Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guns In America: The Spiritual Opportunity For Grace

The best way to invest the wave of mass murders we have experienced in recent years would be to repent from social violence. Reasonable regulation of firearms would be the most obvious pragmatic way to back off from our compulsive habit of violence. But gun reform is at once a far, far cry from enough on the one hand, and extraordinarily hard to achieve on the other. I have not read America & Its Guns: A Theological Expose by Jim Atwood and my theological hero Walter Brueggemann. I’ve only read Rick Barber’s review at; but I have just ordered the book and plan to read it soon. If we are going to think and act with wisdom we need to engage violence theologically. Isn’t that what the Cross compels us to do?

At this initial stage, I am wondering if the very difficulty in even discussing guns rationally might be a point of entry into the theological challenge we must confront if we are going to take repentance deep enough to respond to all the bloodshed – not just Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Gabby Gifford shooting; the Colorado Theater Massacre, and Sandy Hook Elementary – but all the the one at a time killings and the 181 school shootings in America since Columbine. A reform that makes such killings less frequent is not an adequate answer. But maybe that’s where we have to begin.

Let’s start with the anti-gun folks. There is something oddly self-defeating in our way of challenging gun violence. It is as if we are more concerned with expressing a feeling and maintaining a moral stance than we are about saving lives. As part of that puritanical separatist sentiment, we do not take into account the people on the other side. We imagine them all to be dumb and violent. That is simply not true. I know any number of kind, decent folks, progressive on all manner of social issues, but they are pretty attached to their guns. In ways -- perhaps the ways I will discuss momentarily -- they feel violated or fear being violated by those who would deprive them of their weaponry. That feeling may or may not be reasonable, but it is real, and if we want to change our society, we have to start with what’s real – reasonable or not. To disregard the concerns of the gun owners is itself a kind of violence.

One year my Diocese (not Nevada) devoted our Convention to gun violence. We passed a resolution forbidding Episcopalians from owning handguns and requiring all church members to hand over their guns to their priests. In Georgia! We lost a few members, but to my knowledge never collected a single handgun. What were we smoking?

Here’s what I mean by puritanical separatism: many Abolitionists opposed the Union war effort and all the political efforts of the 1840s and 50s to stop the spread of slavery. They were perfectly content to see the South go its own way. The Abolitionists would have abolished slavery in their nation without freeing a single slave. They would have accomplished nothing but to keep their own skirts clean. That is the kind of spirit among the anti-gun activists that will perpetuate the violence.

The pro-gun folks are decidedly voicing something deep within the American identity. One pro-gun comment I read this week said, “I am an American. I will not give up the gun in my purse.” Her gun was part and parcel of being an American in her mind. That takes some unpacking. But it must not be dismissed. She is onto something. America has 5% of the world’s population, but we own 50% of the world’s guns. We have lots of guns and we use them. The U S per capita rate of gun deaths is about 20 times the average of other developed nations. No other developed nation has anything like our rate of gun deaths. Only Chile is even in the ballpark. To be fair, several undeveloped nations are worse. But the woman’s point is still fair. Owning and using lethal weapons is wired into our self-concept. I gather Atwood and Brueggemann help us understand how we came to identify with our guns.

For now, I think of a line from a song written by a Nevada singer-songwriter. “Something to do with my pride. Something to do with my fear.” Let’s start with fear. Americans are afraid. We are very afraid. Many people carrying guns are afraid of the other people carrying guns. No surprise. Our crime rate is high. So some of that fear just makes sense.

But I have personally observed that an extraordinary number of people who are not seriously at risk are just as afraid, often more afraid, than are the people who live and work in dangerous neighborhoods or have dangerous jobs. Maybe fear is contagious so we catch it from people who are afraid with good reason. But I am also intrigued by the argument of Lynn Serafinn in 7 Graces of Marketing. She says that marketing strategies for the past several decades have used fear (including fear of scarcity), sex, and a kind of debased humor to sell, sell, sell. Those who are bombarded with this kind of marketing at the rate we Americans are, by her reasoning, are bound to be afraid. If I know Walter Brueggemann, I suspect he’ll make the same connection. We are, in short, afraid. And we have placed our trust not in God or in each other, but in our own access to lethal force.

