“All authority flows and is born from the authority of parents. Where a father is unable alone to educate his rebellious and irritable child, he uses a schoolmaster to teach the child. If he is too weak, he gets the help of his friends and neighbors…So also men are all called fathers in the Scriptures, who in their government perform the functions of a father, and have a paternal heart toward their subordinates.”
So says Martin Luther in his Large Catechism’s discussion of the fourth commandment. Luther’s primary point is a theological one, that Christians owe respect and honor to their community and governmental authorities because these carry out parental tasks. But throughout this section of the Large Catechism, Luther also makes an important sociological point, namely that civilization is made up of three interdependent institutions: the family, the community, and the state.
God calls a man to feed his family, for example, but if that man doesn’t own any land on which to grow crops, he turns to the community to employ him and thereby give him a means of obtaining food. If there’s no food to obtain, however, because foreign armies are burning the community’s fields, he and the other families of his community rely on the state to give them the assistance they need. Families have limitations. They can’t do everything on their own. They need the help of their communities and governments.
Governments also have limitations and therefore need the assistance of communities and families, something the American founding fathers understood. “The reward of esteem, respect and gratitude is due to those who devote their time and efforts to render the youths of every successive age fit governors for the next,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. In other words, the state’s job is to preserve the rights of all citizens, but it’s the job of parents and communities to teach their own children to love those rights and to exercise them honorably.
Our Community Responsibilities Are the Missing Piece
The function of the community, therefore, is to assist families when they’re too small and weak to do their jobs and to help the state when it’s too oafish and distant to carry out its duties. A healthy community will come to the aid of parents who don’t have the means to protect their children, just as it will come to the aid of a state that can’t figure out how to properly balance freedom and safety when that balancing act changes from neighborhood to neighborhood.
If we want to address the problem of gun violence, therefore, we ought to pause the debate where liberals say the problem is broken government and conservatives argue it’s broken families and pay attention to the problem of our atrophying sense of community. According to “What We Do Together,” a document prepared by the Social Capital Project, Americans go to church far less often than we did in the early 1970s. Compared to that same decade, we spend less time socializing with our neighbors and our coworkers. We don’t participate in voluntary organizations as much, and we join labor unions less often.
While some of these factors may not be troubling on their own, the overall picture is certainly alarming. Twenty-first-century Americans are retreating from community life, separating themselves from the institutions meant to hold society together should our families fall apart and our governments become ineffective. As so many mass shootings in recent times have shown, families have fallen apart and governments have not been effective at hindering the evil impulses of the angry young men those broken families produce.
Young Men Like This Need You to Fill In for Them
When a broken young man begins brewing anger at the world, he needs his community to come to his aid. He needs classmates who know they have a duty to befriend him. He needs to have neighbors who take up the challenge of reaching out to a bitter, lost boy, driving away his desire to gain attention in the most demonic of ways.
He needs to have a church filled with people who will sit beside him on Sunday morning, and learn how to leave their anger and sins at the foot of the cross, a church filled with older men who will take him under their wings, teaching him to fish or work on cars and who can, in some measure, heal the festering father wound that’s pushing him towards violence.
When a single mother is frazzled and simply doesn’t know how to help her troubled son, she needs community. She needs friends who can guide her through making a psychiatric appointment for him. When the state says, “law-abiding citizens of age have the right to fill their homes with as many guns as they want,” she needs her neighbors to look at her and say, “Fine, but you can’t exercise that right safely with your son around, so we’re going to come to your house, take all your firearms to a safe location, and get both of you the help you need to stop him from charging down this worrisome path.”
When a troubled child is orphaned and left to float in a world he hates, he needs a community to wrap its arms around him and help him find a godly purpose for himself. If he’s beyond the point of listening, then the community needs to do the other thing it’s designed for. It needs to help the state do its job.
It needs to inform authorities when a sick young man indicates he might perform an evil they’re not equipped to restrain—something, it’s worth noting, the Parkland community tried to do, despite the government’s unwillingness to listen. The community needs to help the state develop an approach that can prevent red-flag-covered loners from buying deadly weapons without running roughshod over due process, an approach like the one David French suggests. It needs to hold the state accountable for its failures and help the government do its God-given duty of letting families lead a peaceful and quiet life.
Get Off Fake Social Networks and Into Real Ones
Of course, communities can’t serve either their governments or their families if they don’t exist. And they won’t exist if we refuse to participate in them. The more we retreat from our neighbors, the less likely we are to notice when one of our neighboring families desperately needs our help.
The more we refuse to be bound together with those who share our religion and values, the fewer people will notice if the devil has begun devouring our faith and turning our hearts towards evil. The more we chase after social media affirmation at the expense of genuine human interactions, the more we risk having to fend for ourselves if ever we need help and the only community we have is too digital to notice.
When God gives a child to a man and a woman, he gives them the responsibility of protecting and providing for their offspring. But in a world filled with evil and hardship, many forms of provision and protection are too weighty for that mother and father to provide on their own.
That’s why God has instituted the state, but it’s also why he’s given us the gift of community—neighbors, friends, coworkers, church members, and the like. If we want to stop the scourge of mass shootings, if we want to stop seeing the tears of those in our community, it’s time for all of us to become a part of our community once again.