The Coarsening of the American Soul
October 8, 2017
Jer. 31:15; 1 John 4 “Love casts out fear”

I spent the beginning of the week in bed with the flu, taking in the shooting tragedy in Las Vegas with the rest of the country, watching TV and scanning social media. Somewhere in the middle of that 36 hour odyssey, the words of Joseph Stalin came to mind, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic.” Even the cynical dictator recognized the spiritual truth that there are limits on human empathy and I worry that we are living through an era of the coarsening of the American soul.
The terrorist acts that dot the social landscape with a kind of staccato frequency nowadays are a product of our time and are only plausible because so many factors have come together that we can give wanton violent terrorists a moment of infamous celebrity. It is almost like our normal broadcasting has been hijacked. They have our attention for a while, their 15 minutes of infamy, per Andy Warhol.
No matter how sad and irrelevant their lives might have been up to this point, we suddenly are bombarded with reams of information about these terrorists, as the news media seeks ‘a motive’ for the anger and violence that led them to kill innocent people that they don’t even know in a barrage that ends in suicide.
So many of their neighbors express surprise, even as they regularly report, ‘he kept to himself’. Stephen Paddock’s brother was baffled, even as we learned that he had two other brothers that he had lost contact with. We get time-lines; we get interviews with high school mates and ex-wives. And after a week of detailed reporting, we have no better answer to the question of motive than when we stared blankly at the original video of anarchy, as people fled gun violence.
Even when we get an answer, when a note or Facebook post is left for us to ponder, it still doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up.
By now, the way we cover these “mass shootings” has a defined litany, the word we use in church for the structure of prayer between leader and the people.
First, we get ‘breaking news’ that is mostly a jumble of cell phone videos as the tragedy is unfolding. Our era has developed this new form of reporting that wants to take us inside the event so that we can subjectively experience the chaos and heroism like the people that lived through it.
It is not obvious that it is a wise thing for us to do this but it is a newfound capability in a world where so much of our life is on video. We use it like children with a new powerful toy. It is curious that our era’s actual form of coverage doesn’t ask about limits on privacy or how you should share the intimate reflections of people that have been traumatized. We simply presume, “enquiring minds want to know”.
We get firsthand accounts of horror and fear, some poignant to be sure. But overall, there are many that should be edited that can’t be edited because they are ‘live’ and you feel yourself oddly voyeuristic flipping from channel to channel hearing people give partial reports that detail their confusion and fear for all the world to see. They are telling you something as intimate and personal as you would hear from your closest friends, only you don’t know them, you have no idea about the wider context of how this has upset the vector of their lives, and you won’t follow up with them in the future to watch them heal.
If you isolate sex from the context of a life of love and care, you get porno, which is devoid of intimacy, even as it is graphic in the extreme. And somehow, our overexposure to first hand reporting in these crises has created the unintended consequence that the viewers subconsciously distance themselves from these emotional reports. They intend to draw you inside… but too many of them and they all start to seem the same and you feel yourself just not caring- which is disconcerting.
After all you have to pick your kids up in ten minutes and someone is texting you about an issue at work. It is more engagement than you can take in on a workday.
In between these reports from the scene, we get a round table of talking heads that pensively raise the question ‘why does this keeping happening in America?’ By now, it appears that every TV station has a rolodex of people to ‘go to’ for gun control or police intelligence or security issues. The same people give the same answers to the same questions with exacting precision because it is a very familiar script to everyone involved.
The issues are all of vital importance. But seeing the same questions and talking points repeated over and over to the point of sounding rehearsed actually undermines genuine dialogue. You start to feel that no one will really change their mind and nothing will actually be learned from this sad and sorry episode.
It is a sharp contrast with real life, off the camera. Spiritually, in the midst of your personal tragedy, you are dramatically changed, whether you want to be or not. And you have to make big changes in their lives, so that you can honor the dead, and create a new meaning out of this sadness.
You quit drinking because your child died in a drunk driving fatality. You collect money to fund treatment programs. Sometimes you even make profound relationships with those that caused you harm because you need to resolve an event that changed your life and your family for good.
So, what happens in our wider society if you keep going through a recurring tragedy and nothing changes? What effect does that have upon us spiritually as a people?
You see people lining up to give blood. Undoubtedly, we will have some kind of country music event that raises money for the victims in Las Vegas. From the turnout, you can see that people want to do something.
And the prayer vigils are important, lighting candles and sharing moving tributes all testify that people want to do something, they want to help others heal.
But somewhere on social media I saw a post that read “Deaths from Gun Violence: 12,710” and next to it was posted “Prayers and Good Thoughts for the Victims 0”. Violence is winning and all of our gestures are important, but they are not enough spiritually for us to become genuinely healed.
