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Nearly 25 percent of all crimes in which weapons are used are committed by juveniles—and these offenses are increasing faster than all other crimes committed by young people. Whites make up more than half of all such arrests (70 whites out of every 100,000), although the arrest rate for blacks is five times that for whites (362 blacks out of every 100,000).

Contrary to popular perceptions, the problem is not limited to urban, inner-city neighborhoods. In small-town Sonoma County, California, for example, much of which is rural and dotted with world-famous vineyards, the numbers of young people injured and killed by guns have climbed into the double digits in the last few years. Drive-by shootings are commonplace. In the nearby town of Clearlake, in adjacent rural Lake county, known for its “bucolic splendor,” four teenage defendants were arraigned last year for the murder of a 14-year-old.

Living in close proximity to this violence—at home, in and around school, and in their neighborhoods—nearly three-quarters of all American children ages 7 to 10, not surprisingly, fear being shot or stabbed at home or in school, more than 60 percent worry about dying young, and 70 percent are afraid of being hit by an adult. By the time they reach their teen years, nearly 40 percent of the boys ages 14 to 17 say they or a friend had been assaulted or threatened with a weapon, and quarter of them said that they or a friend had been a victim of gang violence.

What is their future? Although the FBI reports that there has been a drop in the overall crime rate, many experts are forecasting that this is only the “lull before the storm,” because the number of violent crimes has been increasing among younger and younger adolescents—and their numbers are beginning to climb rapidly. As one Princeton University professor put it, many of them are “fatherless, godless, and jobless.” FBI director Louis Freeh forecasts “future crime and violence at nearly unprecedented levels.” Similarly the Council on Crime in America, a nonpartisan organization of prosecutors and law enforcement officials, have called the situation a “ticking time bomb.”

Pressures & Pain

How are we to understand what's happening?

On the face of it, huge numbers of people in this country—not only the poor and minorities, although they suffer in the extreme—are experiencing extraordinary pressures in their day-to-day lives. Many can no longer tolerate the pressures, which exceed their emotional and psychological thresholds of pain and control, and for which they have few spiritual or religious resources with which to recover. The underlying causes are, of course, comprised of a complex web of economic, political, and social forces. But we also need to understand the experience of the individual—both the pain and the hope.

One of the great rabbinic commentators, Solomon Yitzhak ben Isaac (1040-1105), described as an “impatience of the soul” the situation in which “everything which is difficult for a person . . . upon whom trouble has come and his mind is not at ease (i.e., not sufficiently large) to receive that thing, and he has no place within his heart where that grief should remain.” (Numbers 21:4)

Virtually all Americans experience some of those pressures: our aging parents and spouses are often mistreated in nursing and convalescent homes, our children are attending schools in which the authorities are confiscating an increasing number of deadly weapons, our relatives (sometimes our own children) and friends are dying from AIDS, we are drained from sitting in freeway commuter traffic for hours every day, we are overwhelmed by the demands of our work, although many of us are under-employed and some of us are unemployed, and that's not half of it—millions have lost hope for a better life, a life free of pressures that devastate their families. So we are acting out, sometimes violently—against our spouses, against our children, against our neighbors, against our co-workers, against strangers, and, not surprisingly, often against ourselves.

Too many Americans—even our own family members and friends—do not see alternatives; they do not see options through which they can change the circumstances of their lives. Too many of them feel stuck and enervated, even those who may be educated and “successful.” When we cannot eliminate the vulnerabilities in our lives, when we cannot protect ourselves and our families from forces beyond our control, we go “crazy”—our senses become clouded, our reasoning becomes confused, and we begin to react out of our pain. Virtually all of us have done that, although most of us have stopped far short of violence.

But not always. The country has been experiencing a plague of domestic violence—against children, spouses, and the elderly—which knows no class boundaries. In one Reform Jewish congregation, a husband shot his wife to death. The rabbi was asked whether he thought this deadly domestic violence was an isolated event. He thought about it carefully and answered that the same pressures which had led to the violence in that one family were not at all uncommon among other families in the congregation. Later this rabbi conveyed the depths of those pressures when he recalled the epilogue to that domestic violence: a four-year old daughter standing at the grave site saying “bye-bye mommy” and waving as her mother's casket was lowered into the earth.

