I’ve been working on this one for some time and now seems like a good time to put it out there. It’s been over six months – more than half a year – since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Remember how so many vowed in the aftermath “This time is different; this time things will change!”? Well, legislative sessions across the country are concluding have concluded. How much action has there been at the state level? And there’s been nothing at the national level despite intensive involvement by the President and Vice President.
The Church has not been entirely silent (even if its many expressions have not been as vocal as they could be.) In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA , the bishops wrote a letter on the subject of gun violence at their March conference. Their letter has been widely shared since that time. The season of synod assemblies throughout the ELCA has concluded. How many assemblies took any action regarding this letter? How many even had any discussion of this subject at all? Our Churchwide Assembly will convene next month, so perhaps this letter will receive some more attention in discussions and possible resolutions at that time. It should be discussed and considered. The letter is still timely; it is sensitive and well-written – especially if (as might have been the case) the bishops selected a few of their number to draft it then in March and there in Chicago, using whatever they might happen to have brought with them or have been able to access on this issue. The letter raises a number of good points. It’s a fine piece of writing … as far as it goes.
But that is the letter’s biggest problem; it doesn’t go far enough. For example, it calls on congregations to help with the task of lamenting the victims of violence. Lamenting is something we, as faith communities, know how to do and we do it well. We know how to weep with Rachel who is weeping for her children because they are no more. But we can do more than lament and weep with those who are weeping and mourning.
We are also prophets, like Jeremiah (who spoke those words about Rachel weeping for her children) and the others, messengers who are called to point to the idols and would-be powers and false stories of the time and say “This is not what God wills … this is not what God calls for … this will not stand.”
One of the most creative – and provocative – ideas that I’ve heard as a faith-formed response to gun violence in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School came from R Don Wright, an ELCA pastor whom I know only through Facebook. He wanted to have a processional cross made from guns welded together to use much like Moses used the snake on the pole in Numbers – for much the same reason. “Look at this. See what is killing you. Then turn and live.” Our cultural idolatry of guns is killing us – literally.
The story we are being sold – and it is about selling, not telling – is that only guns can keep us safe. Since “bad guys” have guns and will have them no matter what we do, the “good guys” (that’s us, right?) must have guns so they can stop the bad guys. Good people who generally care about their own personal safety, about the safety and well-being of those near and dear to them, who want to do the right thing must have as free and easy access to guns as the bad people do. It’s their sacred duty to be prepared at all times to protect their lives – and the lives of others – by being equipped at all times to stop a bad guy with lethal force before the bad guy can do harm.
This is the story we see played out time and time again in our entertainment. The saga of redemptive violence is the sacred story of our culture. By punishing the wrong doers, paying them back blow for blow and life for life, justice is done; only the hero willing to use violent means in the proper way can set the world back to right. How many of the hit summer movies and popular television programs play out according to this same story line of might making things right again through redemptive acts of violence?
Much as Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association has endeavored to blame violent entertainment (along with “unregistered” – actually, untreated would be a better descriptor – mental illness) for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, the story he uses to sell his agenda is that same myth of redemptive violence. Guns are celebrated in our culture as a source of power – the power to harm, sure … but also the power to avenge, make right, and protect (only if you, the aspiring hero, can do it to them, the evil doers, before they do it to you).
This is the myth, the sacred story, that George Zimmerman told himself on an April night last year when he accosted a teenager named Trayvon Martin. For whatever reason, Zimmerman perceived Martin to be a threat to the peace and well-being (and maybe the lives) of his neighbors and himself. So he acted to prevent the threat from becoming an actuality. It’s the story he continues to tell himself and the rest of us … as his attorney attempts to show that, since Martin was less than a perfect angel of a kid, he therefore was a real and obvious threat to the community that night … because, if Martin wasn’t some sort of threat, then Zimmerman initiated an altercation with a teenager who had nothing more on him than iced tea and Skittles and had no other intentions than getting back home with his snacks. Although Trayvon Martin may have very little in common with the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, he is no less a victim of gun violence than they are … as are the many, many other young people just like him who are being killed with guns in cities all over our country. But will the jury recognize this or will they affirm the myth of redemptive violence by acquitting Zimmerman?
