by Doug Fisher
Part 1 of 2
Since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, many have written passionately and well about the need to stop gun violence in our country in editorials and pastoral letters from religious leaders. I felt, however, there was a need for something more thorough as we consider theologically and socially how to respond to an ever growing gun culture. For the past several months The Rev. Chris Carlisle and I have worked on a “reflection” document. It is not a definitive study by any means. It is a reflection that invites more reflection from its readers. And hopefully actions for a safer and sane society.
As long as this document has been in the works, I hesitated releasing it this week- the week of the first anniversary of the awful events at Sandy Hook. But then I took to heart the statement made by the group “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” They said, “On December 14, we’ll have a moment of silence for Newtown, but with all the gun violence that has happened since that day, is more silence what we need?”
I invite you to read “Reflections.” And to offer your own thoughts on this blog. May all who follow the Prince of Peace offer an alternative to a culture of violence.
The first unified response to the tragedy in Newtown – after the breathless shock – was the tolling of church bells across the nation one week after the shootings. Whatever our particular religious convictions, a sudden need welled within us to resonate with our fellow human beings, and give voice to our sense of helplessness. Before taking conscious account of our faith, we seemed instinctually moved to take some kind of action, if only to speak our unutterable, corporate grief.
Perhaps it is uniquely in the depth of despair that Christians learn a truth about their faith: that for the God that they profess to be the God that they profess, it is a God that must be rung for everyone. As convincing as may be the walls that divide us by institutional tradition, in moments like Newtown, people of all faiths are inexorably drawn together. There seems to be spare room for rarified distinctions or expansive claims about their God when together we must face the specter of evil by which innocent people die.
For Christians, the diabolical nature of violence returns to the Cross, where, beginning with a handful of women, Jews, and outcasts, it was astonishingly redeemed. For two thousand years, this Roman tool of execution has been finding its miraculous redemption by the startling recognition that even death does not escape the reach of God’s unqualified embrace. Yet for all their passing glories, Christians still must face their inevitable condition of “sin” – a word that finds its origin in an archer’s term that literally means, “to miss the mark.”
Stretched between the gravity of earthly life and the possibility of God, Christians are called into the kingdom of the world, by which to reach the kingdom of heaven. Just as the gravity of Jesus’ human body suffocated under its own weight, so must we submit to the ways of the world that cause us suffocating grief. And just as Jesus was revealed as God in human flesh, he would be given to the evil of a world whereby he overcame the darkest ways of human life in the light of a divine embrace.
If no one had gone to the tomb, suffocation may have been the last word of Christ. Yet when the women went, what they found in their midst was not death, but resurrected life. According to Luke’s gospel – however we ascribe the nature of their startling appearance – two men in ‘dazzling clothes’ ask the question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
For Christians, resurrection is not to be reduced to a single act two thousand years ago. Nor is it confined to the person of Jesus, who laid bare God’s resurrecting life. Resurrection marks the nature of God’s life as revealed in Christ’s self-sacrificing love – sweeping up God’s children in a holy, willful wind, by which even death could be redeemed.
Six-year-old Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, described as “a blur of joyful energy who loved singing, dancing, floral headbands and the Bible,” died at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a year ago. Only a month after her death, Ana Grace’s father, Jimmy Greene, was able to rise up and claim the need to “come together on issues that are not political but that are, above all, human issues that affect us all as human beings.” And in the words of Alex Haller, an uncle of Noah Pozner who was also killed, “We have to make something positive come of this, and I feel a need to advocate for change right away… To me, this is now a lifelong mission, to make children safer and to stop mass shootings.”
If the resurrected life of the Sandy Hook children is being borne by their families and friends, it must be borne by us all, as implored in the last State of the Union Address. Alluding to the hundreds children who have been killed before and since the Newtown tragedy, President Obama referred to America’s families, “torn apart by gun violence.” “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” beseeched the President. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
But still we are faced with the obscenity of the continuing fallout: gun sales soared the week immediately following the shootings in Newtown. The next time they spiked was following the President’s announcement of gun reform measures. In the innocent face of our fallen children, the insanity continues in a tacit acceptance of the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
One wonders if Esquire blogger, Charles Pierce, is right when he reflected on the nearby killing of a TSA security guard at Los Angeles International Airport. “There is nothing ‘random’ about how we have armed ourselves, and there is nothing ‘random’ about the filigree of high-flown rhetoric with which we justify arming ourselves, and there is nothing ‘random’ about how we learn nothing every time someone who could be anyone decides to exercise his Second Amendment rights by opening fire. There is nothing random about how we got where we are today, here in Terminal 7, where people have sought refuge from the bloodshed, four terminals over. There is nothing ‘random’ at all. We have chosen insanity over reason. We have done it with our eyes open.”
