by Joshua Stanton
This month, it became clear that Americans must do more to prevent violence. A congresswoman was shot in the head in what seems to have been a politically motivated assassination attempt – only surviving by luck or miracle. Six others have died and many more were wounded. our country is in a state of mourning.
Of significant note, American religious leaders from myriad groups have stepped up to comfort families, visit the wounded, pray for victims, and speak out against the event. Though beautiful and important, these efforts are not enough. Religious leaders – and future ones such as myself – must also work actively to prevent violence. In fact, they are ideally situated to do so.
Some religious leaders have blamed the outbreak of violence on the fact that Jared Loughner – the assailant – was an atheist. Yet these rationalizations smack of deflection and a desire to avoid answering more essential questions about why violence takes place in our society – questions that religious leaders cannot in good conscience shirk. Of course our credibility both as communal leaders and people genuinely motivated by our beliefs is at stake. But more importantly, the tenets we believe as faithful demand that we those in need whenever we encounter them. So what can we do?
In his guest introduction to In Face of Conflict: Religion as a Force of Peace, Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, noted his observations from an illustrious career of engaging religious leaders to prevent and transform conflict:
At its simplest, this method involves assisting religious communities to… identify the needed roles (education, advocacy, mediation, reconciliation) essential to the resolution of that conflict. In a second step, religious communities inventory themselves to discover if they have assets—at least potential assets—to serve the roles identified as essential to resolving the conflict… In a third step, the potential religious assets are mobilized, equipped, and engaged in the needed conflict transformation roles.
In short, religious communities evaluate and make use of their resources to reduce the possibility of renewed violence. Religious leaders can be a key force in this mobilization effort. In the wake of Tuscon and the subsequent media deflection from possible solutions to politicized blame — it is clear that religious leaders can and must initiate a new movement for non-violence.
So what are some of the assets in our religious communities? Who could have reached out to Jared Loughner before he began engaging in homicidal ideation? What were the missing links in our society that let him slip by unnoticed, until he made headlines as a brutal killer?
An investigative article by the New York Times cites Loughner’s mental instability, which caused him to pull inward:
What the cacophony of facts do suggest is that Mr. Loughner is struggling with a profound mental illness (most likely paranoid schizophrenia, many psychiatrists say); that his recent years have been marked by stinging rejection — from his country’s military, his community college, his girlfriends and, perhaps, his father; that he, in turn, rejected American society, including its government, its currency, its language, even its math. Mr. Loughner once declared to his professor that the number 6 could be called 18.
Loughner was rejected again and again for erratic behavior and other symptoms of his mental illness. It is impossible to say if Loughner could have been helped even in the best of scenarios — and counterfactual history is inherently problematic — but Loughner’s mental illness and overt symptoms thereof do point to an area in which religious leaders and their communities can clearly play a role in violence prevention.
Religious groups are designed to provide community, even — and particularly — to those who exhibit unusual tendencies. For a variety of reasons, from proselytizing to altruism, religious groups actively reach out to people throughout their cities and regions. They offer services that range from prayer groups to support groups, study sessions to – indeed – pastoral counseling and referrals to mental health facilities.
In fact, many of the facilities to which clergy make referrals are also run by religious groups. Catholic hospitals, for example, house one in five hospital beds in the country – and that is just one of many religious communities that run such institutions. Countless day programs for the mentally ill, group therapy sessions, and addiction-treatment programs are run in congregations and religiously affiliated centers.
Even if Loughner and others exhibiting unusual behavior are dismissed from community college programs and social gatherings, they could be welcomed into religious communities – and then referred on to treatment programs already available within them. Religious communities could and should focus on identifying those in need and providing an integrated system of community-building and outreach, pastoral care, and referrals to mental health programs and professionals.
I would suggest that there may be two common problems that create leaks in this system of outreach, community-building, and service provision. The first is that faith-based mental health programs are often not known, even by a community’s teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and mentors who could most likely make an informal referral for someone exhibiting worrisome behavior. Sometimes, they even fly under the radar within congregations themselves. It can sometimes require the extra effort of a referral by a rabbi, imam, pastor, or priest to actually get a congregant to a congregation-based program where it remains taboo to speak of mental health programs like other congregational services.
The second problem may be in the process by which clergy refer congregants to mental health programs and professionals. While seminary, rabbinical, and divinity school curricula increasingly require courses and fieldwork in pastoral care and counseling, many religious leaders still lack expertise in identifying potential symptoms of mental health problems and have limited knowledge of programs outside their immediate congregations. As someone currently engaged in a chaplaincy internship, I can attest to my own lacking abilities – and ongoing need to hone them. While preaching may be a flashier skill to know, pastoral care and counseling is core to the behind-the-scenes work clergy undertake within congregations, notably in making referrals to mental health programs.
An essential answer to both of these problems may lie in making mental health programming as well-known as the social, community service, and prayer services that religious groups and congregations hold. While holiday celebrations may be exciting and social events easier to advertise, mental health programs sponsored by religious communities are at least as important – and merit the attention that other, more marketable programs already receive in the outreach efforts of our organizations.
A greater focus among religious communities on the identification of troubled individuals can only be part of the solution to violence. A debate, for instance, must clearly take place regarding the legality of assault weapons and large rounds of ammunition, and the evident inadequacy of background checks. But we cannot stand aside after such violence, nor see our only role as picking up the pieces. Were religious leaders to advocate for policies and practices that address community needs, whatever the faith or creed of the community, it would start us on a path of violence prevention.
I am not advocating government funding for faith-based initiatives, nor touting them as the only answer to communal violence. What I think may be essential, however, is retooling existing faith-based programs and religious congregations to more effectively provide mental health resources and more effectively use those which already exist.
Based on Dr. William Vendly’s analysis and experience in mitigating communal violence, religious leaders and their communities must survey and then harness their assets in order to actively prevent conflict. American religious leaders cannot negate this responsibility any longer. Tuscon has shown us anew the terrible consequences of communal violence; it is upon us to utilize the resources we have, namely in mental health care, pastoral counseling, and community outreach, to ensure that fewer Jared Loughners go unidentified and untreated in the future.
Joshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.