Speaking of the lethal weapons of his day, the Psalmist wrote: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses; but we trust in the name of the Lord.” (Ps 27). When Judah turned to the death dealing power of Egypt for defense, Isaiah said,

“Woe to them that go to Egypt for help, and trust in chariots and stay on horses for they are many; and in horsemen for they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel; nor do they seek the Lord. Because you have said ‘We have made a covenant with death, with Hades we have an agreement, . . . .’ I lay in Zion a foundation stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone . . . “ (Is. 28: 14-16)

Our level of fear, though understandable, says something about our faith. Our trust is not in the foundation stone, the tried stone, the precious cornerstone. Instead when we say the answer to “a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we have made a “covenant with death.” We trust our ability to invoke the death of another to save us from death. “Something to do with our fear.” “

But also “something to do with (our) pride.”  What constitutes human worth? What makes a person a hero? How do we establish our status? Is it who we are, what we have, or something we can do? Culture defines the criteria of human worth. In our culture, if a person can amass great wealth, he or she is worthy. Second, best is the ability to kill people. There is an axis of value here. There is a horizontal axis of good versus bad plus a vertical axis as pride versus shame. On the good versus bad axis, it matters who we kill – good to kill Osama bin Laden (not the Christian view – I’m talking about the cultural value), bad to kill innocent children. But on the pride versus shame axis, the thing is to be able to kill – anybody, preferably a lot of people. The strong person may refrain from killing, especially if restraint justifies him or her on the good-bad axis; but the ability to kill is what counts. Unless we are physically very formidable or have terrific martial arts skills, the best way to be lethal is to pack heat.

Where do I get the idea that our capacity to kill is a measure of our worth? What makes us a “great nation?” It isn’t our education system, which we don’t fund. Neither is it the purity of our democracy, which we spend a fortune to corrupt. It’s our ability to inflict shock and awe – impose our will by force.

Who are our movie heroes if not the rugged individuals who can dispatch large numbers of people in just a few minutes of screen time?  The ability to kill carries cred. It gets respect. If we aren’t rich and we can’t kill, what good are we?

We have lost more people to gun deaths in the United States since 1968 than in all our wars. People in other developed nations, and even many undeveloped nations, think of us as “violent.” Why is that? “Something to do with our pride. Something to do with our fear.”

When puritanical separatism faces off against pride (more specifically its corollary of shame) and fear, there isn’t much space left in the room for reason. Reason would find the right tool for the right job. Because mass shootings account for a statistically insignificant percentage of total gun deaths, restricting the right to own semi-automatic weapons to law enforcement, the military, or others with some legitimate need to kill large numbers of people very fast will not actually have a major impact on the rate of gun deaths. But if we want to stop mass shootings, restricting the right to own semi-automatic weapons would save lives.

Requiring background checks to prevent criminals, terrorists, and dangerous mentally ill people from buying guns would not necessarily stop a random crazy person from getting a gun and committing mass murder. But it would reduce the number of individual gun deaths each year.

We don’t have to repeal the 2nd amendment or ban all handguns to make a difference that would save lives. But it would take reasoned negotiations taking into account the concerns of both sides. The good thing about needing to come together is that in order to have reasoned negotiation; we must first engage the spiritual issues underlying our puritanical separatism, our pride, and our fear. What if in the course of discussing legislation there were actual conversions of heart? What if we turned to each other in God, found our worth in God’s eyes, entrusted our well-being to God? What if we actually beat our own weapons into plowshares, not because the other side forced us to do so, but because we as a culture redefined the measure of human worth in such a way that the ploughshare carried more respect than the weapon?

I am not saying we need a change of heart instead of a change of law. But we cannot achieve a change of law without some change of heart; and if that change of heart just kept going, it would achieve more than legislation ever could. It might achieve something worthy of the blood that has been spilled.


Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

I respectfully disagree with your solution. The Second Amendment, and the culture that has grown up around it, does not reflect Christian values. I would repeal the Second Amendment and give Congress and the states the explicit power to regulate the use and possession of firearms and to confiscate unauthorized weapons. No one except the police and military should be permitted to possess guns. We need to solve this problem theologically, not politically.


Thank you, Bishop Dan. I find your arguments to be well reasoned.

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Jeff Ferrell said...

Bishop, America does not have a gun problem, it has a violence problem. Every mass casualty shooting you mentioned was at the hand of a mentally unstable person with a long documented history, but those in authority had no access to this information because of our HIPPA laws.This is what is in need of amending, allowing Judges, Courts and Officers access to this vital information