THE BACK STORY
After the Newtown school massacre, the church in Chaska hosted a carefully prepared program of respectful conversations on The Episode of Gun Violence. The first of three consecutive Tuesday evenings would begin with the local police chief and sheriff who represented pro- and anti-gun control positions.
The three of us met over morning coffee to go over last-minute details of that first event, but the conversation took a different turn. The chief and sheriff recommended we cancel the program because of real threats of organized disruption and, perhaps, violence. The good news was they were coming. The bad news was they were coming with guns. The church decided to proceed, and declined the chief’s offer of uniformed officers to ensure peace and security. Later that day, I did as I was taught. I held a meeting with myself to clear my head and prepare for what might come. The letter from myself to myself is still on file. The rubrics have been added.
LETTER TO MYSELF (THE MODERATOR)
How do we have this conversation? Can we talk? Can we all get along?
Every word, every phrase, is a powder keg. All speech is suspect. We listen not with open ears to hear a different point of view. We approach each other with suspicion, reacting defensively or aggressively to any hint that the conversation might be prejudiced against one’s own point of view. Even a title is a land mine.
Guns and I
I love the U.S. Constitution. I also don’t like guns. My only experiences with guns have been negative. The assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in the Booth Theater and JFK in Dallas; Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting the striking sanitation workers in Memphis; presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy. A gun has only one purpose: to shoot something or someone. It has no other use. Violence is often committed with one’s own fist. But capacity to hurt or destroy does not define a hand. A foot may kick, but that’s not why we have feet. A baseball bat picked up in a moment of rage is a lethal weapon, but it is not by definition a weapon; its purpose is to hit a baseball within the rules of baseball. A car can become a lethal weapon in the hands of a car bomber, but its purpose is transportation, to get us from here to there and back.
Prone to evil and slothful in good
The human capacity for violence is deep and ineradicable. It’s in our DNA. The story of Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is not about the beginning of human history; it is one of the defining facts of human nature itself. As my tradition puts it in a Prayer of Confession, “We are prone to evil and slothful in good.”
My tendency toward evil is often the conviction that I am right. I need to be reminded that my experience with guns is not the same as it is for those who grew up on a farm or a ranch where guns serve the purpose of killing a wolf or coyote or of putting down an injured horse out of mercy. The experience in rural America is different from the small town outside a major city in which I was raised, and it is different from urban centers by reason of low population density. My ownership of a gun on the farm is not a threat to the person next door in a tenement or in the housing development of the suburb. Guns in rural America serve different purposes. And, it seems to me, the split and the suspicion regarding guns and violence in America is to a great extent defined by these two very different social experiences, demographics, and cultures.
You cannot love God unless . . .
Beyond fear and suspicion
Having spent the past two weeks trying to organize a series of respectful conversations in the wake of Newtown has brought home how difficult it is to have conversation. Fear of the other is rampant. “I won’t appear on the same program with him. He’s an extremist.” Or, “I don’t think I’ll come. I don’t like trouble.” Or, “You bet I’ll be there. We’re going to pack the house!”
But the gospel of Jesus which is the center of Christian faith calls us to live by the Spirit of the Living God, not by fear or suspicion. Christ himself was the human “other” – the one on whom every side projected its hatred of the other side – and ultimately the representative of the “Wholly Other” who is other to us all.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First Letter of John 4:20-21).First Letter of John 4:20-21 NRSV
Mutual Respect and Forbearance
I also find wisdom in the organizing principles of my religious tradition. The Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) give some advice for how to conduct ourselves when we strenuously disagree. They are called preliminary because they lay the theological-ethical foundation for life together. They are aspirational principles to guide church members and local churches in how we interact as disciples of Jesus. As children of God, we believe:
…” that there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted at the organizing of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1789).
Can we have a respectful conversation?
I’m trying my best to do my duty. Can the pastor with strong personal views also serve as the Moderator? Can I exercise and promote mutual forbearance toward each other? Can we talk? Tonight we will give our own answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Lord, take my hand, and lead us on toward the light.
The question remains and has become more urgent now. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, Gordon. February 2, 2021
We are conditioned by our experiences. My formative experiences with guns are different than yours but we come out not far apart, nevertheless. As a little boy I was taken hunting with my dad and the other males. It was a male thing when big family get-togethers happened. The object was supposed to be wild animals in season, which would be turned into an evening meal, and that usually happened. The rabbit hunt was a sport and then they were supper. When I became a little larger boy I declined. But, living on a farm, I was well aware of the violent end awaiting our chickens and pigs. Boys in town were insulated to some extent. Guns for 3 of my closest high school friends were quite different. They made them in a shop supervised by a medical doctor whose hobby was making rifles. My friends were on a rifle team. They shot targets in contests for trophies. It was a very big deal for them. It compared to farm boys who took prize cattle to the state fair. Or the guys who played football and became homecoming kings. It was good to be good at something. It was good to find ways to bond and show off. There is a step beyond that, where one chooses identity signals. Houses and their location, cars and their destination, clothing and its insinuation are ways we show who we think we are and what we think about ourselves, or how our choices are limited. We wear them as outer layers of skin. Then we choose particular adornments to give a clue about what we are thinking. These are add-ons. They are flags, badges, medals, and signals. They amplify and specify. Some of them are very important and socially positive. Wedding rings, cologne, shoe styles.are just a few of the ways we say things about ourselves. These mark us as individuals. Cultural signals, however, are more important for socialization. These tend to be boundary markers and totems. They are more important for those who reside closest to the borders … unless there is no danger across the border. Ethnic shirts can either be an identification signal or just trendy. Ethnic folks can be either offended when their cultural signal loses significance or glad to notice they are no longer considered dangerous. Back to guns: back home, back then, guns were tools to help with sport or bonding. It would be a mistake to think we’re still back in those times. Things have happened which have changed the message. Guns can now be both-and, both a tool for sport, and a social signal. But they can also be a lethal weapon. Guns are special in a way golf clubs are not.
Ken, it’s so good to hear from you, and good of you to share your experience. “Flags, badges, medals, and signals” deserves greater attention if we wish to understand what’s happening right now.