Friday, March 15, 2013

It's a crying shame: Reflections on next steps after the Sandy Hook massacre

Illustration by Patrick Feller,
used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by James Lumsden on Monday evening, March 11, 2013


For most of my sixty years I have consciously and intentionally wrestled with what it means to be a patriotic person of peace within our American culture of violence.  As a straight, middle class, white man I know I have benefited from – and been entertained by – my culture’s various violent obsessions.  I have been overtly and covertly wounded and corrupted by them, too.  At times I have protested and railed against some of our more vicious habits, spent time in therapy as a consequence of family rage and experienced in my core the blinding fury that so easily erupts into acts of deadly destruction.  As a husband, father and pastor I have also wept while keeping silent vigil with those who have survived acts of murder and suicide.

“Life is hard – and agony accompanies joy.” That’s how I have sometimes made sense of the sorrow born of our uniquely violent culture.  “Now we see as through a glass darkly,” St. Paul wrote, “later we shall see face to face… for all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God.”  This is the theological gap between comprehension and mystery I generally accept as another way of enduring the heart ache of real life – always, however, with the caveat that, “when we do get to see face to face, God damn it, I want some answers, Lord because this pain is some-times intolerable.”  As a servant of the Crucified but Risen Christ, I trust that God’s presence is with us all in the agony of living as well as in the sublime pleasures – and I believe by faith that this present darkness will one day be redeemed, too.

But after the massacre of twenty first grade and kindergarten children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – as well eight other adults including the shooter and his mother – it is clear to me that my grasp of what it means to wait upon the Lord has been too passive.  Now is the time for decisive and sustained action to limit and prohibit the spread of certain semi-automatic weapons in America.  Military-grade hardware and access to massive amounts of ammunition is neither necessary to protect the Second Amendment nor to advance the joy of hunting and sport shooting.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the hour to turn our public conversation away from real or manufactured Constitutional debates and find ways for a broad section of Americans to break bread together in patient and civil explorations of the common good.  To be sure, we don’t have much practice or experience with such gatherings these days – and that is a crying shame.

But if we are to journey beyond the cynicism of the status quo – or capitulate to the ethical relativism that is our nation’s current tool for evaluating good and evil – Americans are going to have to travel through our grief together and rediscover the shared common good.  To my mind, there are currently four inter-related attempts at doing this and each deserve our careful consideration if we are going to modestly challenge the reality of American violence.  The easiest – and most immediately pressing – involves new legislation that would inhibit and restrict the ability to purchase and sell certain semi-automatic weapons while closing the loopholes concerning background checks and gun registration.

I believe this should become a public health debate fought with as much vigor as was brought against the tobacco industry and their lobbyists.  The other three aspects of this work – delegitimizing the current NRA and their influence in politics, honoring and understanding the healthy role guns play throughout America and elevating the use of nonviolent conflict resolution strategies – require a more demanding and long-term commitment. To do anything less, however, suggests an acceptance of the madness of the status quo – noting the classic definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – and perhaps moral cowardice, too.

Now is the time to reclaim what is good.  “The ancients, whether of Athens or Jerusalem,” writes Douglas John Hall, “whether Socrates or Christ, did not speak of social values but of goods.”  Indeed, the common good which is “good whether we value it or not” because it precedes us through all time.  Our action must advance the cause of our common safety while respecting liberty in search of radical freedom.  And by radical I mean not only the right to do – our personal pursuit of life, liberty and happiness – but also the freedom from violence, oppression and the tyranny of fear.  In our era of staggering polarization, we have been summoned to once again seek and celebrate the common good.  So let me share my observations concerning each of these four paths currently at play in the body politic trusting that they will provoke new insights and respectful dialogue in pursuit of authentic solutions.

Personal context

At the outset, let me confess that I am not an unbiased observer.  Once upon a time I attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT – for two years as a small child – as did my younger sister and brother.

