Last week was a hard one to fully process for an adult-ADD-addled news junkie like me. A momentous and arguably uplifting event -- Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, a powerful document that folks may still be talking about in the year 2525, if Man (and Woman) are still alive -- was drowned out, at least in this country, by by the sound of gunfire and the manifestation of raw hate that occurred in Charleston. (And who exactly was Rachel Dolezal again?)
The tragedy of Charleston and its "Mother Bethel" church absolutely needs to stay on the front burner of the national conversation -- crossing the the hot wires of how we choose to remember America's racist history and how we struggle to cope with our violent present. But Francis' remarkable statement on the environment also demands a second reading -- one that makes it worth pondering whether the dark roots of America's addiction to oil and our epidemic of mass murders, in fact, deeply overlap.
Here's how. In his encyclical, Pope Francis does the world a valuable service by acknowledging the science of global warming -- the same science that's accepted by more 98 percent of the world's climatologists yet denied by millions, many of them people of faith. But what's striking is that he doesn't just frame this problem in pure kilowatts, as a matter of energy efficiency. Instead, Francis is a spiritual leader who sees a spiritual sickness in a culture that can't even address the crisis -- a culture that venerates freedom but promotes isolation, of consumerist humans unable to appreciate a common good, let alone act on it.
"We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth," Francis wrote. "The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes." In a weird way, Francis' disgust at some of the bad choices that humans have made over the last century echoes the words of "Taxi Driver" anti-hero Travis Bickle, who warned that "[s]omeday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."
But Francis wants to remake the world not with violence but through love and compassion. In arguably the most important passage, the pope writes:
"The pursuit of individual happiness has been made into an ideal in our time," he said. "Ecological sin is due to human greed, which blinds men and women to the point of ignoring and disregarding the basic truth that the happiness of the individual depends on its relationship with the rest of human beings."
He said the ecological crisis was growing in conjunction with the spread of social injustice. "We cannot face successfully the one without dealing with the other."
By social injustice, the pontiff is all but certainly thinking about income equality -- another crisis that Francis has addressed eloquently in the past -- but also the inequities that lead people to violence. (Lest there be any doubt, the pope just today criticized those who invest in weapons industries, saying "duplicity is the currency of today ... they say one thing and do another.") In doing so, Francis draws a straight line to gun violence in America -- and the road to Charleston.
When we talk about the killing of these nine beautiful and gentle souls last Wednesday, we talk about many things. So many that it is like the parable of the blind man describing the elephant, that our different mindsets allow us to only see pieces of the giant beast. Much of the conversation has focused -- and rightfully so -- on racism, since Dylann Roof's open hatred of black people is what drove him to kill. But President Obama has focused more on the lack of sane gun laws in America, while some conservatives convinced themselves that a murder in a church was an attack on religion.
Let's be clear, Dylann Roof is a racist and a white terrorist who wanted to create fear among African-Americans and start a race war. And his actions shone a light -- for the umteenth time -- on the depravity of our nation's gun fetish. But what happened in Charleston is so chilling because of combined two separate strains of social virus -- virulent racism with a broader epidemic of gun violence. Roof added a race-war component to a problem of mass murder in America that had already manifested itself all over the map -- in Newtown, in Aurora, at Virginia Tech and at the D.C. Navy Yard.
These American killers had much in common. They certainly seem to have a some type of mental illness or defect. But they were definitely young and male, and they were very much disconnected -- dropped into a world as quasi-adults but with few real connections, lacking meaningful employment or any grounded system of morals. In the latest case, Dylann Roof was 21 but it's not clear what he'd been up to since high school, other than spending hours online absorbing racist trash from hate groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens. The Newtown killer was 20 and also not doing very much ,outside of video games. The Virginia Tech killer was 23. The Aurora killer was 24. See a pattern?
Coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally, the New York Times published an editorial this morning, "The Cost of Letting Young People Drift." It notes that more than 5.5 million people between the age of 16 and 24 are neither in work nor school, markedly more than any time in recent history. That's a complicated problem with a lot of manifestations. But with the destruction of any blue-collar economy, the obscene cost of college, the rise of McJobs and unpaid internships, and a precipitous drop in voluntary social organizations, it's no surprise that alienation and drift is becoming our gross national product, especially for young adults. A broken society, fixated on consumerism, produces so much isolation. That may foster rugged individualism among a few hardy entrepreneurs creating the Next Generation of hotly desired consumer products, but for the Left Behind its toxic byproducts are paranoia laced with hate and violence.
Which loops back to Pope Francis, and his "basic truth that the happiness of the individual depends on its relationship with the rest of human beings." In the arena of climate change, that means Francis isn't big on laws like like cap-and-trade that may reduce carbon pollution but also, perversely, lock it in. No, Francis doesn't want to just tinker with things. He is a big, radical thinker who wants a world where people change the ways they consume energy because they've changed the way they look at their neighbors, and themselves.
So, too, with mass murder in America. Everyone wants a quick fix...but it's not that easy. As noted here the other day, Connecticut saw a sharp drop in gun killings by adopting a sensible law on background checks that should be a model for the rest of the nation -- but a good law still didn't stop the Sandy Hook killer. Maybe we're afraid to discuss the ties that bind our alienated and unstable mass killers because the cure -- actually loving thy neighbor -- is far too radical to comprehend in a world where we can't even get 60 senators to vote for gun background checks.