Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ending Gun Violence IS a Gospel Value

Reflection on Gun Violence (10/14/2015)
This is a version of the opening remarks that I gave at our recent discussion, A Christian and Community Response to Gun Violence. They are somewhat expanded from the original.

Gun violence in America has reached astonishing levels, reaching 32,251 deaths in 2011 (the last year for which the CDC has data). While we are shocked by these numbers, the tragedies the afflict our cities, schools, and neighborhoods unfortunately no longer seem to surprise us. Once romanticized in western and gangster movies, lively shoot-outs have infected places once deemed inoculated by such violence: sanctuaries, school cafeterias, malls, community centers, campuses, playgrounds, and our suburban homes. Geography is no longer a buffer from the violence. Everyone is at risk. There are currently an estimated 112 guns per 100 people in America – that’s more guns than people! We are, as a country, armed and dangerous.

The Episcopal Church has for thirty years been concerned about this growing and frightening phenomenon, as have our sisters and brothers in a vast array of faith traditions. At the 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis the church took its first stance on guns, urging congress to adopt effective measures on hand gun control legislation (see here for the full text of Resolution 1976-C052). Since the 1976 General Convention ten more resolutions directly related to gun violence have been passed. Two were passed at the most recent General Convention in Salt Lake City in July of this year (2015-B008 and 2015-C005). While these newest resolutions don’t ask for any more than what has asked for in the past, it seems clear that the church recognized that our voices have not been persuasive enough and our actions too limited.

There are, it seems, to many places in America where it is difficult to hear the gospel over the resounding retort of gunfire. Nevertheless, we need to remain stalwart, convinced that God calls us to protect the lives of all within the human community, each a precious light in the eyes of the Creator. Moreover, in order to fulfill our baptism covenant to seek “peace among all people” we must persevere and find new and active ways of bringing change. We can no longer tolerate our self-imposed and truly preventable exile from God’s shalom, the kingdom of peace.

Christian Gospel values challenge gun violence in order to protect human life from unnecessary tragedy. The most recent approaches to gun violence, whether from the perspective of law enforcement, public health, or public safety, have all centered on individual offenders and owners of illegal firearms. While certainly an important approach, it might not be enough. We might need to plow a new field, harvesting for future education and policy that approaches the issue from the point of view of society and the common good. The Episcopal Church’s emphasis on legislation, policy, and education is clear in its current and past resolutions. A social need is clear and will require social action.

Should the church be involved in social action? Does the church have a duty or a responsibility to engage in the public policy discussion? Does the church even have a right to do so?

The vision presented in Isaiah 65 of “new heavens and a new earth….where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” has lost its power amid the sanitized idealization of the Christmas card. The people of God must continue to hold fast to the sacred visions of our Sacred Story, the scriptures which recall the intentions of the Creator for humanity. It is this vision, where humanity lives in radical peace with all of creation, that ought be our driving force when we confront Empire, the evil oppressor.

“For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy….no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,” continues Isaiah 65, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” This is the idyllic vision of the Creator’s intention. This is a vision where parents don’t have to worry about sending their children to school or to play in the neighborhood. This is a vision where adults don’t have to fear walking down the street or going to the movies or shopping in the mall. As we recall this vision – as Isaiah reminds us of this vision we longing is stirred for a different way and different kind of society. Not one built on fear and terror but one built on solidarity where the other is “alas, bone of my bone…a suitable helpmate.”

This vision is, moreover, one that should hold for those who profess Christ and for those who do not. It is for those inside the community of faith and for those not. Those of within the Anglican tradition continue to be informed by the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us. From the start, the prophets of Israel and Judah – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea, and so many others – challenged those in authority to create places of justice and peace. They challenged the leaders of government and religion to change institutions and policies so as to protect the poor. Many among the early Christians challenged Roman treatment of the early Church. Saint so the middle ages, most notably Francis of Assisi, challenged the economic systems of the feudal city-states. In the 16th century, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers challenged the Church and State to change their corrupt ways. And using their faith as a catalyst, William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and countless other saints helped to change the structures and institutions of the modern world.

It is not only the church that is knit together, one body out of many parts. Our Anglican tradition (read the Caroline Divines) affirms that the whole human community ought to reflect the image of the triune God. Government and public structures, then, are most fittingly used when they defend the lives of our neighbors, build community, promote tranquility, and protect our citizens. As a church, we must recapture the voice of the prophets challenging government policy and the interests aligned with the status quo. Indeed, despite rhetoric to the contrary by the likes of the Tea Party, Government is not evil and law are not inherently bad. Good government and sound laws can, indeed, by guides to people of faith and help structure the burdens of social life.

It is time that people of faith advocate a government role that protects its citizens and raises the standards of responsible gun ownership, with careful protections for all.

While Episcopalians and other communities of faith were issuing statements of against gun violence, the violence continued with an estimated 620,000 dead in the last two decades and another 1.4 million injured. It is time, therefore, for the church to not just pay attention to the rightness of our words but also to heed the size and efficacy of our actions. It is time to regard the effectiveness of our actions in stopping preventable suffering and death of so many of our daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbor.

It is time to effect and enact God’s “NO.”

So, if we are to be effective, we need to be intentional and smart. From the start, the church must recognize its role in creating the atmosphere of spiritual awakening that leads to social movement, the broader search to change laws and cultural norms. Social scientists have long noticed five coexisting needs for social movements to flourish. All five are present if we but heed the call.