Yet those who insist on extreme “solutions” leave us with no solution at all. In the hope of bringing order out of chaos it is natural to want to ban every kind of gun. However we may feel that outright interdiction is the ultimate solution, at the present moment such a prohibition marks a time that is yet to come.
There are gun advocates – and fellow human beings – who engage in the debate reasonably. Many appeal to the Second Amendment as the rationale for “bearing arms,” perceiving this right as fundamental to their own individual freedom. Others identify the right to hunt as a “pursuit of happiness” which has nothing to do with heinous acts like the one committed in Newtown.
The Second Amendment is frequently invoked in the context of the debate. “Constitutional Originalists” – typically branded, “political conservatives” – perceive the Constitution as a document that must be “literally” interpreted. Its meaning is unchanging, and has to hearken back to the Founders’ original intent: in the case of gun control, that the right to bear a gun is no less than “an inalienable right.”
Such contention, inherent in all textual interpretation, is familiar to the Church. Conflict between Biblical literalists and those who stress “the spirit of the law” continue to divide us in our common search for an authentic understanding of God. However different may be the authority to which the Church ultimately appeals, the challenge is the same: how to faithfully discern the meaning of our sacred texts.
Those who assume that a literal reading of the Constitution’s Second Amendment grants gun owners the right to bear any kind of weapon should reconsider “literalism.” During the Revolutionary War, the likes of an “arm” was the inaccurate flintlock musket whose required thirteen steps before being fired allowed a shot every twenty seconds. The AR-15 assault weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary School – whose high capacity magazine is capable of firing forty-five rounds a minute – is a far cry from the literal arms the Founders only could have sanctioned, giving us at least to reconsider the complexities of all interpretation.
The very nature of language, whether spoken in church sanctuaries or the halls of government, requires that meaning – conveyed by either Jesus or the Founders – bears an inevitable spirit. Even most Biblical literalists seek such a “spirit” in the Scriptures. The words of the Declaration of Independence similarly resonate: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In both cases such a spirit is necessarily borne in relation to other human beings: to neighbors, fellow citizens, and – as known to both Jesus and the Founders – to our enemies. The tragedy at Sandy Hook not only meant the death of our own beloved children. With it came a threat to our common hope for the pursuit of this greater “Happiness.”
President of The Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Edelman, asserts, “Sandy Hook was no fluke. In 2010, a child or teen was killed by guns every three hours and fifteen minutes – that’s more than 21 lost lives every three days from gun homicides, suicides, and accidents. A child or youth was killed or injured by a gun every half hour. Between 1963 and 2010, an estimated 166,500 children and teens aged 0-19 lost their lives to gun violence – the equivalent of over 8,328 classrooms of 20 children, and an average of 3,470 deaths a year for 48 years or 174 classrooms of 20 children and teens every year.”
The truth is that we live in a culture of violence – generated by video games, Hollywood, and even by the way we have come to speak to each other. From expressions like, “I have you in my cross hairs,” to “I’ll take a shot at that,” violence is so much a part of our lives that most often we don’t notice it. Rather than viewing language as a neutral means of communication, we need to understand the power of language as a vehicle for good, and for evil.
Research increasingly reveals how the media itself perpetuates this culture of violence by making spectacles of violent acts, and their attention-starved perpetrators. Rather than allowing itself to be used to aimlessly destructive ends, it is incumbent on the media to stand up and accept its responsibility to the culture. If freedom of the press demands that the truth be brought to light in a democracy, it equally demands the recognition that the truth cannot be truth in the service of delusion.
To the extent that mental illness is a threat to our shared life, we must commit ourselves to our common health. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” depend upon our mutual well being – both physical and mental – as a requisite condition of our corporate life together. In the same way it would be dishonest to ignore mental health in gun control discussions, so it would be dishonest to conclude the threats it poses demand armament.
What would it mean to become “our brothers’ keepers,” whose welfare was no different from our own? What would it mean to know our health as a nation is but the health of the sickest among us? Indeed, what would it mean not only to effectively protect against the threats such illness poses – but to care for the mentally ill in the selfsame ways that we care for ourselves?
