Yesterday, I was horrified to hear the news of yet another mass shooting, this time approximately two blocks from the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA), where our colleagues’ work was put on hold while they locked down their building and gathered to pray. We received messages on social media from our friends marking themselves safe from gun violence.
Let us pray in earnest for the families of those killed by violence, those shaken by terror, and for those experiencing grief. We particularly lift up prayers for the loved ones of those slain at the Old National Bank in Louisville, Joshua Barrick, Deana Eckert, Thomas Elliot, Juliana Farmer, and James Tutt, and the eight others who were injured. May we hold each other gently in these times.
Many of us know, way too closely, the proximity of gun violence to our lives. Several of us are still healing from the trauma inflicted at the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in Saint Louis in October. Others of us will never heal from the trauma we’ve experienced.
Good friends, we have a gun problem.
I understand those words are fraught with meaning, emotion, a partisan sensibilities. Part of the issue is that we live in a society conditioned to react against any effort to make the gun problem easier to confront together. There are so many nuances to name, common ground to celebrate, so many mutual, actionable wins we could share regardless of where we are on the political spectrum.
But the gun problem we have is a complication about the way we work together as much as it is about powder and metal. There is a vested ideological, cultural, and economic interest in resisting efforts to “uncomplicate it,” that prevents us from being in a better position to address it. And around and around we go, to another mass murder.
Question 1: Do we actually want things to change?
I am reminded of this quote from “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world” by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, 2009):
“There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way… ‘There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets” (Heifetz 17).
In other words, we have a gun problem because we (the collective, individualistic, capitalist society founded upon colonization and human enslavement) have chosen and continue to choose to have a gun problem. Using the language of Heifetz, from a system’s perspective, we are getting the exact results our system is built for.
The answer is clear: change the system. Change the attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, underlying values, habits, and loyalties. We can start with ourselves. The late James Atwood, Presbyterian, has done fantastic work articulating a theological and cultural response to the gun problem (Check out Gundamentalism and Where It is Taking America (2017), and American and It’s Guns: A Theological Expose (2012)). Part of that conditioning that has shaped our beliefs is the fallacy that there is nothing we can do. I suffer this despair every time I see news of another daily mass shooting (daily? Yes, daily.) Which leads to my next question…
Question 2: Can we even imagine change?
I believe we can. I also believe that we struggle to believe we can.
After the mass shooting at the Covenant School shooting in Nashville (which is still mobilizing protests for change in Tennessee), I shared this to social media:
Here is a short list of things we once believed and couldn’t imagine possible to change our minds about:
– That the sun and all the planets revolve around us
– That cigarettes are cool and nicotine is not addictive
– That the heart organ should never be medically touched
– That the people could never govern themselves as a democracy
– That we could never crack down on music file sharing
– That the food pyramid was correct
– That no one would ever take seriously allegations against Harvey Weinstein
– That the institution of slavery is too engrained in the economy to abolish
– That God could never move outside a designated sacred space
– The there is a holy superiority in the lineage of kings
Four of these were widely believed in my lifetime.
There is no reason to believe “That it’s impossible to do anything about the guns” can’t be on this list within ours.
Let us not doubt our power. We can change the system.
Our presbytery is mobilizing a number of different actions around addressing gun violence. Back in November, we had a Thursday Night Community Conversation around “Gun Violence Prevention: How Might Congregations Respond?” led by Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews. The Public Witness Team is developing a Presbyterians for Gun Sense pilot program for Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery churches. The program will focus on three areas: education, action, and advocacy. (Education focuses on gun safety, books studies, and denomination resources. Action opportunities include workshops on like Locks for Love and Wear Orange for Gun Violence Prevention Day. Advocacy focus on upcoming legislative work, letter writing campaigns, and teaching members on how to make effective calls to their legislators). Our Dismantling Racism and White Privilege Team is coordinating with “Guns to Gardens” which is a public service for turning in firearms so they can be blacksmithed into gardening tools in reenactment of Isaiah 2:4. There are many denominational resources available for congregations wishing to shape their witness around this issue.
Do we have the faith that we can change things? Which leads me to my last question.
Question 3: Are there guns in heaven?
I am struck by the simplicity of the question, and perhaps it is loaded (pardon the unfortunate pun). When we pray the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done “on earth, as it is in Heaven,” what are we actually praying for?
This is where we have an opportunity as the Church of Jesus Christ to speak a vision of hope and healing to a despairing and bleeding world.
Coming out of Holy Week, we just proclaimed:
- a God who refused to take up violence, even as the crowd asked why he wouldn’t save himself, even after the crowd choose Barabbas over Christ, a known zealot.
- A Savior who contrasted himself entirely against Pilate’s Roman warhorse with a triumphal entry on a humble donkey.
- A Jesus who said “no Peter!”, when Peter took up a sword and committed violence against the slave of the high priest. (With Jesus’ haunting words “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” which could be America’s slogan if this violence doesn’t stop)
Even when Jesus turned the tables, often depicted in art with a whip in his hands, only 1 out of 4 gospels mention Jesus using a whip, and even then it was in the context of driving out livestock from temple ground. We are so surrounded by narratives of violence that we can’t even help but superimpose violence into narratives of peace!
It appears to me there are two competing understandings of how to address gun violence I see on the news and in our culture. On the one side, I see an orientation of gun violence as a rising tide, overflowing weakened or nonexistent levies. As water rises upon a levy, it doesn’t matter how high the defenses are in one area, as it will find a work around by flooding around a defense that is lower. The more guns available, the larger their magazines and the grander our arsenal, the higher the violence rises. The answer to this gun problem is less gun access. The other orientation I can only describe as escalation, where the answer to the gun problem is more guns—more security guards, more armed teachers, more gun access. One orientation’s solution is the other’s problem (again I remember: “a system is designed to get the results it achieves”).
What witness emerges from our Scriptures? How might that guide us in creating a clear vision forward, one that is guided by theological imagination, with hope for change? What concretes steps can we take together? How can we move NOW?
I remember the moment Pharoah is at Moses’ back against the Red Sea, about to kill them all, and in sight of danger, Moses invites everyone to sit still and let God take care of it. And God hysterically responds: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET UP AND MOVE!” (Exodus 14:14-15).
Friends, let’s move. Let’s move together. Let’s find ways to resist the despair and efforts to derail and distract.
For as long as our cultural, theological, and economic assumptions, beliefs, habits, and loyalties continue to be unexamined, unaddressed, and unchallenged, the Body of Christ will continue to bleed.
May God’s Kingdom come, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In this together,
Rev. Ryan J. Landino
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
April 11, 2023