Gun Culture, School Shootings, Racial Disparity, Militarized Police and Jesus

A preferential option for two vulnerable communities in the gun control debate.

Photo credit: Bodyguard Blanket

by Herb Montgomery | March 1, 2018


There is wisdom in his words, ‘All who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ It’s as true for societies as for individuals, as well. A society that lives by the sword will die by the sword. If we don’t learn alternatives, we will, as a society, be destroyed by these guns we love so much.”


“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 26:52 

Last week, as Crystal and I drove our kids and the kids we carpool with to school, these children had a conversation on the best escape routes at their schools in case a gunman showed up at their school and began firing.

Stop and let that sink in.

Instead of chatting about an upcoming test, a high school sports game, or an after-school event, they were talking about what they could do to stay alive if a shooter showed up at their school.

This is not the world I want my kids to be growing up in.

And I believe another world is possible.

Gun Culture and School Shootings

In Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays, the author Aberjhani eloquently states: “Democracy is not simply a license to indulge individual whims and proclivities. It is also holding oneself accountable to some reasonable degree for the conditions of peace and chaos that impact the lives of those who inhabit one’s beloved extended community.”

The two words that jump out at me from Aberjhani’s statement are “accountable” and “reasonable.” Community involves balancing individual rights and the well being of community. The tension between these two can be challenging. Our context this week, though, is protecting the lives of our children.

I want to echo what Deshanne Stokes tweeted last June after a mass shooting in Virginia: “Violence isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s an American problem, requiring an American solution.” Violence is not a Left versus Right debate. Both sides of the aisle should be motivated to ensure no more children die.

My country, the U.S., is obsessed with guns. Many people in my own neighborhood value their individual rights to own guns over the lives of our community’s children. This is not hyberbole.

As Emma Gonzalez, Parkland High School shooting survivor, said in her now-famous speech on February 17, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, FL:

 “I read something very powerful [today]. It was from the point of view of a teacher. And I quote: ‘When adults tell me, “I have the right to own a gun,’ all I can hear is “My right to own a gun outweighs your students’ right to live.” All I can hear is  “Mine, mine, mine, mine.”’” (Speech Transcript)

The loudest voices right now in my neighborhood promoting individual gun rights are Christians. I Two years ago I stood across the aisle from many of these people as our town debated an inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Then, they wore t-shirts and held signs about bathrooms and keeping children safe. So it resonated with me last week when Dana Simpson tweeted: “Hearing Republicans say that, look, massacres of kids are very sad but we just can’t limit people’s basic freedoms is weird if you’re a trans person who’s been listening to a years-long debate about whether you need to be banned from public bathrooms TO KEEP CHILDREN SAFE.”

It seems that keeping children safe is only a concern for some Christians when that serves their personal biases or prejudices. Studies debunk the bathroom myth yet mass shootings are becoming commonplace. Mass shootings now so common in schools that some entrepreneurs are seeing an opportunity to capitalize on them. According to Business Insider, you can now purchase a school nap time pad/blanket for your small child that doubles as a bullet proof shield.

Really?

Do we really value the lives of the children in our community that little? Gun regulations can operate just like speed limits, car inspections, and driver licensing. We title and tag cars at each sale and mandate universal driver education and training. My younger daughter is studying for her driving test presently. She must complete a written test and also sit behind a wheel and demonstrate her ability to drive a car safely. My other daughter has to wear her glasses when she drives. All of us must carry liability insurance, and here in West Virginia, we must have our cars inspected every year too. All of these rules exist and anyone who complies with them can still have and drive their car. Yet the rules drive home the point that when you drive a car, you share the road with everyone else, with others who would like to stay alive themselves and keep their children alive.

Gun regulations do work. Australia is a good example. More than 130 other studies offer powerful evidence that common sense gun regulations do save lives.

In Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, Gary Younge states,

“So long as you have a society with a lot of guns—and America has more guns per capita than any other county in the world—children will be at risk of being shot. The questions are how much risk, and what, if anything, is being done to minimize it? If one thinks of various ways in which commonplace items, from car seats to medicine bottle tops, have been childproofed, it’s clear that society’s general desire has been to eliminate as many potential dangers from children as possible, even when the number of those who might be harmed is relatively small. If one child’s death is preventable, then the proper question isn’t “Why should we do this” but rather “Why shouldn’t we?” It would be strange for that principle to apply to everything but guns.”

