This is probably the longest sermon I've ever preached, and it's way too long for a blog post, but I'm posting it all as one anyway. The members of my congregation that I quoted gave me permission to use their names in the service, but I didn't ask them about the web, so I'm using their initials to give them a small degree of anonymity. Those who know our congregation will know who they are, and that is okay, since those people could have easily been in attendance, as well. I've tried to represent their views honestly and fairly, but of course everything is filtered through my understanding, so my apologies if I've represented anybody incorrectly.
I also had some last-minute additions to the service, as members came in and talked with me. I've tried to recreate those additions and ad-libs in this version, but they may be slightly different.
Lastly, the church was really full of energy this Sunday, and I think it was generated by knowing that this was the sermon topic. We didn't have time for a congregational response time because of the length of my sermon, but I'm hoping that given how interested in talking about things people were that we will continue to find ways to discuss this issue.
Guns & Violence: Reflections & Hopes
I've preached about many controversial things over the last eight and a half years in this church. I've spoken about abortion and gay rights and said words like "condoms" and "masturbation" from this pulpit. But I think I've never given a sermon that was as controversial in this church as the one I'm about to give today. I hope it will be received with love and understanding knowing that my goal here today is to build bridges between us so that me might further the dialogue on this issue. We come together here with many different viewpoints, but as one covenanted community, dedicated to coming together in our diversity and worshiping together, and dedicated to love and justice.
When I was in Florida the other week, I opened up the newspaper looking for, well, the news. As I opened to the national news pages, I found myself on a page where every article had something to do with gun violence. Today I turned on the radio on the way to church to hear the story of Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral—a fifteen-year-old girl who died from a shooting. The mass shootings get our nation’s attention the most often, but violence happens all too regularly on the streets of our nation’s cities – a fact we are finally awakening to.
But the mass shootings are important, because they show us in starker, more graphic realities something of the deepening problem in our society. And while overall violence may not be on the rise, the mass shootings are.
When I was in high school, for those four years, there were no mass shootings in schools. Those kind of shootings didn’t happen often. The most recent one had been a decade earlier, with seven people killed at California State University. There were a few during my college years – the University of Iowa, where one of my friends was in graduate school, so that was notable to me, where six people were killed. Columbine didn’t happen until I was in seminary (1999), and Virginia tech (in 2007) was after I entered the ministry. Schools were considered pretty safe places when I was growing up –probably true for most of you, as well. Both Columbine and Virginia Tech had an impact on me, though. Virginia Tech I related to as a professor, since I had been teaching English at JCC. In fact, I had two students who wrote essays about imagining themselves as shooters, picking off students from the campus rooftops. My students learned that you can’t have this kind of imaginative writing in a post-Columbine world. The shooting in the Knoxville Unitarian Church in 2008 hit home in a stronger way – this can happen in a Unitarian Universalist church, that a shooter enters wanting to kill you, because of who you are—religious liberals—and all that represents. And the shooting in Tucson in 2011 where Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people were killed. That one hit home for me, too, partly because of little nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who reminded me of my own daughter, who I have taken to numerous political events, and who has stood with me on many a street corner while I talked to my elected representatives.
But my reaction to all of these wasn’t anything like my reaction to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in December. After Sandy Hook, I felt like I was crying for days. And I was—every time I opened the computer, or turned on the television, or the radio, or thought about those beautiful little first graders, as their names were slowly released over the next couple of days. I was wrung out, distraught, destroyed inside at the thought of it. And I’m sure my reaction was so intense because they were so close in age to my old child, and the thought of an adult choosing to target elementary school children is so vile and abhorrent. Columbine was teenagers killing teenagers. Virginia Tech was a college student killing college students and adults. But this was one of our deadliest school shootings ever, and the victims were some of the youngest ever.
I didn’t jump to thinking our laws had to change after any of the others. But this, this was different. This was a sign that our country was broken somehow to me. And I sensed our president felt the same way, as a father of two young girls. I understand, and I feel deeply, the need to do something—anything—in response to this tragedy, even if it isn’t effective. The idea of twenty six- and seven-year-old children dying at school and our country not responding by doing anything just seems unthinkable to me.
Of course, it’s not that simple, and our emotional and intuitive reaction isn’t always the best one. And as we, as a country, muddle through the quagmire of data and emotion, the right path isn’t entirely clear.
