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January 12th, 2011
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Is Arizona shooting an individual or shared sin?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

After the shooting, the vitriol.

First came the thunder from the left, blasting the right for creating a climate of hatred in which taking out your Glock and aiming it at a congresswoman might seem to be the next logical thing to do.

Then came the thunder from the right, blasting liberals for blaming conservatives for what was obviously the illogical act of a confused young man shipwrecked on an island of his own imagining.

Then came Jon Stewart of Comedy Central and David Brooks of the New York Times, with more measured efforts to claim that what on the face of it would seem to be a political assassination attempt has nothing whatsoever to do with politics or, for that matter, even with ideas.

And apparently a majority of the U.S. public agrees. According to a CBS News poll, 57% of Americans believe that America’s “harsh political tone” has nothing to do with the Arizona shootings.

Yet surely those of us who read the New York Times or turn on CBS News are influenced by the flux and flow of ideas. Are we to believe that people like the alleged shooter Jared Loughner are exempt from his human capacity? Does his rampage require no explanation other than mental illness? And does the responsibility for it lie solely with him?

One of the great debates in the history of ideas concerns human responsibility. What pushes evildoers to do evil? Is sin individual, or social, or both?

In much of Asia, the theory of karma answers these questions, and for the most part our karma is our own. The sins of the fathers are not visited upon the sons, and we are not our brother's keeper, at least not among the Hindus of India and their Buddhist kin.

Jewish thinkers, however, have typically been willing to find fault in communities, not least the anti-Semitic culture of the German nation, which according to "Hitler’s Willing Executioners" by Daniel Goldhagen bore as much responsibility for the Holocaust as Hitler himself.

American Protestants have had at this problem from both ends. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists look to the individual soul for explanations of almost all sin. So do their secular twins in the psychiatric profession, who typically explain massacres like the one visited on Giffords and her compatriots in terms of a single twisted mind.

Other Protestants, including theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (until today, at least, David Brooks’ darling), see sin as social, and refuse to confine either the cause of such tragedies or the responsibility for them to individual agents. It takes a village to make a killer.

On this debate, I am with Niebuhr and the Hebrew prophets, rather than with Brooks or, for that matter, with Rush Limbaugh, who decried the liberal media for "accusing people that have nothing whatsoever to do with this sordid, unfortunate event, as accomplices to murder."

I can't help thinking we have at least a spattering of blood on our hands.

Jared Loughner lives in the same society in which Limbaugh and I live. He breathes the same air, and takes in much of the same political rhetoric. To insist that he was not influenced by that rhetoric is to pretend either that ideas have no effect, or that they somehow magically lose their effectiveness when they enter the brains of the mentally imbalanced.

To take a gun and point it at Rep. Giffords is obviously different from putting her in your crosshairs on your web site, as Sarah Palin did last year. And the responsibility that attaches to each action is different. But we are all responsible both for what we do and for what we say. It is our society in which guns (and excuses) are so readily available. It is our society in which civility is so rapidly withering away. "Few are guilty," Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in "The Prophets," "but all are responsible."

To pretend that people like the Tucson shooter are not influenced by the hateful rhetoric in which we are swimming these days only invites more hateful rhetoric from all sides. Unfortunately, that is what we are already seeing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Culture wars • Ethics • Opinion • Politics • United States • Violence

soundoff (186 Responses)
  1. AI

    How many times are people going to repeat this same crap? And that's what it is, crap. It's disingenuous babble, claiming collective responsibility for individual misdeeds, all the while pointing the same finger at the same people, using the same false arguments.

    This is allegedly a "faith blog." How can anyone show themselves to be righteous in the eyes of God, any God, if they fall back on blaming others for their own evil deeds? That is unbelievable nonsense. It is no different than giving everyone in a class the same grade. Individuals need to sink or swim on the merits of their own actions, and any religion that absolves people of individual responsibility and dumps it onto the collective is morally bankrupt, and will produce a society of sin.

    If it's someone else that is to blame for Loughner's acts (go ahead and bleat about Palin here, Prothero), how is it that others didn't do the same thing, given the same choices, and the same "vitriolic" environment? Because they have free will, and the ability to not only distinguish right from wrong, but choose right!

    February 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  2. tinab20

    a very sad tragedy but someone is saying they have the answers

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LInyRV-SPuU&w=640&h=360]

    February 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  3. Shamo

    Aren't all these pundits like Prothero going to eat crow when the truth comes out about this wackjob? Will we hear them speak contritely and humbly about their foolish rush to judgement? The biggest purveyors of hate speech are the politicians themselves. They buy the fools with promises of great things and it's understandable that some would be angry when lied to. Look at the gaping distance between what they say and the results of their work. It's a wonder that perfectly sane folks aren't popping caps at them everyday.

    February 5, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  4. Ken Dixon

    I Say FOX news and all the am conservative talk radio people have created far more suffering to our country then all the terrorists combined. They are The American Terrorists LIsten to this everyone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEiqYPmeyHY

    February 3, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  5. Aaron Moore Sacramento, CA

    Loughner's feelings about America are not the feelings spouted by the right or left in any public setting. It is readily obvious that Sarah Palin does not wish or promote bodily harm of anyone nor does our President or anyone in his party. Jared posted videos of himself burning the American flag over music that talks of "bodies hitting the floor." I don't remember seeing either of these from the right or left. Jared Loughner shot people for his own reasons – reasons that, even if they are shared by others – did not result in anyone else shooting that day, just Jared. So no, you faithless, ever-blaming "scholar", no one shares the blame but Jared, and the fact that you spent 10X what it cost the rest of us to get an education from self-important snobs whose lives have no base in reality should itself throw your judgment into doubt.

    February 2, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  6. duncanmac

    They should rather have taken the time to have a look at this http://www.nakedlife.org

    January 31, 2011 at 3:17 am |
  7. Joe Snuffy

    There is always someone who wants everyone to feel guilty for something they were not involved in. Get real Steve. Nobody is to blame but the shooter himself.
    You are apparently a religious person. No problem. Are you aware that religion is the primary cause of most murders and other capital crimes since the dawn of man? It's a historical fact. What are we seeing now? Suni Muslims against Shia Muslims. All Muslims against the Jews. Most muslims believing that western Christians represent Satin. Religions against religions. What does this tell you?
    Do you realize that IF there were only one TRUE religion/deity, everyone would be on the same team. As you state, there are EIGHT MAJOR religions all fighting for power over the people. Obviously, not a single one of them is THE TRUE and undisputable religion.
    Organized religions are the very first form of government. They want to control the people – the same as most despotic governments. Open your eyes and see what is REALLY going on out there in the real world.

    January 30, 2011 at 8:02 am |
  8. TinkerTailorSoldierSailor

    "Religion or not. Good people will do good things....bad people will do bad things.....but for a good person to do bad things...that takes religion"

    January 27, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Charlie

      Right, but at the same time for a bad person to do a good thing... wouldn't that also be considered religion?

      February 14, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  9. Superhiro

    Isn't that shooting what happens when you close down all the mental hospitals? Thanks Reagan.

    January 26, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  10. EnteveBeave

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    January 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  11. dina sherman

    this is riduclous watch this creepy movie http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kJGachsPnk

    January 21, 2011 at 3:39 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.