We had only been in Canada a matter of weeks when a deranged gunman massacred innocent children at Sandy Hook elementary school.
Our family stayed transfixed and bewildered by what we were seeing. We were sure that now, finally, Americans would take action on gun control. We were wrong.
As an Australian, and particularly a Tasmanian, the repeated suggestion that introducing tighter gun control would have no impact on tragedies like this seems wilfully, and perhaps culpably ignorant.
We had a sickening tragedy here. Our then Prime Minister bravely stood in the face of opposition and changed the law.
I distinctly remember his decision to stand in front of an angry crowd to answer for his decision with the outline of a bullet proof vest filling out his jacket in a way that signaled the risk he believed he was taking. There were lots of things I disagreed with John Howard about, but I will be forever grateful that in a moment of tragedy he demonstrated what leadership looks like.
The reason an American leader hasn’t taken the same path (although clearly Obama wanted to), is that the United States is slightly less aware of a fact that most of us forget most of the time: we are shaped by our environments much more than any of us want to acknowledge.
We want to believe that success or failure, winning or losing, good or evil behaviour is always a product of our free choice. It’s not. And the fact it’s not is a huge problem for a country that prizes free choice above everything.
It is the prizing of free choice that produces the unique kind of politics we see in the States . It is also this prizing of free choice that produces the gun culture in the U.S.A. There is nothing that says “I’m free” more than my ability to kill anyone who wants to compel me to do something I don’t want to do. In America guns equal freedom. That freedom though, is an illusion.
As I pointed out in a previous reflection, one of the biggest risk factors for death by shooting is gun ownership. The tools that are meant to bring freedom, bring the opposite. Why is that? Our lives are profoundly shaped by our environments.
We all need to understand that nations are much more than a collection of individuals, and their choices. Nations are complex systems that are shaped both intentionally and unintentionally by the conscious and unconscious agreements their constituents make about how they live together. The same is true for families, churches and organisations. Those agreements then, in turn, shape the constituents.
Winston Churchill said “First we shape our buildings, after that they shape us.” Another way of understanding this principle is is that “first we shape our nations/companies/families/churches, after that they shape us.”
More specifically, as Clement Stone points out:
You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you towards your objective. Analyze your life in terms of its environment. Are the things around you helping you toward success – or are they holding you back?
It is this awareness of the way we are shaped by our environment that is missing in the debate about guns. It is also the awareness that we have power to shape our environment that is missing. We elect politicians to shape the systems in which we live. John Howard understood this and accepted the responsibly.
Most business leaders understand the importance of shaping the context in which people work. In fact America’s most successful business model, the franchise, is based around creating an environment that takes away all individual choice so that the system can produce a healthy and consistent product.
One of the quotes that I continually reflect on is:
One of the core ideas at the heart of the New Testament is that the church is meant to be a system that shapes the people within it. The exultation of individual choice is not a biblical idea:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
The Bible also makes clear that those who shape the church have a higher level of responsibility:
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
It is not true that mass shootings just happen. There is an environment that produces the context in which something like that becomes possible.
It is also not true that nothing can be done about that environment. There are people who have more capacity to shape the environment than others. Church leaders shape the church, Business leaders shape their businesses, Parents shape a family and Politicans shape a nation.
The person who pulls a trigger is responsible for that horrible choice. The people who create the system that enables that choice are also accountable for their decision.
The politicians who failed to take action in America, actually made a choice to allow mass shooting events to happen, in the same way a business leader is responsible for poor customer service or a parent is responsible for malnourished children.
Let’s stop pretending that we are not affected by the contexts in which we live our lives.