Like many people, in the weeks since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, I’ve read dozens of editorials about guns and gun violence. I’ve read magazine articles from Time and Mother Jones and all sorts of sources. I’ve watched videos about guns from avid hunters and second-amendment hawks. I’ve exchanged Facebook messages on the subject with friends ranging from social workers to policemen. I’ve talked with my family members, which includes peaceniks and gun owners. And I’ve talked with members of this congregation, who run from liberal to conservative, and from gun enthusiasts to gun abolitionists.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this church is the perfect place for us to be having a conversation about this issue. We have a real diversity in this congregation, particularly on issues like this, that often break down along political lines and class lines. We have a diversity of beliefs and experiences about guns here, and we’re a congregation where we come together and worship together, and share a common faith. Our faith can keep us grounded, keep us connected, keep us covenanted together in love as we explore the issues that are dividing our country.
I figure I’m probably seen as pretty far to the left in general. I think this whole county has me pegged as an extreme liberal at this point. And so it might be assumed that I’m extremely liberal on gun control issues, to the point of wanting to ban all firearms. I have liberal friends who say that they won’t enter a house if they know there are guns there. And ones who say that they don’t particularly believe in the second amendment, or don’t think that it really is about private gun ownership in their view. But my views are not what some might assume them to be. I grew up with guns in my house, and with a parent, my father, who had been raised on a farm with folks who went hunting and enjoyed it for sport and for food. He talked often about inheriting his father’s double-barreled muzzle-loader, and how his father still had possession of it, but that it was to come to him one day. He taught us that guns were to be respected, and not to be touched by children. I respect hunters, in particular, as I’m not a vegetarian, and I think hunting and killing your own food is more ethical than my own meat-eating, which includes a lot of factory-farmed beef and poultry. I don’t actually think we should do anything that would ban hunters from hunting the way that they do currently. I also don’t think that my father should have to give up his grandfather’s hunting rifle or my ancestor’s civil war rifle, although that may already be in a cousin’s possession.
So I start from the opinion that there’s a compromise position here between the two extremes, and that this is where I stand, and that this is also where the majority of Americans stand. Most of them don’t believe in a complete ban on guns. Most of them do believe in some restrictions. I also believe that in this congregation, there’s a lot of hope for setting an example, since we have the diversity we have of opinions and beliefs. I felt like, if I can find people in this congregation who are at different places than me about gun ownership and find places where we agree, then that’s a hopeful sign for our society at large, as well as being a good example of where this country needs to come to. We may be on the liberal end of the spectrum in terms of political and religious beliefs, as a whole, but we are not typical liberals in terms of our percentage of gun owners. We have some people with a lot of knowledge and experience with guns, and who carry or use them on a regular basis, and a lot of gun owners in general. And so, since I am on the liberal end of the spectrum, I talked with two of our more avid gun owners in the congregation to see where our common ground is. The people I talked with are G.B., who works in the state prison, G.H., a hunter and member of the Jackson Outdoor club where he has been involved with many things, including teaching people to shoot, and a little with D.M., a gun collector and hunter, before the service today.
G.B. and G.H. own more than 30 guns between the two of them. Their guns are mostly for hunting and personal protection. They own hunting rifles and hand guns. G.B., like my father, owns some family heirloom-type pieces that are probably not safe to shoot. When G.H. inherited one that wasn’t safe to shoot, on the other hand, being a machinist, he fixed it. G.H. says he doesn’t really see the point in owning something like an AR-15. He sees that those guns are meant for killing people, and not really for anything else. He tells me they’re not fun to shoot, to him, and they’re also not cheap to shoot.
I started with the position of believing it’s reasonable to ban assault rifles like the AR-15. What I found is that neither G.H. nor G.B. seems completely opposed to such a ban. But they both are not convinced that it would make much difference. D.M. doesn’t think it would make a difference, either, saying that you can kill people quickly with buckshot, as well. G.H. says that if all guns were banned, for example, people would just make their own. D.M. agrees with this. He knows how to make a gun, and says it’s fairly simple. As I researched this sermon, I found that the most deadly school attack in our country’s history was here in Michigan, and was the bombing of a school in Bath. 38 elementary school children died in Bath in the bombing in 1927. Columbine was a deadly school shooting, but it was intended to be a bombing, too, but the bombs didn’t go off. The bombs in both these cases were home-made. I have no doubt that G.H. is right—if there weren’t guns available, people would make their own guns, or they would kill another way. The man who bombed the school in bath killed his wife before the bombing. He apparently hit her on the head with a rock or some other blunt object.
But despite the fact that people can kill other ways, and most shootings in America are with handguns, not the semi-automatic assault rifles preferred by our mass murderers, I still think that anything that might slow down an assailant has to be a good thing, and there’s no real reason for these weapons like the Bushmaster used by Adam Lanza, except for killing people. G.H. agrees that this weapon is really made for this one thing. I have no problem limiting the sale of these kinds of guns –it doesn’t affect family heirlooms; it doesn’t affect the ability of people to protect themselves; it doesn’t limit their ability to hunt. I say do it.
The other common proposal is limiting the magazine sizes. My friend who is a policeman says there’s no point to this—three tens equal a thirty. G.B. seems to think it wouldn’t make much difference, too. If he could see that it would make a difference, he might agree to it, I think. G.H., on the other hand, doesn’t think people need to have those large magazine sizes, and would be willing to limit them, although he concurs that a magazine change is extremely fast, and doesn’t slow down a shooter much. My opinion here is that many shooters have been stopped because an unarmed bystander tackled them. This is what stopped the shooter in the Tucson, Arizona shooting. In the Knoxville UU church, Greg McKendry, an ushers blocked the shooter and was killed, and then the shooter was brought down by other members tackling him.
About registrations and concealed carry licenses and gun show loopholes and things like that, our church members here spent some time informing me of what is already in place. G.H. says that if I walked into a gun show here in Jackson without any documentation showing I had a concealed carry permit or had gone through a background check, that no dealer here would just sell me a gun.
Another area we talked about was arming teachers or having armed guards in schools. Here both G.B. and G.H. were cautious—both weren’t wholesale for arming teachers, but might allow it if the teachers went through some rigorous training first. G.B. compares it to the training that pilots get, and suggests that teachers would have to become certified police reservists first. G.H. says it would be important that they never put down the gun, because once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before it gets in the hands of a child. I’m reminded of Jackson resident Dani Meier who wrote an article in the Huffington Post, in which he said this:
I am what the NRA might call a "good guy with a gun."I have great qualms about armed teachers, because of the potential for accident or a child getting his or her hands on the weapon, but I personally was, for a while, leaving the door open a crack for armed guards at schools. I know as I sent my child back to school after Sandy Hook, I was scared. I think I would’ve been less scared if I knew her school had an armed guard. However, when I was at a discussion group in Detroit about the New Jim Crow recently, an official in an EEOC-type position said something that made me think twice. She said that she believes, based on what she’s seen, that when there are cops at schools, that children’s behavior that might otherwise have been dealt with by the school becomes criminalized. And I think we’ve already established which kids are likely to be seen as bad seeds, and which ones are likely to be seen as good kids who just did something stupid. When thinking about that, I started to think that there might be unintended consequences of armed guards at schools, at that I would have to see some more data on this before I was comfortable. Interestingly, both G.B. and G.H. also balked at the idea of armed guards or police officers at schools.
But as someone who has worked in K-12 schools and colleges for a quarter century, let me suggest a few reasons why bringing my gun to school is not the answer to gun violence in America.
First, as microcosms of society, schools will always have some students, parents, and teachers with anger problems, mental illness, or poor self-control. As educators, we regularly try to model peaceful conflict-resolution, 99.9 percent of which we successfully deescalate despite significant volatility. And when we don't succeed, weapons are not needed. Introducing guns in those scenarios, in fact, invites other kinds of nightmares. And tragedies.[i]
What all this showed me is that most of the people in this country are like me and G.H. and G.B.—we’re in the middle, willing to try different things, wanting to do what will be effective, although we may differ sometimes on our judgment of what we think the data is in about and what we’re still assessing.
But all this led me to also realize that there’s a way in which those who jump quickly to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument have a point. The bombing of an elementary school in Bath happened largely without guns, although there were some guns involved. People have been killing people since Cain killed Abel, if you believe your Bible stories. And we’re no closer to understanding why, it seems, than we were at the dawn of time. I wish I could just say that it’s mental illness, that it’s a sickness. But I don’t think that after all this time we know that. Adam Lanza seems to have only been diagnosed with aspberger’s. Plenty of people have aspberger’s syndrome and live lives that are not violent or murderous. It’s not associated with things like this. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, had depression. Thousands upon thousands of people have depression but never think of killing another human being. I think there is a mental illness component in these killings, yes. You only have to look at Jared Loughner or James Holmes to see that something strange is going on with them. And with the two of them, from Tucson and Arizona, we have a couple who are still alive who we can learn from, unlike Dylan and Eric from Columbine or Seung-Hui Cho from Virgina Tech, or now Adam Lanza.
Mental illness is certainly a piece of the puzzle, but there is something more, something that has to do with a culture that cheapens life and people who don’t believe that life and love have value and meaning and importance. Most shootings aren’t like Adam Lanza. While the Sandy Hooks are the ones that capture our attention and tug at our heart strings, most shootings in American are individual, common, and go without a national response. They’re one person with one pistol shooting another person over something trivial—something much more trivial than life. 2012 was the deadliest year in decades in Detroit. Detroit’s mayor said, “We’ve just lost respect for each other; we’ve lost respect for life… I don’t want to say that you can forget about this generation or the generation before us, but if we’re going to solve the problem, we’ve got to get into the heads and the minds and the hearts of our young people, and it’s going to take all of us to do that.”[ii]
G.B. said to me:
The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy… Any thinking person who subscribes to that principle and also has a firearm - I have no fear being in their company. How do you get a person with a mental health issue to understand this principle - I don’t know. How do you get a teenager with no economic hope and a belief that they have only a very few years left to live to understand this principle - I do not know.
This whole discussion is chasing the wrong ghost. I see no difference between a firearm, a knife, a baseball bat, a car or a really big rock. All of them are perfectly useful tools when operated by a thinking person. All are tools which can have terrible consequences when used incorrectly or used with out care. We only talk about the ownership of a tool and not the condition of our hearts and minds.
How do we get from here to there - I do not know.I think G.B. is really on to something here. It’s worth remembering that when the church shooting happened in Knoxville, the church responded by talking about love. The UUA put out a full-paged ad in the Boston Globe about Love. They started the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. You know all my sermons come back to love.
The problem is that somewhere, love is broken, and that has to be what is happening here that allows people to commit these horrific crimes.
I think as a religious community, we are called to do two things. We are called to teach love, and, also, we are called to teach non-violence. And the two things go together. For where there is perfect love, there is no violence. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, and he taught us to turn the other cheek. His response to a violent state that wanted to kill him, was to go to his death. Not all of us may be entirely able to embrace a path of non-violence, even in the face of even person harm. I know I would probably embrace a violent solution if I felt my life were at stake. And I can’t blame anybody who chooses self-preservation and self-protection. But we jump too quickly to those thoughts as a country, to the point where non-violence isn’t even held up as a viable alternative in these discussions, much less as a model. Mahatma Ghandhi talked about the path of nonviolence being the path of love, nonviolence as a love-force, or soul-force -- satyagraha. He said, “Non-violence is a weapon of the strong. With the weak, it might easily be hypocrisy. Fear and love are contradictory terms. Love is reckless in giving away, oblivious as to what it gets in return. Love wrestles with the world as with itself, and ultimately gains a mastery over all other feelings. My daily experience, as of those who are working with me, is that every problem lends itself to solution if we are determined to make the Law of Truth and Non-violence the Law of Life. For, Truth and Non-violence are to me faces of the same coin.”[iii] Another example – at one point, Martin Luther King, Jr. had armed guards. Eventually, he chose the path of non-violence, and he got rid of his guns and his armed guards. And, of course, he also died, a victim of gun violence. And that is certainly one possible outcome of an embrace of non-violence, and one that makes this a hard path to choose. Yet here are King’s words:
And so I say to you today that I still stand for nonviolence. And I am still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. And the other thing that I am concerned about is a better world. I’m concerned about justice. I’m concerned about brotherhood. I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out violence. Only light can do that. And so I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I am going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love. I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.Martin Luther King, Jr. did choose the path of love and non-violence it knowing where the path might lead—people around him were killed along the way, and he certainly knew that it was a possible, and perhaps even likely, outcome for himself, as well. Jesus chose it, too, knowing where the path would lead.
Somehow, however, if we are to change this broken society, we have to embrace ahimsa, the principle of not hurting other living things. We have to embrace the path of love. For Gandhi, love and non-violence were inextricably linked. And I think it’s just possible he was right.
This is not a problem that legislation can solve, in the end. In the end, it’s a problem only theology and the human heart can solve. And when we look to the world’s religions, we see the same answer over and over again. Thich Naht Hanh said, “All violence is injustice. Responding to violence with violence is injustice, not only to the other person but also to oneself. Responding to violence with violence resolves nothing; it only escalates violence, anger and hatred. It is only with compassion that we can embrace and disintegrate violence. This is true in relationships between individuals as well as in relationships between nations.” In the Old Testament book of Micah it says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” From as long ago as the Hebrew prophets and the Christian teacher of Jesus to as modern as the Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian leaders of today, we get the message. Churches across this country are taking up the call. Peace, love, the siblinghood of all humanity.
We may have individual fears about our security and the security of our children. We may have individual passions for hunting or a need professionally to carry a gun on a job. We may believe passionately in the second amendment. But as a religion, as a faith, and as individual people as well, we must start taking seriously a discussion about non-violence and a discussion about love. We have to hold up our principle that every life is sacred, and every person has inherent worth and dignity. We need to feel deeply in our bones that we are all related. We need to proclaim a love so deep and profound that it cannot tolerate the taking of a human life. And then we need to live our religion, as much as we are able, each and every day, until the whole world is living this profound love as well.
May it be so.