Friday, November 22, 2013

Gun Violence: A Dialogue (November 3, 2013)

Note- This sermon was part of a dialogue. A member of the congregation spoke first about the right to bare arms, then I spoke, then he spoke about the responsability for safety, then I spoke again. I will try to encourage him to consolidate his remarks in writing so they can be included here.

First Reflection

I remember walking home from the bus stop with one of the older girls from my elementary school. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember her asking:

“Would you kill someone if you had a gun, and they had a gun, and you knew if you didn’t kill them they would kill you?”

“No” I said.

She pushed again- disbelieving: “But they will kill you if you don’t shoot them.” As a kid prone to night terrors, I could easily picture the scary man with the gun.

“No” I said “I would never kill anyone for any reason.” It’s surprising to me today that I came to have such strong pacifist convictions at such an early age.

Later, in I was in high school, I remember learning about the Vietnam war from my freshman history teacher who was a veteran of that war. When he taught us about conscientious objectors, I knew that was who I aspired to be (a moot point since there was no draft, and women were not allowed in combat back then anyway.) This right seemed so precious to me- the right to be a pacifist, to refrain from bearing arms.

When I was in seminary, I heard that story about the general and the zen master. This seemed to me to be the pinnacle of Buddhist practice- to face peacefully whatever life presented to you, even if it be a violent threat against your life.

So the position I take about the proliferation of guns in America will not surprise you. I read the Literature review by the Harvard school of Public Health, and see that in study after study there is a direct relationship between the availability of guns and homicide. Across geographic area, across age, across economic class, the more guns that are available the more people die by gun violence. We choose not to have a gun in our home, and I prefer to live in a community where there are limits on access to guns.

When I was young I looked at that famous photo of pacifists putting daisies in the gun barrels of the national guard, and wanted to believe that “love is all you need.” I still believe that sometimes such a tactic does work to de-escalate a violent situation. But I also believe the presence of those guns in such situations were part of what escalated a moment at Kent State University from one of civil unrest into the violent death of 5 unarmed students shot and killed, and 9 others wounded, one of them paralyzed forever. Thinking about Kent State now with 4 decades of hindsight, it is clear that love is not all you need. Today I want us to think carefully about bringing guns into volatile situations because they seem to be too easily used.

I believe that pacifists have an important role in our world- a role I feel called to. A colleague once told the story, probably apocryphal, about a teacher who asked her students to gather in a circle. The students were invited to pass a touch around the circle, from student to student. As the contact passed, it escalated. Each student wanted to pass on a more violent contact than he or she had received. The contact escalated until finally one student stopped, choosing not to continue the cycle of violence. It only took one child to stop the cycle that day.

I choose to live in this country unarmed, even though I know there are 9 guns for every 10 people. I no longer have illusions that putting a daisy in a gun barrel is my best defense, nor that I can “be run through without blinking an eye.” Only that someone has to stop the cycle of violence, and there is a better chance I will make that choice unarmed.

Second Reflection
There are guidelines for pacifist safety too:
You can study how to stay calm and grounded at a political action (I don’t think you can throw a bottle through a store window or hurl epithets at a policeman and call yourself a pacifist).
There are martial arts traditions like Aikido that are purely defensive and never used to attack
There is a school of non-violent communication designed to bring peace and compassion even into our daily interactions. I should probably take this training one of these days- I can’t even get stuck in traffic without allowing my emotions to boil up and over.

What does it mean to be a responsible pacifist? When my friend’s son was born, they decided to raise him without toy guns. No Nerf guns, no squirt guns, no space-alien- laser-blasters. I remember one evening hanging out with that young family watching the child turned every stick, pine-cone and leaf into a pretend gun. His moms shook their heads at this collision of their ideals and their lived reality.
When I was young I believed that if we could just somehow clean every gun off the face of the earth we could all live in peace. Now I suspect that we must acknowledge the reality that we are living in a time and place where incredibly violent and destructive weapons are woven into the fabric of our society, and this is the context in which each of us must look deeply into our own hearts and choose how to live.

I want to be clear that just because I have searched my own heart and know that I am, at this moment in time, a pacifist, doesn’t mean that I believe that is the only position possible. So many peace- loving communities, like Tibet, have been swept off the map when an armed invading force has set their sights on possession and domination. This is a question with no easy answer- is it better to lose your country than to lose your principle of non-violence?

I believe that Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violent resistance was critical in allowing race relationship in this country to evolve, yet I wonder about the impact of the emergence of the well-armed Black Panther movement. Did the brewing threat of violence hasten the desire to bring racial justice into the legislature? There is a complexity to the way this world works that defies simple answers.

I know that each of us hears a unique call in our hearts, which is why, though I would object and resist if drafted in wartime, I will fight for the rights of veterans returning from duty. In the Hindu text, The Bagavad Gita, the prince Arjuna rides out between two armies, poised to battle one another. He is overcome with a moral dilemma, saying: “We are prepared to kill our own relations out of greed for the pleasures of a kingdom. Better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.” (p. 56) Sri Krishna (an incarnation of God in human forms) responds “Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil.” (P. 64) I think as the minister of this community, my job is not to convince you all to become pacifists, but to discover your own dharma- the ethical path you are called to walk.

Perhaps you remember news reports about the Trappist monks in Algeria who found themselves in the middle of a burgeoning civil war. When the Prior of their community refuses armed protection on behalf of his brothers, they call him to task- they remind him that such a choice which puts all their lives at risk must be made by the whole community together in reflection and prayer. After many weeks of discussion and indecision, each eventually decides to stay in this community which has already witnessed increasing violence. They stay, not seeking martyrdom, but because they believe that their non-violent presence in their Muslim neighborhood offers much needed support to a suffering community. Sadly, the worst does come to pass, and 7 of the brothers are kidnapped in the middle of the night, held hostage, and killed. But each had time to reach a decision in his own heart, and each had the support of their brotherhood as they faced their end.

Each one of us has a choice to make, about how we will support and protect our community. We hold in our hearts all those [who were victims of gun violence] whose names we spoke at the beginning of our service as we choose.

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