things to each other. We cause harm. But we have personal agency and intentionality, and we can never abdicate our basic responsibility to do good in the world. Fear, anxiety, distrust, selfishness, and hostility drive an awful lot of behavior in our world, doing virtually nothing to build up or make stronger. My respondent raised the issue of gun violence, stating, “I love my gun and I carry it with me everywhere. I don’t do this because I am being negative, but because I am being realistic. My gun is not a weapon. My gun is a tool that guarantees my right to defend myself.” I agree that she has a right to own a gun if she wants, but I maintain that it is just a weapon, not a tool. It exists to do violent harm. She responded that she collects guns; it is her hobby. I reflected that I collect books, but not once have I drawn a book in anger to threaten another human being or to bludgeon them with it, perhaps to the death. A gun is a gun is a gun, regardless of why you have it or love it. And I do not understand the argument that a gun builds up, creates, or even protects as we see mortality and injury rates rise in gun-related incidents. And not to stray too far from the original statement, it is a decision we make to own a gun, to carry a gun, to draw a gun, and to fire a gun. It is a decision to meet violence with violence. It is a decision to hold the potential to injure or kill within one’s hand. And in no scenario is the world a saner, safer, kinder, healthier place when we rely on weapons to settle disagreements or attack. This is not realistic thinking; it is cynical thinking that supports and promotes itself.
On to number 2. My opponent notes that the only reason she has to own a gun is because the world is a negative and hostile place. She is short (under five feet), thin (less than 90 pounds), and a woman. She admits that she feels powerless and intimidated and fearful in many settings at many times. Her gun is her equalizer. She was taught to hunt as a child by her father and uncle. She is immensely proud of a picture in her office of the seven-point buck she shot when she was in her twenties. She is proud of the fact that she can protect herself with a gun. She often says, “I love my gun.” She says that it is because of all the negatives in this world that she feels the way she does. Her argument is a litany of possible harm – rape, robbery, mugging, attack, accosting by mentally ill street people, terrorists, and on and on. I asked her if she has ever had any of these things happen to her. She admits not, but says she hears about them all the time happening to other people. She claims that we must focus on all the potential violence in the world, otherwise we will not be prepared when it happens to us. My challenge to her is simply this: “What are you doing to help create the kind of society and world where you don’t feel the need for a gun? Can you envision a positive future that doesn’t require living in fear of the next terrible thing that might happen?” Her response was, “The negative is what we have to live with; the positive is just wishful thinking.”
Third, she backed up a bit and said, “You know, I can envision a future without guns. It demands that we use the guns we have now to get rid of all the criminals and rapists and murderers now so that they can’t hurt us in the future. Then we can lay down our guns. You have to wipe out evil in order for good to prevail.” I asked her how gunning down “bad guys” makes us any better than they are? When have you killed enough people to bring an end to killing; when do you shoot enough people to make shooting unnecessary?” She replied that she “doesn’t know any bad people who have guns; only good people.” She doesn’t advocate “hunting down” bad people, but making sure that when bad people do bad things, good people are armed and ready to respond. If enough bad people realize that good people won’t tolerate them, they will give up and go away. Once more, I see this as a narrow and cynical worldview; countering violence with violence, the negative with the negative isn’t likely to improve anything. We need to be moving toward the good, not merely away from the bad. Creating a loving world requires much more than simply eliminating the bad.
Number 4 brings me around to my initial reaction to the first email – a fascination with the idea that a reader would equate declaring a “moratorium on negativity” to her right to own a gun. Nothing could have been further from my mind when I wrote the piece than gun violence and the right of an individual to own and use guns. When I was doing some research for Bishop Hee-Soo Jung after the shooting of Jacob Blake, I did some fairly intensive research into gun violence in our country’s history and noted that it correlates with sweeping cycles of prosperity and anxiety. When things are going very well, gun violence drops precipitously. But when there are wars and rumors of war, fears fueled by economic shifts, xenophobic and homophobic hysteria, and racially motivated violence (generally perpetrated by white dominant culture on minorities to “show them their place), guns become a preferred source of trust and comfort. I used the word “cynical” a number of times when challenging my respondent and instead of denying it she wrote, “You really can’t be a Christian and not be cynical. This world is a terrible place and it hasn’t gotten better in thousands of years. It isn’t getting better, and I refuse to be a victim. I am cynical but I am safer than you are, because I have my gun.”
I guess cynicism can go either way. It can spin us into a cycle of negativity that views God’s creation as chaos and corruption and violence and threat, or it can propel us into a spiral of positivity that awakens hope and creativity and potential and possibility. For me, it still comes down to a choice. Will the cynicism I choose motivate me to strive for something better, for something healthier, more loving and founded on mercy, justice and peace? Or will I mount my cynicycle causing me to live in constant fear and worry about the bad that might befall me, seeing danger around every corner and preparing me to lash out with violence should violence invade my space? I don’t feel I really have a choice; I have to work for the good and believe in the best. I may be wrong, but it is the right course for me. I am appreciative for the young woman who wrote to me, debated with me, and approved my sharing parts of our exchange. I may not agree with her, but I hope and pray I better understand where she is coming from.
You write in the final paragraph that “…[cynicism] can propel us into a spiral of positivity that awakens hope and creativity and potential and possibility.” IF i understand your thoughts (and i may not), this positive spiraling is grounded in God’s grace, and my response is to do my best, be my best, as i live out my desired trust that nothing separates me from the love of God. In my very, very simple understanding of process theology, that which is Divine reveals possibility and empowers all there is to evolve toward a oneness that i call kindom of God. Even in my cynicism and even/especially in my falling short of my intention to respond with grace, i continue to see myself as cooperating with the kindom goal.
Yeah, Dave. In the classical sense of cynicism, there is the fundamental belief that we can be better, that almost every situation can be better, that every relationship can be better. There is a place for healthy cynicism as t long as it doesn’t toxify (which is seems is our current reality). But even an unhealthy cynicism should lead the cynic to learn, to understand, and to become informed. A person is cynical about climate change and humankind’s impact on the environment? Fine. But instead of deciding it is all a hoax simply because of reactive cynicism doesn’t lead anywhere. Look into it, check the facts, do some research – don’t just pretend it is wrong based on personal bias and skepticism. A process theology of any kind should make us curious, questioning, seeking, and open to learning new things. If our God is a God of unending and ever expanding mystery, we had better be prepared to be challenged every day. I guess the only real valid cynicism should be aimed at the idea that we already know everything we need to.