I received my first Bible at the Newtown Congregational church and sang in my first church choir, too.  Nearly fifty years later, while I was exploring a new call to ministry that eventually led me to Pittsfield, I interviewed for the position of pastor at the Congregation Church in Newtown – and took a quick side trip to visit our old neighborhood – before the interview.  Let’s just say that I have great affection and respect for the people of this small community.  Unquestionably, proximity has played a powerful role in my strong reaction to this massacre.  But sharing some of the ties that bind with families in Newtown is not the only reason for my change of heart.

After all, I knew Gabby Giffords from my ten years of ministry in Tucson, AZ.  From time to time, we shopped at the same Safeway where she and eighteen other innocent people were shot. And while the horror of her attempted murder left me stunned and shocked – as did the carnage and death from the Aurora, CO movie theatre shooting where 12 people died and 58 were wounded – like so many other Americans I had sadly come to accept such violence as part of our inevitable status quo.   It was tragic, emotionally incomprehensible and evil, to be sure, but also just a part of another day in America where on average 18 people die every 24 hours by gun violence.   Intellectually this culture of violence was repugnant to me, but my revulsion remained theoretical because other demands captured my attention and imagination.  Like C.S. Lewis before the death of his beloved wife, Joy, the reality of American violence was only a vile abstraction for me.

My heart was broken and my conscience enflamed, however, when twenty innocent, small children were slaughtered as they waited for their classes to begin one Friday morning in Newtown.  Those babies looked like my daughters thirty years ago – or the children who gather around me each Sunday morning in the chancel of our church in another American small town in America – and I found myself weeping uncontrollably in the aftermath of the attack.  In many ways it felt like September 11th 2001 all over again.  What’s more, seeing the faces of my own beloved children in those murdered in Newtown, helped open my eyes again to the faces and lives of other children who are just as beloved by God and their parents but who are all too invisible to many Americans:  children of color, children of poverty, children of God.  The words of Jesus, “Whatsoever you do unto any of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do unto me” took on another layer of significance.

So I am not afraid to state that I am still moved to tears – tears or rage, tears of shame, tears of anguish – whenever I fully consider how acts of mass murder can be tolerated so casually in contemporary America.  Since the domestic terrorist attack of December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been 2,517 gun related deaths throughout the United States – and truth be told, this is a conservative estimate.

With prophetic prescience both General Stanley McChrystal and Representative Gabby Giffords were led to speak out against the madness on the second anniversary of the blood bath in Tucson.  Ms. Giffords launched Americans for Responsible Solutions writing in USA Today with her husband, Mark Kelly:  “In response to a horrific series of shootings that have sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary - nothing at all.” As a part of a growing movement of compassion and common sense, “the couple hopes to work with politicians to take gun lobbyists head-on and engage the country in a discussion about preventing gun violence. They also hope to establish a requirement for a comprehensive background check for the private sale of guns and address the issue of the treatment of mentally ill people in the United States.” As Kelly, a veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, said: “the only reason for a weapon to have an extended magazine is to kill people – lots of people.” (ABC News)

Politial context

And so begins what I see as a three-pronged campaign for a more rational gun control policy in the United States as well as creative alternatives to our culture of violence:  a) responsible gun owners will start to speak out against our painful status quo; b) politicians searching for middle ground will seek consensus; and c) people of faith and compassion will push the envelope beyond what is expedient so that this kairos moment is not wasted.  Former President Bill Clinton cut to the chase when he said on January 9, 2013:  “I grew up in the hunting culture, but this is nuts. Why does anybody need a 30 round clip for a gun? Why does anybody need one of those things that carries 100 bullets? The guy in Colorado had one of those.”
Half of all mass killings in the United States have occurred since the assault weapons ban expired in 2005 - half, in all of the history of the country. So, I hope that former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and other people who stepped up after the Newtown tragedy will have some impact on this.  And there are going to need to be some armed guards in some schools where there is a higher crime rate and kids themselves may take weapons to school, absolutely. But it is not an excuse not to deal with this issue. (, January 10, 2013)
Former commander of the US war in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, framed the conversation like this:  “I spent a career carrying typically either an M16 or an M4 Carbine.  An M4 Carbine fires a .223 caliber round which is 5.56 mm at about 3000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed for that.  That’s what our soldiers ought to carry. I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America.”  General Colin Powell made a similar observation on Meet the Press:  “I see no need for Bushmasters in the hands of an individual person who might be deranged… Want to fire a Bushmaster? Go out to a range and fire a Bushmaster.”

Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, no darling of any particular political ideology save bottom-line pragmatism, put it like this:   “It’s time for the president, I think, to stand up and lead and tell this country what we should do — not go to Congress and say, ‘What do you guys want to do?’ This should be his number one agenda. He’s president of the United States. And if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.”

Adam Gopnik expressed the essence of American utilitarianism when it comes to common sense gun control when he wrote a Jonathan Swift-like article for The New Yorker on December 20, 2012.  “We live, let’s imagine, in a city where children are dying of a ravaging infection. The good news is that its cause is well understood and its cure, an antibiotic, easily at hand. The bad news is that our city council has been taken over by a faith-healing cult that will go to any lengths to keep the antibiotic from the kids.”
Some citizens would doubtless point out meekly that faith healing has an ancient history in our city, and we must regard the faith healers with respect—to do otherwise would show a lack of respect for their freedom to faith-heal. (The faith healers’ proposition is that if there were a faith healer praying in every kindergarten the kids wouldn’t get infections in the first place.) A few Tartuffes would see the children writhe and heave in pain and then wring their hands in self-congratulatory piety and wonder why a good God would send such a terrible affliction on the innocent—surely he must have a plan!  
Most of us—every sane person in the city, actually—would tell the faith healers to go to hell, put off worrying about the Problem of Evil till Friday or Saturday or Sunday, and do everything we could to get as much penicillin to the kids as quickly we could.  We do live in such a city. Five thousand seven hundred and forty children and teens died from gunfire in the United States, just in 2008 and 2009. Twenty more, including Olivia Engel, who was seven, and Jesse Lewis, who was six, were killed just last week. Some reports say their bodies weren’t shown to their grief-stricken parents to identify them; just their pictures. The overwhelming majority of those children would have been saved with effective gun control. We know that this is so, because, in societies that have effective gun control, children rarely, rarely, rarely die of gunshots. Let’s worry tomorrow about the problem of Evil. Let’s worry more about making sure that when the Problem of Evil appears in a first-grade classroom, it is armed with a penknife.
Among people of good will, a common sense consensus is being created that links significant and lasting change with radical freedom.  And this consensus almost always includes questioning the idolatry, ideology and influence of the NRA and its mono-minded allies.  Top Republican strategist and pollster, Frank Lutz is illustrative of this trend in his comments on the CBS program “This Morning.”  “The public wants guns out of the schools, not in the schools, and they're not asking for a security official or someone else."
I don’t think the NRA is listening. I don’t think that they understand. Most Americans would protect the Second Amendment rights and yet agree with the idea that not every human being should own a gun, not every gun should be available at anytime, anywhere, for anyone. That at gun shows, you should not be able to buy something there and then without any kind of check whatsoever. What they're looking for is a common-sense approach that says that those who are law-abiding should continue to have the right to own a weapon, but that you don’t believe the right should be extended to everyone at every time for every type of weapon. (Common Gunsense, December 28, 2012)
Former GOP congressman and social conservative, Joe Scarborough, has been equally blunt:  “The NRA’s extreme response to Newtown changed everything… and any defense of the types of weapons used in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings is nonsense,” he told his audience on MSNBC.  “These weapons are part of a culture, but they're not part of my culture, they're not part of your culture.”  He went on to offer this advice to Republican partisans who seem betrothed to the NRA:
Do they want to be seen…as the party of Glocks? The party of Bushmasters? The party of combat-style, military weapons? Rapid-fire magazine clips? If they want to go around and debate that for the next four years, good luck. [I would rather the GOP] fight for less taxes, balanced budgets, smaller government and a restrained foreign policy. But if the party wants to defend Glocks and Bushmasters…we will lose. 
Could it be that for the first time since the passage of the Brady Act, a majority of Americans are ready to reconsider the harsh realities of our current state of affairs?