When we find that we have lost control of the things on which our realities and resources in life depend, we lose control of ourselves—literally. For those who become violent, all the things on which their identity and their understanding of the world are pegged, which are the underpinnings of their sanity, begin to dissolve.

We hear people asking: Why is this happening in America? Why is this happening to innocent people, to “decent”people, to honest, hard-working people? Arguably, the issue is not why this has been happening—there are endless reasons—but why so many Americans have not responded better. We have had an epidemic of violence that has taken thousands of young lives and maimed tens of thousands of others. Why have we and other Americans not stopped it in the last decade? Why does the violence continue its destructive cycle, seemingly out of control?

Shared Faith

Perhaps, regrettably, because most Americans have come to believe that if “they" win, we lose, and if we win, “they” lose. We do not have a shared faith that Americans—all of us together—can uplift ourselves. That faith has been destroyed by the spirit-poisoning conditions of American life.

America is in a crisis of faith—and “religious” Americans have not been exempted from that crisis. As religious peoples and individuals, many of us, like most of our fellow citizens, have lost the conviction that through our personal faith, through our congregations (for the affiliated minority), through our religion, and through our God, we have the power to save our youth and reverse the rising tide of violence in our cities and towns. Because too many Americans, whatever their religion, have lost that faith, and the religiosity in which it was seeded, we no longer share a vision as Americans that we can act together for our common good. We have turned over our religious and civic responsibilities to a handful of dedicated and overworked clergy, denominational officials and judicatories, religious educators, politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, and social workers.

How can we find our way out of this crisis? What must happen for us to have faith as Americans that, together, with our own initiatives and God's help, we can help change our country's deadly heading?

Commonwealth of Faith

The way out, of course, cannot be simple, quick, or easy. As far-fetched as it may sound in our present circumstances, we must imagine that at the end of the maze in which we find ourselves, large numbers of us have begun publicly to affirm our religious faith and our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. That public expression of faith and civic responsibility may become possible when we and many other Americans can persuade ourselves that we have values and self-interests in common. But do we have such in common?

Most of us would agree that it is possible to increase goodness in the world, that we can build just, free, and peaceful communities that allow every individual and people to develop in the image of God. We find in ourselves a commonly stifled but often irrepressible urge to act for the common good, despite our reason and our experience, which tell us there is no hope. Although we may never agree on the nature of God, might we see the possibility for good to grow by our actions with others who are different from ourselves?

Most of us believe that we must maintain the integrity of families, including the moral and cultural education of children, as the fountainhead of community. Although we may never agree on what makes the ideal family, can we acknowledge that we all benefit from protecting and enhancing life in every family, and that every child must be treasured?

Most of us acknowledge that we cannot indefinitely avoid our own responsibility and that of our communities, religious and secular, for the perversion and corruption of American politics and economy. Each of us individually, and every organization that is founded on principles of democratic and religious faith, has an obligation and self-interest in shoring up the foundations of American life.

That we identify ourselves as believers in God and democracy bespeaks a self-imposed obligation as Americans to share fully in the responsibility not only for our sectarian interests but larger American interests too. If we ignore that obligation, we do so at our peril from the growing threat of violence against ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Examining Our Traditions

Along with all other Americans, we must look to the religious traditions in which we have descended. We must each look to our own tradition for the vision and the wisdom it can offer us in this time of violence; we must examine the moral and ethical teachings that have inspired, guided, and sustained our people for millennia.

And we must begin the difficult and awkward effort to talk with one another—first within our own circles and congregations, then across social, economic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial boundaries—about our moral and ethical teachings and how they relate to the common pressures we face as Americans. The goal of such talk must be to encourage a thoughtful citizenry that is organized for action and committed to the creation of a commonwealth in the image of God.

For those who are willing to make this effort, the words of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter may be helpful: “A person who works for the community must have three virtues: he [or she] must not get tired, must not get angry, and must not be eager to see a project completed.”

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© 2019 Moshe ben Asher & Khulda bat Sarah