Guns, Fear, and Power

Matthew 6:28-34

Freddy won’t put down his pistol, He likes the way it feels
He likes the power that it gives him
Power that feels real
He likes to look down at his hand and feel the cold blue steel
(“Loretta’s Ballad,” Doug & Telisha Williams, from “Ghost of the Knoxville Girl,” No Evil Records, 2009.)

Beyond the stats, beyond the grief, beyond the finger-pointing, beyond the “culture wars” lies the solution to eleven thousand deaths by gunfire per year in the United States; nineteen mass shootings during the Obama presidency, not counting the back-to-back killings of people in groups of twelve, first at the Navy Yard complex in Washington, D.C. followed a few days later by a massacre in a Chicago park. As Bob Dylan wrote in 1962 about peace, war, and freedom, “how many deaths will it take ’til he knows that too many people have died?” In a secular society, where premodern, ancestral scriptures are misunderstood and ignored, Dylan’s questions are prophetic: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky? How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Political correctness requires that these words be updated in order to be inclusive: “man” no longer means “everyone” we say; “people,” or “we” should be substituted for the cultural sexism of the early 1960s. But keeping the male-centered in-your-face original poetry places accountability right where it belongs: Men need to get a grip. True power has nothing to do with what you conceal in your pants. Women need to stop participating in the lie that it does.The debate is well joined about “human nature.” Are we innately violent, needing constant socialization into peaceful coexistence, or innately trusting, only reverting to violence when trust has been violated? Are we at the mercy of the reptilian brain, the monkey mind? Is it even possible to react with anything other than violence when we are attacked or threatened? Behind the visceral reaction to violence is a deep-seated even primal fear that we are not going to survive. Much of our Planet today is living in exile, either physical or spiritual, and in many cases both. The Planet is changing, ecologically, and economically. There is increasingly no escape from the alienation of climate transformation, food shortages, water contamination, pandemic disease, and violence. Resentment, fear, anger, and retribution are on the rise worldwide. So we turn to control and coercion in military juntas, dictatorships, ideologies, mistrust of the unfamiliar, blame, and terror – all the false prophets raised up in Babylon, who distract us and seduce us into the theology of Empire. When we succumb to that seduction, we force Covenant, nonviolence, and justice-compassion – God – into exile. The God of distributive justice-compassion has been driven out almost everywhere, along with exiles from Christian and other faiths who are unwilling to comply with piety, war, and victory in order to grab an illusive peace.

Attributing the problem of gun violence to a lack of mental health services is a cop-out. Our reaction to the tragedies created by the mentally ill perpetrators of the worst massacres is not to rehabilitate the shooter, or add or upgrade mental health services to the so-called health “care” system. Instead, we increase the fire power of the survivors. The New York Times (September 27, 2013) reports that after the Newtown rampage in December 2012, “thirty-three states considered new legislation aimed at arming teachers and administrators, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures; five enacted laws that expanded the ability for public educators to arm themselves at school. Clarksville, Arkansas school superintendent David Hopkins selected 9mm handguns for his teachers. They weigh about a pound and slip easily into a pocket. Sixteen people, including the janitor and a kindergarten teacher, wear them to school every day. Although state law prohibits guns on campus, Mr. Hopkins found a way around it. Like rural educators who are quietly doing the same thing in a handful of other states, Mr. Hopkins has formulated a security plan that relies on a patchwork of concealed-weapons laws, special law enforcement regulations, and local school board policies to arm teachers.” How does this reduce the probability of more gun-induced tragedies?

In one of the ancestral passages from the Christian tradition, Jesus says:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:28-34.

Progressive Christians need to reclaim this “anxiety passage” from the heresy perpetrated by “prosperity gospel” proponents. Key words are “kingdom of God” and “righteousness.” The kingdom of God traditionally has meant the universe of believers. “Righteousness” is most often defined as being “right with God,” complying with the Ten Commandments, and living a life free from such sins as unmarried sex, and drug and alcohol use. Missing in this interpretation of Jesus’s words is the call to pay attention to God’s justice-compassion. Jesus is saying look for God’s rule, God’s domain, where distributive justice-compassion holds sway. The heresy is that Jesus’s call for a radical abandonment of self-interest has instead become an expectation that wealth shall be added to you if you believe the story that Jesus died for your sins. Trust in the process of restoring God’s original balance of distributive justice-compassion is not in the picture. But seeking God’s realm means creating a life grounded in distributive justice-compassion here and now. Given the continuing difficult struggle in the face of the nearly overwhelming force that is the normalcy of civilization, anxiety about survival is to be expected. “Trust” is the enabling power in this passage, not “reward.”

Our twenty-first century cosmology sends us at once “out there” into space-time and deep within to find our own identity and wisdom. Jesus’s words assure us that our confidence, or in Paul Tillich’s words, our courage to be, is illustrated by the natural world. Taking our cue from the birds and the lilies is neither naive nor innocent of the very real dangers and evils of human life. We have a cerebral cortex that learns from its environment and allows us to choose whether or not to listen to the reptilian brain.

    There are no valid arguments for the “existence” of God, but there are acts of courage in which we affirm the power of being, whether we know it or not. If we know it, we accept acceptance consciously. If we do not know it, we nevertheless accept it and participate in it. And in our acceptance of that which we do not know the power of being is manifest to us. Courage has revealing power, the courage to be is the key to being itself. (Tillich, The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 181.)

Trust begets trust; trust also counters what is not worthy of trust. God is not “out there,” or “back there,” but is found in living the Covenant – trust in the Covenant that exists among all beings in the universe. Biospheres, atmospheres, solar systems, galaxies all participate in a profound balance of power to exist and thrive. When humans choose to participate in that balance, we can step out with the determination to act without fear, in a radical denial of self-interest. Nobody ever says this is easy. People will continue to die in the struggle. But we have the power to choose non-violence, justice-compassion, and peace. When we do, then all these things come to us as a bonus. We don’t need Freddy’s cold blue steel.

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