Adam Winkler argues that even the Wild West had more gun regulations than many of our states do today. “When you entered a frontier town, you were legally required to leave your guns at the stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff, who would give you a token in exchange. You checked your guns then like you’d check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter. Visitors were welcome, but their guns were not.” (Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control Than We Do Today? See also Ross Collins’ Gun Control and the Old West)

Racial Disparity and the Militarization of the Police

This is not just a current news topic. It’s also an area where we can apply the teachings of Jesus. A key part of living out the shared table philosophy with a preferential option for the vulnerable that Jesus’ modeled is learning to listen to other vulnerable voices around the table. Children are not the only vulnerable people involved in the gun control debate. White, straight, cisgender paranoid males raised in an environment of toxic masculinity and claiming that they’re being oppressed and their right to own assault weapons are being infringed are not vulnerable in this world.

But gun regulations have too often been used to disproportionately target communities of color. Sameer Rao cautions, “Gun control in America won’t work for all Americans unless advocates push to demilitarize police departments and advance measures that don’t disproportionately impact people of color. Gun control reform that does not go this route will end in laws that further empower police to seize weapons and use them against whomever they choose. History shows who they’ll target first.” (Gun Control Advocates Cannot Win Without Fighting Their Own Racism.)

If this history is unfamiliar to you, Creed Newton’s article on how calls for strict gun control after mass shootings overlook how regulations have been used to disarm people of color is a fantastic read and a great place to start. In this article, Newton quotes Saul Cornell of Fordham University: “Saying gun laws are always racist is just false. Saying that gun laws have never been racist is also just wrong.”

Can we protect our children from mass shootings and also not disproportionately target people of color? Can we, like other countries, demilitarize our police so that citizens and non-citizens don’t face unilateral gun regulations that would leave them even more vulnerable?

I believe “another world” here in the U.S. is possible. Like other countries, we can keep our children safe. Regulations can be carried out democratically and with care so as to not target some vulnerable communities while we seek to protect others. I believe we can choose a path that leads to a safer, more compassionate, just society without sacrificing those who are vulnerable.

And this leads me to my final thoughts on our passage this week.

These words are about weapons.  I believe we can apply them to our modern  weapons today.

Jesus

In the gospel of Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples pulls out a sword and strikes another person in an endeavor to protect Jesus. Jesus then turns and responds,

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

To be clear, the Bible is not a nonviolent book. Nor does it consistently teach nonviolence. But Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are consistently nonviolent. Even in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples to “go buy swords” the context reveals that these swords were not to be used.

There is wisdom in his words, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” It’s as true for societies as for individuals, as well. A society that lives by the sword will die by the sword. If we don’t learn alternatives, we will, as a society, be destroyed by these guns we love so much.

The constitution is not a moral counter-argument. The U.S. constitution gave White people the right to own other people until 1865. That leeway wasn’t right even though it was written.

Some also argue, “But it’s a heart matter. People need to learn how to deal with their anger without resorting to guns. You can’t change people’s hearts with laws.” I hear this argument whenever laws are proposed to protect vulnerable, minority groups from the majority.  Rules do train and change people. Rules train my children. Rules also shape people’s hearts and teach them to listen to others whose experience is unlike their own. Both Dr. Martin Luther King and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) address this argument, convincingly for me.

King said:

“Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

Ture, who was staunchly opposed to racist gun control measures, argued:

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

I believe there is a way to reach hearts while simultaneously limiting people’s power to hurt others. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Gun regulations are a matter of power, and we must engage the work of balancing that power for all lives involved. I believe this can be done democratically if we as a society choose to do it. Representatives who are bought and owned by the gun industry probably won’t do it for us.

It’s time to lay down and let go of the guns.

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

HeartGroup Application

This week

1. Google “Nonviolent Conflict Resolution Resources.”

2. Find two to three nonviolent conflict resolution practices that resonate with you.

3. Bring these two or three practices to your HeartGroup this coming week and discuss how you might begin implementing them as a group. Conflict is inevitable, but violence is optional. Nonviolence can begin with community practice.

4. Call your representatives. Share how you feel about the mass shootings and measures you hope lawmakers will take.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Another world is possible!