In the words of Ana Grace’s mother – who is a licensed therapist – it may begin with a stunningly counterintuitive spirit of generosity. When asked in a television interview if she was able to feel sympathy for the mother of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard gunman who killed twelve people on September 16th, Nelba Marquez-Greene replied: “Of course. She’s a victim herself. And it’s time in America that we start looking at mental illness with compassion, and helping people who need it. This was a family that needed help, an individual that needed help and didn’t get it. And what better can come of this, of this time in America, than if we can get help to people who really need it?”
For all the hatred surrounding the gun control debate, it appears that the most deeply affected are the ones leading the way with wisdom and compassion into our difficult future. “Sandy Hook Promise” – a Newtown organization founded by those who lost children and friends – asks its website visitors to make two simple promises: “I Promise to honor the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” and, “I Promise to do everything I can to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.” Proclaiming, “Our hearts are broken; Our spirit is not,” Sandy Hook Promise pledges to have “conversations where even those with the most opposing views can debate in good will.”
It should not be a surprise that the Christian promise of mercy, compassion, and hope may come not by way of “the wisdom of the world,” but by the wisdom of its vulnerable children. Almost three millennia before the shooting in Newtown, the prophet Isaiah stood in a violent, war-torn land – against impossible odds – to set forth a renewed vision of God. The promise of peace, Isaiah proclaims, would not be fulfilled by politicians, but by the startling, unpredicted, holy, prophetic, paradoxical power of the child: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
Given the current political climate surrounding gun regulation – in which the NRA has identified gun control supporters by an online “enemies list” – such conversations won’t be easy. Those who argue for gun control in the name of nonviolence and peace must recognize such peace has to begin at home, and in relation to those who oppose them. So Saint Francis of Assisi was moved to say, “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”
If there is polarizing conflict over gun control, there is widespread commitment to change: from the call of the Catholic Jesuit weekly, “America” to repeal the Second Amendment, to that of a United States Army General who “spent a career carrying typically either an M16, and later an M4 carbine.” On the strength of his experience on the battlefield, General Stanley McChrystal said, “We’ve got to take a serious look—I understand everyone’s desire to have whatever they want—but we’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to protect our police, we’ve got to protect our population… Serious action is necessary. Sometimes we talk about very limited actions on the edges and I just don’t think that’s enough.”
The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, recently released a statement calling on its members to express their concern to Federal legislators that gun violence be swiftly and specifically addressed. The Presiding Bishop asserts that “the necessary policy decisions are clear and widely supported: limits on sales of military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, effective background checks for all gun purchases, better access to mental health services, and attention to gun trafficking.”
Across religious traditions, the call for change resounds. Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy from Newtown are urging reform. In a joint letter, hand-delivered to the offices of the one hundred US Senators who were about to vote on gun control measures, they wrote, “We pray that you will vote for meaningful gun violence prevention laws that include a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, enforceable universal background checks, an end to gun trafficking, and prosecution of straw purchasers.”
To take “serious action” in the Christian tradition does not risk – or accommodate – hatred. It requires self-sacrifice in the name of truth, justice, and reconciliation. It finally requires our shared humanity, revealing the richness of a life which cannot be realized by polarized self-interests that deny the value of each other.
________________________________________ Peter Applebome and Elizabeth Maker, “Private Pain and Public Debate Take Toll on Newtown Parents,” The New York Times, January 20, 2013  Ibid.  President Barak Obama, “Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address,” February 12, 2013,  Eric Lichtblau and Motoko Rich, “N.R.A. Envisions ‘A Good Guy With a Gun’ in Every School”, The New York Times, December 12, 2013  Charles P. Pierce, “There is Nothing Random About the Lax Shooting,” Esquire, November 1, 2013  Bushmaster Operating Manual  Krissah Thompson, “Marian Wright Edelman marks 40 years of advocacy at Children’s Defense Fund,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2013  Ari Shulman, “What Mass Killers Want – and How to Stop Them,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2013,  “Piers Morgan Live,” CNN, September 18, 2013  Sandy Hook Promise website, http://www2.sandyhookpromise.org  Editors, “Repeal the Second Amendment,” America, February 25, 2013  Luke Johnson, “Stanley McChrystal: Gun Control Requires ‘Serious Action’,” The Huffington Post, January 8, 2013  Episcopal New Service, “Presiding Bishop Issues ‘Call to Action’ on Gun Violence,” February 1, 2013  “Newtown Rabbi Joins Muslim, Christian Clergy in Urging Gun Controls,” March 12, 2013, JewishJournal.com
The Rt Rev. Douglas Fisher is Bishop of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts