Lenten penitence and our reckoning with gun violence

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control in Washington on March 24. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik File)Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., speaks at the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control in Washington on March 24. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik File)

There has been a change in this country, a kind of turning and a reckoning with our gun sickness, and it has taken place during the liturgical season of Lent. The massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took place on Ash Wednesday, and the national March for Our Lives happened on Saturday at the outset of Holy Week.

Lent, a 40-day season of fasting, prayer and atonement, begins with a smudge of ash on the forehead to remind the sinner of her mortality and culminates with the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday when Jesus was celebrated, betrayed, reviled, executed, placed in the tomb and then, on Easter, not found there anymore. This is not to say that this new national awareness and demand for change by our children is a Christian movement. It is not. But the language of repentance and penance is still apt.

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Have we as a nation, in the last 40 days, at last begun to face the deep sin of our culture: the twisted preference for guns over human life, even the lives of children? David Hogg and Cameron Kasky and Emma Gonzalez are not letting us get away with it anymore. They are looking all of us in the eye and saying it is time to repent, it is time to look at ourselves, and it is time to change.

Have we, in the last 40 days, at last begun to face the deep sin of our culture: the twisted preference for guns over human life?

The iconic images of Emma Gonzalez affect us on a deep level and have already been transformed into innumerable T-shirts, posters and other works of art. Part of the reason her image resonates so strongly is our nation’s long overdue need for penitence—represented in some part by her shaved head. Ms. Gonzalez says she adopted the style simply because it is easier than taking care of a thick head of hair. But regardless of her own reason for it, the visual image of a shorn woman functions on its own in powerful and unsettling ways.

Image from 1928’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (YouTube)

Men in power have longshaved women's heads as a way to debase and humiliate them. French women who were accused of having collaborated with the Nazis were shorn in public and paraded through the streets to be reviled, mocked and spit on by the masses. At many times in history, forcibly shaving a woman’s hair, because it was supposedly her most beautiful and valuable feature, has been used as punishment for adultery or other sexual sins. Recall the humiliation of Fantine, the prostitute in Les Miserables who is forced to sell her hair to save her child; her shaved head represents the very depth of her poverty and debasement. Saints like Joan of Arc and Rose of Lima shaved their heads to defy the authorities, whether familial or ecclesiastical. (Ms. Gonzalez’s resemblance to Renee Maria Falconetti in the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” has been noted.) Even Britney Spears shaved her head when she had simply had enough of the demands of being a celebrity.

But what of the child who shaves her own head, for reasons of convenience, and then refuses to look down in shame or be pitied as a lunatic having a nervous breakdown? Who instead looks out at her country and the entire world with strength and defiance?

What of the child who shaves her own head and then refuses to look down in shame?

Emma Gonzalez is the Lenten penitent, but it is our sin being inscribed on her body. It is we who are humiliated when we meet her gaze. Her shaved head and her fierce and unapologetic expression force us to reckon with our own sins—the sins of having done nothing at all when mass shooting after mass shooting took place in our schools, movie theaters, concert venues, nightclubs and post offices. The sin of the sickening fact that since 1968 there have been over 1.5 million gun deaths in America, with numbers increasing every year, and we have done nothing whatsoever to stop it. This Lenten season has been different because we have been forced, by children, to face what we have done and to begin to reckon with it and turn away from it. It is past time for the United States to “repent, and turn away from sin” as the priests say each year as they apply the ashes.

Holy Week begins with a procession—Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem—and ends with the resurrection. Our procession was the march in Washington and in so many other communities across the United States. What will the accompanying resurrection be? The resurrection need not be only a belief in the literal raising of someone from the dead (after all, we can also find that in zombie movies). It can also be a belief in the profound idea that death does not have to be the end because what is true and just can never be eliminated by death. Emma Gonzalez and the other Parkland survivors know this. They witnessed the death of their friends and have turned that horror into a journey of hope and action and life. Let us get in line and follow them.

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J Cosgrove
6 months 3 weeks ago

We will never have an intelligent discussion on this issue when it is all emotion as this article is. A shaven head by a young lady may be interesting but it is irrelevant to the debate.

What are some relevant issues?

First, is the discussion to be about the elimination of guns or just some limitation on them. If it is just a limitation, then how much of a limitation and what laws have to be changed

Second, maybe some basic questions should be answered first.

For example, how many are killed in schools compared to other places people are killed? Why aren't these other places discussed too? Where are places where we don't see many shootings? How many are killed in gun free zones compared to places where someone may have a concealed weapon? Why isn't the discussion about how the Parkland situation could have been prevented? Or how it could have been minimized once it started?

The answers are it is has nothing to do with saving lives and is all political. If it was about saving lives, the discussion would be completely different.

Instead negative comments will be directed towards those don't accept the view point expressed by the author and other authors of America.