  • Fact:  Empirical evidence shows that creating even the smallest impediment to crime – any crime from rape and assault to petty theft and gun violence – significantly reduces a criminal’s incentive – and thus makes all crime rarer.   What the New York City police have discovered – despite all theorizing to the contrary – is that crime is “opportunistic.”  When you “build a low annoying walls against criminals… crimes decrease.” Hard and objective experience dismantles the status-quo arguments that posit “social pressures, slum pathologies, the profits to be made in drug dealing and the ever ascending levels of despair” will always necessitate more guns to defeat an ever more deadly cult of ruthless, social predators.  The facts, however, show that simply making it a little harder to acquire guns will profoundly reduce gun violence because criminals are lazy.  (The New Yorker, December 20, 2012)
  • Fact:  More guns never create greater safety.  In the Tucson shooting of Representative Giffords, in addition to the weapons of the assailant a number of by-standers were also armed.  Given the chaos, however, they chose not to open fire because no one knew where to direct their deadly fire.  What’s more, states with stricter gun laws have fewer gun murders, fewer suicides and fewer accidental deaths by gun use according to studies conducted by social scientist, David Hemenway of Harvard University. (The New York Times, December 12, 2012)
  • Fact:  The United States endured 12, 664 murders in 2011 – 8, 583 involving fire arms.  In the UK, with a different culture towards guns and greater regulation, the murder rate from guns was 550.  The mortality rate from weapons in the USA 34.4 per million people; in the UK it is O.13 because in the USA there are 89 guns for every 100 citizens; in the UK it is 6 per 100.  (Guardian, January 10, 2013)

Decreasing our epidemic of gun violence matters and deterrents make a difference.  And for the first time in decades the former conventional wisdom that “guns don’t kill people: people kill people” is being questioned at every level.

Painfully we are coming to own the fact that while guns don’t kill, people with guns kill other people in record numbers.  In this rapidly changing social context, the political mojo of the moment has taken four broad forms that deserve careful attention.  The first is the work of Senator Diane Feinstein of California who has proposed an aggressive and comprehensive legislative change to make the sale, possession and transportation of 100 types of assault-like weapons illegal.  Her focus would also require a thorough background check for the purchase of all weapons and ammunition while grand-fathering over 900 weapons clearly identified with hunting and sporting.  The on-line Courage Campaign initially tried to stir interest for this initiative, but the reality is that both elected officials and the wider public are paying little attention to what is essentially a top-down political solution.

A second project is that spearheaded by Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut, and it is picking up popular momentum.  Their super PAC goal for Americans for Responsible Solutions is to offset the political clout of the NRA – which annually spends $24 million on lobbying and political activity – by raising $20 million for the 2014 elections.  Kelly and Giffords are gun owners who do not want to demonize their opponents, but rather find a way towards common ground.  “I’ve taken a gun to work,” said Kelly. “And I flew in combat in Operation Desert Storm off the USS Midway, carrying a 9-millimeter.”
I certainly understand the importance and the right to own a firearm in our country. I certainly get that. Gabby and I want to protect people’s Second Amendment rights… Achieving reform to reduce gun violence and prevent mass shootings will mean matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources.  (Washington Post, January 9, 2013)
A third national exploration of recommendations for action comes from the Federal Task Force set in motion by President Obama and coordinated by Vice-President Joe Biden. This panel has worked quickly to hear the wisdom of a broad cross section of Americans including Wal-Mart, the film industry as well as various gun rights advocates including the NRA.  On January 16, 2013 the President announced a comprehensive 23 point national initiative.  It includes policies to be implemented by executive action as well as legislative recommendations including restrictions on the sale of certain weapons, closing the loop holes on background checks, public health proposals, increased funding for police as well as research into the effects of violent video games.

Local state governments in Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and New York are also moving quickly towards implementing similar new legislation that look to the laws of Massachusetts as a model.