The only way the “good guy with the gun” stops the “bad guy with the gun” from doing any harm is to shoot first and ask questions later; otherwise, the “bad guy” always has the element of surprise … always gets the first move … always is more ready to act because he knows what he intends to do. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the NRA-shaped fantasy imagined if the principal had been armed with a gun, she could have shot Adam Lanza before he shot a single person in the school. Maybe … if she’d been able to get her weapon ready (since it’s unimaginable a school principal would always have a weapon in hand, ready to fire) … and if she could have gotten into a position to have a good shot (since I’ve yet to see a school entrance in which the principal would have a clear shot at any intruders from his or her office) … and if she could accomplish these two actions before the intruder saw her or recognized what she was intending to do … if … if … All of this adds up to one humongous IF that is highly improbable.
But yet, that is the myth – the sacred story – of the idol we call guns. Only guns can keep us safe. In our guns we must trust. Any gun is a good gun so long as it is in the right hands. You can’t trust the police to be there for you; they take too long. You can’t trust your neighbor; he (or she) might be one of the bad guys. It’s a scary world out there full of bad guys who want to hurt you. Only you can save yourself and your loved ones from all this danger. Since insensate evil may very well be armed, you need to be armed as well.
In the movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s fantasy of saving his family from the evil of Black Bart and his gang with his trusty Red Rider BB Gun is hilarious because it is a fantasy – a childish fantasy that is appropriate for a child. But in adults, such childish fantastical thinking isn’t funny. Oh, it can be aged-up … dressed up by pointing to some real, dangerous situations that happen on occasion and then presenting these events as if they were commonplace, rather than the rare episodes they actually are. For example, one concealed-carry permit holder is convinced that he avoided being carjacked simply by having a concealed hand gun on his person. While he was filling up his car at a gas station, another car pulled into the station and stopped at a nearby pump. The lights on the other car were off when it arrived at the gas station, and there were three people in it. From these signs, the gun holder realized that they were intending to take his car, so he stared at them for three full minutes until they drove off. (No one even tried to exit the car; no one approached him.) He had the courage to stare them down because he was carrying a gun. Even though he never had to touch it, the mere presence of the all-powerful gun prevented him from being a victim of a car-jacking. [I wish I could find where I read this story. If anyone knows the source, please let me know.] That’s his story; it’s what he believes to be true. But is it any more realistic than Ralphie’s fantasy?
It’s not. However, when fed a diet of fear-inducing entertainment, we come to believe that the world is a scary, dangerous place in which we must be afraid … be very afraid. We are alone and powerless. To be safe we must get power and the ultimate power is a gun – a gun that will give us the power to take life (only when we must, of course). It’s a sales pitch, really … a story spun to increase sales for gun manufacturers and related businesses. Like most of our advertising and sales pitches, it’s built mostly on lies and half-truths.
Part of our prophetic role as people of faith (and particularly leaders in faith communities) is to name the idols as such and expose the lies of the stories sacred to the idols, the myths. In this case, the idol is the gun and its sacred story is the myth of redemptive violence.
Christians have a better story to tell. We are prophets … messengers … angels who say: “Fear not! I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for a people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord” … “Don’t be afraid. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He is risen; he is not here!” Do not be afraid; rejoice! God is here in your midst. God is not afraid to come among you … to embrace the outcast and broken, the struggling and failing. God does not fear the worst this world has to offer: rejection, torture, violence, condemnation and death. God is not afraid to enter into that … to go into even death itself … to overturn and undo it all. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is not in that tomb. He is risen! Life and love and grace will have the final say … not death and hate and fear.
It’s a better story that leads to a better life. We don’t have to be afraid of one another. We are not left alone, helpless and defenseless in a scary cruel world. We have been called out of death into life … into life in a community in which we demonstrate love for one another, trust in one another, and the peace that comes from knowing we are all in the care of a gracious God.
Yes, in our congregations, we can lament with those who weep for the victims of gun violence. But we are also prophets to name the idols, unmask the lies they tell as sacred story, and tell the true sacred story. We can be communities of moral deliberation where we weigh the ethics of gun ownership and use, our rights and responsibilities as people of God and citizens of this nation. But we are also called to be communities that model the new life birthed through cross and resurrection, to love God with all we have and show our love for God by loving our neighbors … a way of life that takes us out of fear and into trust. We are called to be safe places where the hurting and struggling – including the mentally ill – can find acceptance and help and healing.