Healing in Dayton

Just south of central Dayton, Ohio, in the heart of one of the city's historic districts, is a stretch of road familiar to all the locals: A two block section of Fifth Avenue that is home to an eclectic mix of high-end restaurants, bars, oddity shops, tattoo parlors, a Goodwill, and an adult video store. This odd collection is the result of an ongoing gentrification process; this historic strip has been taken over by younger adults, eager to consume the wares of microbreweries, espresso bars, and farm-to-table eateries. Yet traces of the old order remain. As a result, this road is neither rich nor poor, neither high-brow nor low-brow. It's simply a representation of everything the city has to offer, both good and bad.

The official name for this neighborhood is the Oregon District. My husband and I have enjoyed many pleasant evenings there at some of our favorite restaurants--Lily's Bistro, Roost, Salar, Thai 9--and then gone home before the street becomes overwhelmed with bar patrons in various stages of sobriety (or lack thereof). Most members of our generation have enjoyed what this street has to offer, and remarked at how fortunate we are to finally have some decent food in what is, for the most part, a relatively simple Midwestern town.

Then something happened that changed the nature of this place: In the early hours of the Lord's Day, a young man came to that stretch of Fifth Avenue clothed in body armor and bearing a weapon. He opened fire on his own sister and several others enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Within seconds, the historic road was running with the blood of fallen men and women. Many ran back into the buildings, trying desperately to escape a violent death. The gunman approached the door of one of the bars, likely intending to kill everyone inside, but he was shot dead by police officers.

The police performed their duty superbly. Within 30 seconds, they responded to and brought down an active shooter wearing protective armor. There are few on planet earth who could have reacted faster or more effectively. And yet 30 seconds is a lifetime during a mass shooting.

In this case, nine lifetimes.

Nine dead, and twenty-two wounded. Our beloved street had become a war zone. And I don't simply mean that the carnage was comparable to war; I mean that these killings soon became yet another political point seized upon by strangers. Dayton has lost far more people this year to opioid abuse--we have one of the worst addiction crises in the country. Just two months earlier, we were hit by a string of tornadoes that also wreaked death and destruction. I don't  know how many people are annually shot and killed in Dayton, but it's probably more than nine. Yet the nature of this particular event, coming as it did on the heels of another mass shooting in El Paso, ensured that it would become a political football.

Within two days, President Donald Trump paid a visit to our city. This is expected of all U.S. presidents after a tragic event, particularly by those who control the 24/7 news cycle. In reality, a visit from the President is not always the best thing when your city has just received a punch to the gut. He brought with him not only the presidential motorcade, but groups of protesters on either side--some blaming him for the shootings, others urging him to keep making America great. This was not what we needed at a time when unity was crucial.

The shooting in El Paso had quickly been blamed on white supremacism. Before flying to visit us, the president made some comments highlighting the apparently liberal views of the Dayton shooter.[1] I cannot say if the shooter was liberal or motivated by political ideology. I doubt the families of the dead care all that much, even as I doubt that the president's typical style of rhetoric is the calming tone that places like Dayton need to bring everyone together. Then again, many of the president's critics also fail to project a sense of calm.

Overnight, the debate over guns in America reignited, as it always does on the heels of a mass shooting. The hot takes were burning up Twitter long before anyone could have known all the facts. For some, a mass shooting will always mean that we need more gun restrictions, while for others it will always mean that we need a good guy with a gun. This debate is old and wearisome, with few able to appreciate the merits of opposing arguments. I learned long ago that firearms are a subject to be broached only at one's own peril, not just in American society in general, but also among my fellow Christians. Emotions run deep on all sides, and disagreement is often interpreted as either subversion or a lack of basic intelligence. Why can brothers and sisters not listen to one another calmly?

Inevitably, there are those who point out that no amount of legislation will fix society's problems, and only the gospel of Jesus Christ can produce the kind of lasting change we need. I agree wholeheartedly. After all, if I did not believe that Jesus Christ has the solution for what ails us, I would not be wasting my time following him. However, I think we all know that there will always be some who reject the gospel, and that societal transformation does not typically happen overnight. The only thing that can truly remove the blood from our streets and hands is the blood of Jesus Christ... but there will always be some who spit upon that precious blood and trample it underfoot.

