By Joy Caires
The sanctity of life was something that was drilled into me throughout my childhood. Dead was understood as, well, dead and we were very clear that something dead was gone for good. There were only a couple of rules (beyond the obvious bedtimes and being polite to grown-ups) which were sacrosanct. Rule #1: if you kill it you have to eat it. Rule #2: never, ever, point a gun at another human being.
For, in my family, guns were a way of life. We killed our own meat—usually wild goats and pigs. And, we all knew, that if you shot something you had to eat it—guns were to be used to get food. So, pigeons, goats and pigs graced our table and we all knew better than to point guns at something that we wouldn’t want to eat for dinner. Guns in our house were stored in a locked closet and the ammunition in a box beneath my parent’s bed.
I received my own gun as a twelfth birthday present, my dad traded five of his fighting chickens for the gun—a trade that filled me with an awareness of the importance of this gift. So I, my gun and my dad went to hunter’s education courses to learn the ethics of being a gun-toting pre-teen. And, just like at home, rule #2 was repeated again and again.
I don’t know if rule #2’s emphasis in our home started before or after my dad’s best friend was killed in a hunting accident. I was little, maybe 5 or 6 years old. I don’t know whose bullet shot him, or why he stood while the guns were still being fired. The details were not important--what was important was that he died because a gun was inadvertently pointed at him. In the months following the accident his son came to live with us—his grief and what could only have been my dad’s guilt were beyond my imagining.
But, then and now, I can imagine bullets tearing through flesh. And, to this day I recoil at the mere idea of pointing something gun-shaped at another person. When youth groups plead for paint ball warfare, when squirt guns make an appearance during vacation bible school, when video game guns are deemed a harmless, stress relieving pastime—all these things make me cringe. Guns are for killing. Dead is dead. And, mock violence is still violence. Rule #2 still holds…even when the ammunition exists only in cyber space and rainbow splattered t-shirts and equally rainbowed bruises equal kills.
So, I struggle, as a priest in a congregation that will be sending two of our own to warzones. Two sweet and dear young men who have a firm faith and grounding in a loving and peaceful community. Both of them will be missing the summer mission trip because of military obligations and both of them will be missed come fall when war takes them away from us. As their priest, I long to remind them that soldiers had to leave military service to become a Christian and that Jesus’ decried violence (let he who has not sinned…). But, now is not the time and as their priest, it is my role to love and support two young men who have come to the conclusion that the only means to peace might be war. I mourn my ideals and the world’s continued insistence that violence is an appropriate response to fear.
I struggle, as a pacifist, as a Christian and as a priest of a denomination that clearly states, “War is incompatible with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Lambeth Conference 1930). I struggle that for some young people the only viable means to an education is one funded through military service and I struggle that sometimes war can seem safer than a home.
The day that we prayed for our most recently deployed, one of the congregation’s seven year olds asked me what the prayer was about and why everyone was sad. I explained that we were sad because our friend was going to war. He looked confused for a moment and then he exclaimed, “but that’s awesome, he gets to be a hero!” Yes, a hero—but somehow he forgot rule #2.
The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.