This post has had to be started over three times. It began as a Sunday post about a minister who survived a midlife crisis but left the ministry. Then it got pulled out of shape by my reading of an invaluable book about Hutterites, called “The Forgotten People,” because it is such a clear alternative to the society that creates a much-admired mainstream minister, but then leaves him hollow and blames him for being a “narcissist.” To the Hutterites all this would seem like nonsense, but to the author Michael Holzach it would be clear. His huge achievement was to be curious and nonjudgmental in experimentally moving from his upscale and mainstream life in Germany to the medieval communal peasant life of a Hutterite colony a little over a hundred miles north of here, outside Lethbridge, Alberta. He just wanted to write a book, but it turned out to be much more. I’ll come back to that later in the week.
Because as I was writing, along came the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and its many questions about society. The most useful thoughts for me showed up on Warren Olney’s NPR program, “To the Point”, The first shocker was the statistic that in the USA these incidents (mass shootings involving more than four deaths) happen a couple of dozen times a year. The media only picks up on the sexy ones with an angle. The headline in the GF Tribune Saturday morning was “SLAYING SUSPECT WAS BRILLIANT STUDENT” which captures some of the Montana suspicion of fancy educations and the high expectations that go with them. If you make it to grad school, you’re supposed to be bullet-proof. But in this part of the world, contradictorily, being a smarty-pants is worse than being a gun nut.
Richard Florida in “The Geography of Gun Violence” http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/07/geography-gun-violence/2655/ suggests there is a difference between the nature of mass shooters in terms of grouped statistics and the nature of mass shooters as individuals. If you look at state by state, the slightly higher incidence is in states with a lot of working class people who are conservatives, NRA members, and in economic difficulty. If you look at individuals, you see something different. Roger Ebert, in an effort to prevent the idea that a Batman movie caused the incident, picks up on this, suggesting that James Holmes, like other shooters, felt a “deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation.” Florida says there is a definite connection to the rise in instant witness media. Shooters know they have an audience, possibly worldwide and simultaneous.
My question is not why Holmes escalated his despair when he got into school difficulties. It’s plain to me that his academic choice was an attempt to understand himself -- not unlike a lot of heavy drinking or drugging at that age and evidently equally useless for him. This is not different from the case of the shrink who became a recent mass killer. I’ve personally witnessed that a lot of mainline professionals and working class men (put military men where you like) carry this same “deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation.” They often look to women to resolve this and can become violent in their demand. Some sublimate violence to sex, other sex to violence. Institutions do not question this because it would lead directly to challenging the assumptions on which they rest, like the nature of authority and what a worthy man is like. It would challenge the idea that they are effective and relevant.
Hutterites are pacifists who arise from the same roots as Unitarians (NOT Universalists) but the Unitarians dropped communal ownership and then later the all-powerful God. Today they are quite mainline. But Hutterites in Montana moved north to Canada during WWI because their German origins and stubborn pacifism caused them to be stigmatized and tortured to the point of death by American authorities. They have remained stubbornly sequestered in Medieval communal agriculture with some tech improvements. The burdens their men carry are shared. Deviators are counseled and -- if intractable -- put outside the circle. Gender differences are clear and again the women's hard work is shared. Around the outside of the colonies is a ragged edge of interaction with the larger culture. The Valier library checks out hundreds of “Christian romances” to the women and the men come to use the computers for business. At night I can see the lights of the nearest colony just across Lake Frances.
Once I stepped into a major quarrel across the alley where a runaway boy had taken refuge with a couple of alcoholic old men. A sheriff’s deputy finished the intervention.
Once I stopped at a colony to buy vegetables and the senior patriarch who sold them wanted to find out why a middle-aged woman was driving a van alone on the back roads of Montana. I was a circuit riding UU minister. This REALLY got his attention. “Do your people obey you?” he asked.
“No, they INSIST on thinking for themselves!”
“Sister, this is terrible! You must get them under control at once or their souls will burn in hell!” A lot of non-Hutterites agree.
Go back to that entitled but deeply burdened and obligated mainstream minister, whose fancy education did not prevent him from a crisis and whose devoted wife could not save him. (I don’t want to name him because as the saying goes, “God is not through with him yet.”) Why didn’t his colleagues see what was going on and step in? Why didn’t Holmes’ classmates and teachers step in? Was it that they felt they didn’t have the right or because their sense of what is “right” was too weak? Or were they too busy thinking about their own issues? Or did he successfully deflect them?
Ministry gets a bad rap these days, often with good reason. The pattern was supposed to be “A Man Called Peter.” (Now THERE was a movie!! Right? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048337/plotsummary) This contemporary minister whose book I read now runs secular workshops for professional men. They’re “suits,” living in as much of a bubble as ministers. (I suppose one could call it “Mad Man Syndrome.”) His work is worthy, sounds effective and -- maybe most of all -- keeps the lot of them from picking up assault rifles. The emphasis on women in this book is not of much use for gays, but I think that will change. The larger world seeps in everywhere, even among sequestered executives.
Too much depends on “success” in an uncertain world. We cannot prevent the chaos of the planet -- it is what creates and sustains us. But we can certainly redefine success, whether as a communal group or as individuals. It is more than being famous. Even those who seem to have it made can be secretly desperate for a little help. We need the sharp focus on each other that the elders provide in a Hutterite colony, but without forcing conformity. And we can reach out to each other BEFORE we leave bloody handprints.