It is therefore noble to desire the preservation of life, even if we cannot convince everyone of the truth of the gospel. Our society is desperately sick, and these mass shootings are just one symptom of the disease. We cannot hope to change everything in our society, but preserving life should surely be near the top of our list of priorities. This is why we stand against abortion and euthanasia; why we seek to help the sick and the poor; why we should care about protecting people from violence: We want to preserve life. We will not always agree on how that can best be done, but we should respect those who are motivated by this common desire to bring an end to the long line of mothers crying over the dead bodies of their children.

This violence is not unique to Dayton, and it is not limited to mass shootings. Wherever hate exists in the human heart, violence will follow close behind. And this world is full of hate, rotten to the core by enmity. Does that hate also exist within the Church--the Church that Christ called to be a shining example of love? Of course it does. We are not perfect people.

While we seek temporary solutions for the problems plaguing our society, even as a doctor first attempts to stanch the bleeding, we should acknowledge that violence will reign for as long as evil reigns. Sometimes when I see that evil, I long to scream out in frustration. But there are many things I do not say, for no one wants to hear them. 

I have rarely written about the injustices in the American justice system because I sense my words would not be welcome. I can tweet condemnations of abortion all day and receive applause, but if I begin to talk about racism, one group will stop listening to me and another will rise up to have its ears tickled. Humans are selective listeners who want their own views validated by those they read. We do not wish to hear that we too might be part of the problem; that we have all failed to love our neighbor as our self. But as long as we refuse to heed that divine command to love, there will be mothers crying over dead bodies and blood running in our streets.

I am reminded of that song from the early days of U2, "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Written in response to the Bloody Sunday incident of 1972, when a group of soldiers fired on protesters in Northern Ireland, the song captures the turmoil of that period known as "The Troubles," when violent acts were par for the course in Northern Ireland and beyond: 

I can't believe the news today 

Oh, I can't close my eyes 

And make it go away [2]

I'm not the sort of person who exalts Bono as some kind of prophet, but those who read Scripture know that even a donkey speaks the truth on occasion. Those lyrics, written in response to another plague of death, seem to capture the spirit of the unfolding tragedy in today's America: 

And the battle's just begun 

There's many lost, but tell me who has won 

The trench is dug within our hearts 

And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

America is at war with itself, and the trench is most certainly "dug within our hearts." While the rise of Donald Trump and subsequent reactions have not helped matters, the fear and hate were there long before he came on the scene. As Edward R. Murrow once said of Senator Joseph McCarthy, "He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it - and rather successfully."[3]

There is a divide in this country too deep for a mere human being to cross. But the God-man Jesus Christ can cross it, because he bore that evil in his own flesh. At the end of "Sunday Bloody Sunday", Bono sings of claiming "the victory Jesus won". This occurred on another Sunday. The Friday before had featured the most unjust, unspeakable act of violence in history. Yet because he was raised by the power of the Spirit, we have hope. As the Scripture says, "The last enemy that will be abolished is death" (1 Corinthians 15:26). 

We long for the day, even as we weep for those who are lost, and we pray for healing in Dayton and beyond--for a day when the prophecy will be fulfilled. 

Each of them will sit under his vine 

And under his fig tree, 

With no one to make them afraid, 

For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:4).

[1] Klepper, David and Michael Biesecker. "Trump seeks to link Dayton shooter to liberal politics," Associated Press, 7 August 2019. Accessed on 13 August 2019 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-seeks-to-link-dayton-shoot....

[2] U2. "Sunday Bloody Sunday", War, Island Records, 1983.

[3] Murrow, Edward R. "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy", See It Now, CBS Studios, 9 March 1954. Transcript accessed on 13 August 2019 at https://speakola.com/political/edward-r-murrow-on-mccarthy-1954. 

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Related Links:

"Sticking Your Tongue Out at Suffering" by Aaron Denlinger 

"A Christian Perspective on The Newtown Shooting" by Jon Payne

"Race and the American Church" by Otis Pickett

"Let Light Shine" by Joel Beeke