Not healing is not healthy spiritually any more than it is physically. We are already starting to form spiritual callouses around issues of gun control that leave people feeling innervated and frustrated, like nothing will actually change. But the issue is actually bigger than gun control itself.
Even if we could miraculously pass meaningful gun control, we already have 9 million assault rifles on our streets (300 million guns altogether) and it will remain easy for people to perpetrate mass violence for the purposes of terror for quite some time.
So, we have to zoom out and ask ourselves, “What kind of world are we creating for our children?” As a society, we’ve used our technology to create an incredible interdependency through social media. But we have let that interdependence be defined through a cult of celebrity that creates trends that are not much more sophisticated than a Middle School popularity contest.
We’ve unwittingly given the bullies from Middle School a forum so that the whole country must be subject to their menace, not just the local few that had to endure it to begin with. Do we really want to have our attention hijacked every few weeks? Do we want to keep going through the same cycle?
Because I can fairly well predict that left unchecked, that is the world we have chosen with our freedom.
We live in a world come of age, oddly similar to the dystopian future depicted in the closing chapter of ‘Farenheit 451’. In the novel, the totalitarian government was the great evil. They sought to indoctrinate the whole nation through propaganda that came over huge TV’s in every living room that automatically came on in the morning with the messages that the totalitarian government wanted the masses to think about so they could control them. The Media dominated every single household, tying them into one narrative of propaganda that was impossible to escape.
It is creepy looking at the old movie from the 60’s because we actually now have those huge TV sets that dominate every single home. It turns out that we don’t need a totalitarian government for them to be remarkably effective at getting us all to focus together. Big Brother has been displaced by Big Data.
In the novel, a few dissenters individually unplugged and connected in smaller groups, centered around books, so that they could nurture their humanity in intimate personal relationships infused with the great ideas of literature. They recognized that the Mass media was creating a mass movement that manipulated our viewpoints very predictably, making them feel depersonalized and less than fully human.
The moral of the novel is finally relevant. Only it turns out, we didn’t need a totalitarian government to force us to plug in 12 hours of every day, we plugged in willingly for a whole lot of convenience and power.
So much so that it defines enough of our consciousness that we have to become intentional about what we are doing, otherwise we won’t be setting enough of the spiritual agenda of our lives, of our family and we’ll start feeling like we are being driven and defined by these mass trends in our wider social world.
And you know when that is happening to you spiritually because you feel anxious. And you are anxious because you feel responsibility more than you should (if it weren’t for our technical prowess that amps up your awareness).
And you are anxious because you don’t feel like you can act about these trends in ways that are direct, personal, impactful, spiritual.
We need to stay in touch with what is spiritually real.
I think of a scene from the inspiring movie, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ about a young girl in Mongolia that has a real gift with Eagles and wants to become an Eagle Hunter. Small problem. Fathers have taught sons, who taught their sons and their sons, forever. It’s an all boy’s club in Mongolia and every single of the twenty other hunters they interviewed. They ask the men if a girl should become an eagle hunter. One by one they say, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….”
Fortunately, the last man they interviewed was her father and he said, “But I think women are equal to men.” So, he trains her. She is very good.
The day comes when he has to go public that he is training his daughter to do a man’s sport, so he calls the Elder hunter in the tribe to come to his Yurt. They smoke and talk, he explains that he is training his daughter and lets the Elder Hunter see how good she is. And the Father says, “I want you to bless my daughter.”
The Elder Eagle hunter calls her over. She is like 12 or 13. He has made up his mind. He is transcending the old tradition and making a new tradition now, a better tradition. And he prays for her to be able to be one with her Eagle, for her to be intuitive and responsive, and he makes this ancient gesture of blessing as she stands before him. (Swoosh up, Swoosh down). “May it be so” or as we say, Amen.
In real life, spiritually, if you can inspire and bless the next generation to develop their potential; if you can open up new doors, so that opportunity expands; if you can make the world a better place. That is when you feel as alive, as powerful, as hope-filled as we humans are given to experience. That is spiritually real.
I’m glad you are here this morning. We want to connect with each other around what is spiritually real in our lives. We want to encourage you to develop your spiritual power to bless, to inspire, to nurture your people. We want to surround you with other people that are doing the same thing.
We can’t be rid of the background anxiety that defines our age anymore than we can choose the era that we are born into. It is just there.
But we can choose to stay grounded in blessing people around us, in creating a spiritual community of blessing that keeps us in touch with what is spiritually real. Together, we can create some spiritual ballast for the rough seas of our era.
Peace, strength and hope to heal our compassion fatigue, to heal our resignation, to break free of predictable responses.