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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Looting a Strong Person 

Picture of picking a lockby Herb Montgomery

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:21-22)

Matthew 12:29: “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

Luke 11:21-22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.”

Gospel of Thomas 35:1-2: “Jesus says: It is not possible for someone to enter the house of a strong person, and take it by force unless he binds his hands. Then he will loot his house.”

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents himself as the one looting another’s house rather than as a well armed home owner protecting what is theirs. Adolf Deissmann wrote in his groundbreaking volume Light from the Ancient East:

“By its social structure Primitive Christianity points unequivocally to the lower and middle class. Its [connections] with the upper class are very scanty at the outset. Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter, Paul of Tarsus a weaver of tent-cloth, and St. Paul’s words about the origin of his churches in the lower classes of the great towns form one of the most important testimonies, historically speaking, that Primitive Christianity gives of itself. Primitive Christianity is another instance of the truth taught us with each return of springtime, that the sap rises upward from below. Primitive Christianity stood to the upper class in natural opposition, not so much because it was Christianity, but because it was a movement of the lower classes.” (Kindle Locations 360-365).

 In Deissman’s volume New Light on the New Testament from the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, he states even more pointedly that Primitive Christianity was not “Christianity” as we know it today, but “a movement of the proletarian lower class.” (p. 7)

Jesus’ listeners would have been more inclined to identify with those scratching out a desperate existence in an exploitative economic system that produced haves and have nots. Few would have listened to him from the societal location of homeowners protecting their possessions from others. This saying uses imagery that the lower and possibly lowest social classes would have been familiar with because of their economic vulnerability.

This saying is also in the context of last week’s saying. The writers of Sayings Gospel Q claim that even though the people’s oppressors are strong, they can be overcome by “one stronger.” In the context of a Jewish apocalyptic worldview, this saying would have been heard as, “Yes, your earthly and cosmic oppressors are, indeed, strong. Yet the mission and activity of Jesus and our community informed is stronger. Our Messianic hope for liberation can overcome our oppressors.”

A Force More Powerful

The documentary A Force More Powerful explores popular 20th Century nonviolent movements. These movements stood up against entrenched regimes and military forces with unconventional weapons like boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and acts of civil resistance. They helped to subvert the operations of government through direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage, and blockades, and they frustrated the efforts of those in power to suppress people.

Last February, in Renouncing One’s Rights, we saw how Jesus taught these very principles of non-violent resistance. We found in the gospels a Jesus who warned oppressed people not to retaliate with the same type of force used against them. Jesus’ first audience did not have access to militaristic power in any way comparable to Rome. To try to use violence against these oppressors would only invite the Roman annihilation, and the history of 66-70 C.E. bears out that it did.

Nevertheless, Jesus cast a vision for his oppressed listeners of a way in which the “strong man” in their lives, their oppressors, could be “over powered.” The people were actually stronger than those who dominated them, and Jesus offered three examples of how: a) nonviolent resistance, b) nonviolent direct action, and c) nonviolent noncooperation. (See Matthew 5:38-41 cf. with the above article.)

To be clear: dominated and subjected people typically do not have access to the material power of their subjugators. But, as history witnesses, those same people are very much more powerful than their oppressors in another way: when they choose to change the rules of the game. In the spirit of these imaginative means, Jesus sought to inspire nonviolent resistance, disruption, noncooperation, and action in his followers, those who despite appearances also had the power to promote societal change.

Just a Little Further South

In my region of the U.S. (Appalachia) and just a little south of me, white, male, heterosexual Jesus followers today find themselves in a very different social location than the people Jesus spoke to. Rather than being the ones within a society who would have been more prone to be breaking into homes, we, today, are the ones protecting our homes and possessions at any cost. This is the demographic that always, without fail, comes up to me at the end of a presentation on Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and says, “If someone’s breaking into my home, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

These conversations often remind me of the story of the pastor of a church I visited about five years ago in Rochester, Minnesota. The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is typically listed as a peace-church because of their traditional teachings on violence, combat, and force. But four years ago, the pastor of the local Seventh-day Adventist church in Rochester mistook his granddaughter for an intruder trying to break into his home and shot her. You can read the story in this article by Star Tribune where the pastor agreed to be interviewed, as he himself said, “as a caution to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.”

