Religious leaders call for calm, civility

January 10, 2011

(RNS) Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas was thousands of miles away from the
shooting rampage that rocked his Arizona diocese on Saturday (Jan. 8),
but the emotional shock hit him hard.


"It broke me up," said Kicanas, who was in Jerusalem attending a
meeting of Catholic bishops on peace in the Holy Land. "I could not
sleep. I just wanted to return home as soon as possible," the bishop
wrote to his spokesman.


The victims of Saturday's shooting include a federal judge and
devout Roman Catholic who attended Mass daily, and a 9-year-old girl who
had received her First Communion at St. Odilia Parish in Tucson last
year. Four other victims died and 14 were wounded, including Rep.
Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who police believe was the target of
accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner.


After news of the shooting broke, Kicanas said Catholics in Jericho
asked how to prevent further brutality. "I wish I knew the answer," the
bishop said.


"But as the world continues to seek an answer to that question, we
can, each in our own way, strive to respect others, speak with civility,
try to understand one another and to find healthy ways to resolve our
conflicts."


Religious leaders across the country offered similar sentiments on
Monday, balancing lamentations about the dire state of political
dialogue in the U.S. with cautions that Loughner's motives remain murky.


"While we as bishops are also concerned about the wider implications
of the Tucson incident, we caution against drawing any hasty conclusions
about the motives of the assailant until we know more from law
enforcement authorities," said New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan,
president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Giffords, a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in Tucson, is a
moderate Democrat who supported the health care reform bill and opposed
Arizona's new illegal immigration law, both stances that drew heat from
conservatives.


Sarah Palin's political action committee depicted Giffords'
congressional district in crosshairs, and the congresswoman's Tucson
office was vandalized after the health care bill passed last year.


Giffords, like the other victims, was shot at close range at a
constituent event at a Tucson shopping plaza; she remains in critical
condition.


It is unclear, though, whether Loughner was motivated by partisan
politics. In a video posted on YouTube, the 22-year-old rails against
government conspiracies to brainwash Americans through grammar and rants
nonsensically about currency. Loughner's former philosophy professor
described him to Slate magazine as "someone whose brains were
scrambled."


Even though the accused shooter's intentions are unknown, Americans
cannot ignore the country's increasing culture of violence, particularly
in political discourse, said Rabbi David Saperstein, whose Reform Action
Center of Reform Judaism has worked closely with Giffords.


"Dehumanizing language and images of violence are regularly used to
express differences of opinion on political issues," Saperstein said.
"Such language is too often heard by others, including those who may be
mentally ill or ideologically extreme, to justify the actual use of
violence."


Four out of five Americans share Saperstein's concerns, according to
a November PRRI/Religion News poll, saying that a lack of respectful
political discourse in the U.S. is a serious problem.


Some Christian leaders also said the shooting shows the need for
stricter gun-control laws.


"Death and suffering from guns -- legally and illegally attained --
is virtually a daily occurrence in the cities and villages of this
country," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the
National Council of Churches.


"Surely the Second Amendment was not intended to provide
indiscriminate access to guns without more effective vetting and
control," he added.


The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist
Association, said he was "angered" by Saturday's shooting.


"Ours is a society in which such acts occur far too often," Morales
said. "Sorrow and compassion when people are murdered are not enough. We
must rededicate ourselves to creating a culture where differences are
resolved without violence, where the mentally unstable do not have ready
access to lethal force."


Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for
Public Affairs, said a lack of respect for human dignity -- political
opponents included -- underlies society's incivility problem.
"It's a failure to understand, from the perspective of the Abrahamic
faiths, that we are all made in God's image," Gutow said. "There is a
real problem in our society when things like that happen."


A number of religious scholars and leaders urged politicians to
weigh their words carefully and recognize the potential consequences of
using violent imagery.


"No one questions the power of well-chosen words and images to sell
automobiles or beer or pharmaceuticals," said the Rev. Bob Edgar,
president of Common Cause, a good-government group based in Washington,
and former general secretary of the NCC.


"Surely we should acknowledge that when poorly chosen they can
provoke despicable acts like those we've now witnessed in Tucson."