A theoretical question for the author and all editors and authors at America, the magazine. Would you be writing about Emma Gonzalez if it was abortion she was advocating against? How about abortions by high school young women. Which takes far, far more lives? Of course if she or someone like her were to take up this cause, the person would get zero coverage by the press and would disappear from any consciousness quickly.

To provide a perspective a local school district has about 500 young women get pregnant each year and a high percentage are aborted. It makes Parkland look kind of small in comparison.

Ellen B
6 months 3 weeks ago

Mr Cosgrove, you state that we can't have an intelligent discussion because it is all emotion, then you present emotional arguments. Arguments that have nothing to do with gun control. Using the same logic, one could argue because 1.3 million people die in car accidents annually & "only" 650,000 abortions took place in 2014, it makes abortions look "kind of small in comparison". But the article wasn't about abortion.

Many of your questions cannot be fully answered because a (politically motivated) law was put in place that prevented the government from studying gun violence. The Parkland students have proposed - banning military style weapons. More stringent background checks. And increasing the age before one can purchase a gun. Most Americans support these proposals. And maybe, if these proposals are acted upon, students can spend their time learning CPR instead of participating in active shooter drills from pre-school age.

J Cosgrove
6 months 3 weeks ago

What emotional arguments. I'm asking questions that should be answered. That is fairly far away from emotional.

Most can be answered as far as I know. And there are a lot of other questions besides the ones I asked.

I do express a couple opinions but that is not an emotional argument.

You should check your statistics on car deaths.

About 70,000 school age abortions a year.

Ellen B
6 months 3 weeks ago

Car accident number was an international number per year.

Christopher Lochner
6 months 3 weeks ago

So we have shaven heads, penance, the Resurrection, and gun control. What a disparate mess! This reminds me of the "Search for the Holy Grail" rountine on ducks, wood, bridges, and floating witches.

Christopher Lochner
6 months 3 weeks ago

And for the realists among us, murder control, which is what this discussion is about, worked very well in NYC where if caught carrying a gun illegally you did time. Google Plaxico Burress. Recently, the Baltimore City delegation in the state legislature came out against such stringent controls for Md. state!!! Yes, Baltimore with the horrific murder rate! The focus should be on implementing laws we have and lobbying for sensible new laws and not on feelgood social media style fluff pieces like Emma and David.

Charles Erlinger
6 months 3 weeks ago

The risk profile for the epidemic-like phenomenon of “innocent casualty by gun” in the U.S. can certainly be lowered. We know how to do the groundwork of epidemiological data collection and analysis, causal factor identification (including proportional cause attribution to each identified factor), and systematic formulation of preventive measures.

Adoption of preventive measures against identified systemic risk is complex in a way that differs significantly from the basically rationality-dominant risk analysis process. Adoption of preventive measures, known as risk management, involves arriving at a consensus for the taking of steps to introduce community change, often to deeply embedded cultural practices and prejudices. Additionally, it usually involves cost. Finally, it usually involves choices, the future consequences of which cannot be known with certitude. The acceptance of this, in turn, requires some level of mutual good will, and a level of comfort dealing with probabilities is helpful.

Disputants often compare the risk management of “innocent casualty by gun” to that of “abortion of innocents.” One of the biggest differences between these two risks is that very few people say that “innocent casualty by gun” is a good in itself. Literally millions say that abortion is a good in itself, according to polls and vote counts. This means that millions disagree about the identity of the very risk to be managed.

J Cosgrove
6 months 3 weeks ago

I brought up abortion to point out the hypocrisy of many Catholic authors on gun control. About 70,000 die in school age abortions each year compare to less than 15 killed by guns. There are known successful programs that will reduce teen sexual activity substantially and thus abortions. But they are anathema to the left.

If you examine all K-12 deaths each year while at school, guns are one of the lowest on the list. Between 1998 and 2012 which includes the 20 killed in Sandy Hook that last year, the average was 4 per year. Lightning kills more.

In the general population, nearly all gun related deaths are by hand guns and most of these are suicides. A critical examination of this is warranted but won't be discussed here because the politics are not such that they will get what they really want.

So very few people are killed in schools by guns but it can get a huge splash in the press as we have seen and the left hopes it can affect votes. This is what is wanted not reduced deaths. This is all about the congressional elections and is why I said if they were interested in saving lives the discussion would be very different.

But it is votes that are wanted and emotions affect voting much more effectively than evidence and reason.

Lisa Weber
6 months 3 weeks ago

The unspoken part about gun control and gun deaths is that money is what keeps us from having an intelligent discussion about it. There is the money made by selling guns and ammunition. A bigger factor is the money poured into political campaigns to elect people to Congress who will repress research into deaths related to guns, slow progress toward reasonable laws about guns, and stir up a lot of emotion in those who imagine that more guns will save people from gun violence.

I admire the Parkland students for being politically active in the matter of mass shootings in schools and gun violence generally. They generate hate from some sectors because they have been so successful in their protests. And they are reminding this corrupt administration and its toadies that they will soon be voters.

Greg Wood
6 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you

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