He told the paper, “”I had a plan but I didn’t follow the plan, I thought somebody was breaking into my house and it just scared us to death.” Fear took over him, and so instead of viewing the “intruder” as a child of God, he shot his own granddaughter. It’s a horrific story. The Tribune’s article closes with the pastor’s statement that he “would not want anybody to ever have this horrible, horrible experience.”

Remarkably, this happens more often than you’d imagine. Statistically, adding another lethal weapon to a violent situation doesn’t mean you become safer. Studies show that “the notion that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun is a romanticized vision of the nature of violent crime.” Jesus’ words in Matthew that those who live by a sword will die by a sword don’t just apply to individuals. They also apply to societies as well.

In societies with an economic structure that produces “haves” and “have-nots,” Jesus calls those who have more then they need to a plan not of hoard and protect but of sharing and choosing to take care of those who aren’t having their needs being met and being faced with desperation due to their lack.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a “rich man” who, rather than share his surplus, chose to build a bigger, more efficient means of hoarding it. After teaching that this man was a “fool,” because his life ended that same night, Jesus goes on to define being “rich toward God” as selling one’s possessions and giving the surplus to those whose daily needs are not being met.

We who live in America today live in a society shaped by independence, individualism, and self-reliance. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels taught that the solution to the challenges of his own day were to be found in the opposite of these norms. In short, Jesus’ solution to these problems was community. Much of what he taught doesn’t even make sense outside of community!

Trying to follow Jesus’ teachings on one’s own, without a community in which to apply those teachings, is like trying to build a house without building materials or trying to follow a recipe in a cookbook without having the necessary ingredients to combine. In the story in Luke that I reference above, Jesus calls the wealthy who trust in their wealth to insulate them from what the future might bring to let go of their “worry” and instead use their resources to create strong community.

Jesus’ solution is not necessarily for us to have wealth but it’s definitely for us to have each other. And as long as we have each other, we can survive whatever the future may bring, because we are in this together. Jesus finishes up his story with the statement, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He isn’t contrasting heaven and earth here. Rather, Jesus is contrasting people investing in community with isolated people individualistically investing in themselves solving the problem of the future for themselves at the expense of others around them. Jesus seems to be clear: either we are all taken care of, or none of us will be. The man in the story who sought to take care of only himself still lost all he had because he couldn’t keep it when he died.

When we add the Luke 12 story to our saying this week, two things come to the surface despite our societal conditioning. First, those who seek to “protect” their own possessions with strength of arms can still be overpowered. From Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, we see that Jesus did not encourage meeting violence with violence or physical force with physical force. Jesus instead taught that the way to overpower one’s enemy was through another form of direct action: what Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others have referred to as “soul force.” It’s a force more powerful. Second, those who take the path of hoarding and protecting assume a future that looks very different from the reality of what will happen. They imagine themselves leaning back enjoying the benefits of what they have amassed and protected, but instead, they end up losing their lives.

So what is our take home this week?

Jesus challenges those on the underside of society to believe in the power of nonviolent resistance, disturbance, protest, direct-action, and non-cooperation. And he calls on people like those who come up to me defensively after my presentations on nonviolence to place people above property, possessions and profit.

Depending on your location in our current classist societal structure, this week’s saying might be a promise that offers hope, or a warning that your efforts to protect things are ultimately futile and possibly even lethal:

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:·21-22)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you as a group to sit down and watch Richard Wilkinson’s 2011 TED Talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

Notice the relation of crime to wealth inequality. There is a connection between the two. The more wealth is shared (e.g. Jesus story above in Luke 12) the less crime (e.g. home invasions) occurs. Could it be that the solution to violent crime is not bigger guns, but the embrace of our natural communal interdependence? Jesus’ teachings do call us to stop individualistically resisting interdependence.

There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.

2. After watching the TED talk, discuss with your HeartGroup what implications you see for your group, and brainstorm ways to lean into Jesus teachings, even if your first steps are small.

3. Pick one of those ways you just discussed and begin putting it into practice.

In this week’s saying, Jesus comes offering a way that is more holistic, that has the potential to “overpower” how we in the West typically operate. Wherever this saying finds you this week, may it bring you hope or challenge, or both!

Keep living in love. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.