A Clear Grievance
Consider that 90 people die every day from guns – that’s 32,000 every year. Approximately 3,000 children are killed each year by guns – that’s nine every day.
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”
If the deaths of so many are not enough of a grievance, consider also the spiritual, moral, and emotional malaise created by the widespread fear in our culture. The depiction and use of violence is constant in our cultural milieu. The malaise has given rise to notion of redemptive violence, a myth that has insisted on the need for assault rifles, semi-automatics, and handgun arsenals that go far beyond the needs of self-defense, much less hunting and sport shooting.

Consider the facts: Countries (with a few exceptions where organized crime is the de facto law of the land) where fewer households are armed have fewer gun related homicides and suicides. States that require more intense background checks, licensing, and registration have fewer gun related homicides and suicides than states that do not.

Consider that in 2015 it is expected that gun deaths will outnumber automobile deaths for the first time. 95% of American households own automobiles whereas estimates ranged between 25% and 50% on gun ownership. We know automobile rates and have curbed automobile deaths because cars are required to be registered and drivers licensed. Very few states require universal background checks, licensing, or registration of guns.

The statistics are staggering, too numerous to list them all here. The point is that there is a clear grievance!

A Moral Argument
Jesus named the idols that became the foundation of the unrepentant society. He reprimanded Peter for grabbing a sword in his defense, “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:25). If firearms become the mode of our social relationships, they will kill us. I fear that in many quarters and in many ways (some unknown because one never knows who has one) guns are indeed becoming an important factor in social relationships. American social life is perhaps a reflection of American diplomacy as well. Upon Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983, the British Ambassador to the United States was rumored to have remarked, “It’s no surprise. Invasion is in the American comfort zone.” Have guns become our go-to comfort zone.

If preserving you guns has become more important than the lives and safety of thousands of other human being, then your guns have become your idol. And this is in diametric opposition to the vision of a city of joy, where children and old people live out their years.

But it is not enough to just have a social critique. As the author of the first letter of John challenges us, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). We must struggle now with how to implement the vision. This is not a call to arms but to community. There is a direct connection, as we know well, between God’s intentions, the prophetic vision, the teaching of Jesus, and the implications for our actions. Moreover, if God commands that we not kill and that we work for a future where former enemies work as friends, the injunction must extend beyond our individual choices into the public sphere. We are compelled to work towards policies that order society, defending and promoting tranquility and removing harm. The most effective way to love the stranger is to create a world in which all are safe.

A Paradigm Shift
On January 20, 2009, I was in Alexandria, Virginia, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, swept into office on a wave of hope and change. The stunning victory seemed to be a expression of a public frustration that would no longer accept the trends of war and violence, among other things, as pre-determined trajectories. While the policy implications were unclear at the time, there was a consensus that change was needed.

Perhaps related to this, 2009 also saw a new war of fear, highlighted by a number of gun-related murders – a doctor who had performed abortions shot while at Sunday worship, the killing of a protester in front of an abortion clinic, the massacre of the staff of an immigration center, and the murder of police officers in Pittsburgh and Oakland, among too many others. Tragedies like these become moments when we stop, lamenting bitterly and weeping like Rachel. Tragedies like these also become moments when we stop, shouting like the prophets, “NO MORE!”

The paradigm shift is here. Poll numbers demonstrate that a vast majority of the American people support background checks and licensing, as well as banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. If guns were less accessible and more carefully monitored as they are in European nations….if policies for carefully following disturbed and threatening individuals were in place….if the ATF and other law enforcement were allowed to do their job, then the lives of so many might be spared. So we must pay careful attention to what is happening and take hold of the paradigm shift before is slips away.

A Focus on Resources
Significant social change is only possible with resources. Financial resources are of course important to make advocacy work. The pro-gun advocates and gun-manufacturer lobbying agents like the NRA have deep pockets and will influence change. It is a hard task but we must not let the excuse of money keep us from moving forward. Capital comes in many forms, after all. There is our moral capital – never count out the power of goodness and justice. There is spiritual capital where prayer and worship can be a strong voice to the suffering caused by gun violence. There is social and cultural capital of the church which brings a powerfully connected system and larger ecumenical, interfaith, and multi-faith community. We have space for meeting, forums for discussion, and congregations for rallying.

A Sense of Viability
Together with a clear grievance, a moral outrage, a paradigm shift and resources, we also have a deep sense of hope that change is, indeed, possible. For Anglican Christians, as well as for Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox, we claim that the hope of God is active in the world. There is hope in the world that God’s glory can be manifest and God’s kingdom built. As sinful people, the Good News is that God never gives up. Transformation is always possible when we live into the story of peace and joy, life and love that God has set before us.

God’s work in the world through the people of faith is lifted up. We must repent of our lack of trust, nurture our hope, and perfect our love.

God has provided us with what we need to be agents of change in the world. The change needs to comprehensive, addressing the idolatry of guns, the violence the permeates our society, and our obsession with rights over responsibility. We must keep the goal ever before us. Enough blood has been spilt. We will affirm that having been animated by the Holy Spirit with a passion for justice and peace that comes from being the people of God, gun violence can be dramatically reduced in our nation.

May our church dedicate itself to this task.

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