And the fourth are the recommendations from the National Rifle Association – the NRA – who seek to advance a fundamentally different set of proposals.   A week after the Sandy Hook murders, Wayne LaPierre addressed the nation suggesting that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun… a minute away.”  At the NRA press conference of December 21 Mr. LaPierre was clear:
I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school — and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January. Before Congress reconvenes, before we engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation or anything else, as soon as our kids return to school after the holiday break, we need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work — and by that I mean armed security.
Since that time, the NRA and its allies have attacked every proposal except their own – and have recently launched an inter-net video designed to degrade President Obama’s initiatives.

The intensity of public debate is palpable – and clearly drives the political considerations for new legislation for the first time in decades.  I support both the Obama directives as well as those offered by Representative Giffords.  I believe that these reserved steps warrant our political and moral support.  After all, politics is the art of the possible and real progress must not be compromised in stubborn pursuit of the perfect.  Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, observed that “There is a natural gravity that happens toward the ban (of assault weapons) in the wake of tragedies… But it’s very important to point out that background checks could have an even bigger impact.” (The New York Times, January 11, 2013)

Other thoughtful work for our common freedom and safety include suggestions from Nicholas Kristof:  limit gun purchases to one per month, make serial numbers harder to erase, put microchips in new weapons so that they can be traced effectively and make it illegal to sell weapons privately without a back-ground check.  (The New York Times, December 12, 2012)

As well as those being developed by a coalition of parents and family members of the children murdered in Newton called The Sandy Hook Promise.  This is a longer-term process of civil conversation concerning many of the issues at play in the massacre including the state of mental health services in our communities, the effect of violence in video games, the NRA’s “shield of safety” at schools proposal, the problem of hand guns in urban areas as well as stricter limitations on the types of weapons that should be allowed throughout civilian America.  Organizers state that:
The SHP mission is to work to identify and implement holistic, common sense solutions that will make our community and our country safer from similar acts of violence through education, outreach and grass-roots discussion. SHP believes the time has come to enter into these discussions with equal parts of Love, Compassion, and Common Sense. 
There is wisdom in all of these modest proposals. I believe that as people of good will and common sense discuss these concerns – and take time to listen carefully – we can find ways to implement what is strategically possible.  Already, for example, mental health professionals are helping us take the conversation to a deeper level as they warn against rushing towards actions that could have long-term negative consequences for those who need their care.  Another area of wise council is coming from the testimony and experience of law enforcement agents who witness the reality of gun violence every day.  They attest to the importance of a national standardized registration and sale policy that would limit the mobility of hand guns.  Each of these players has a role to play and I am eager for their voices to be heard.  

At the same time, there is a need for a parallel citizens’ effort committed to the promise of the beloved community – a way of living and interacting that is not constrained by political expediency but grounded in peace and the common good – and this is the calling of our prophetic poets and artists.

Poetic/prophetic context

To acknowledge the limitation of politics, you see, is not to denigrate the important work that takes place in this realm.  Compromise, careful listening and seeking common ground in a respectful way is an essential component of caring for the common good.  It is also incomplete for without a vision that is greater than ourselves, the people will perish.

Political realism only contributes to the beloved community when politicians are pushed beyond their comfort zone. Our elected officials are almost never in the vanguard of social transformation unless they are helped by visionaries whose eyes are another prize. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a social realist guided by the poetic vision of the Hebrew prophets, once said that:
All mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality. (Address at Oberlin College)  
MLK understood and honored the limits of political engagement.  He also found ways to speak to the heart and soul of the nation that tapped into our hunger and thirst for justice and peace.

M. Craig Barnes, the new dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, has studied the arc of social transformation in the United States.  One observation concerning the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is salient:  while the Civil Rights Act of 1965 would never have passed Congress without the tireless work of President Lyndon Johnson, the consummate political realist, “it fell to someone else, a poet, to inspire the nation to accept the dream of a color-blind society.”
Without the dream, the legislation would never have passed.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the country into that dream only by taking us into a painful discovery of the injustice that lurked in the corners of our hearts. That was the truth behind the reality.  But the white majority culture didn’t accept this dream easily. The African-American community, whom Dr. King had empowered with one biblical image of freedom after another, led the rest of us to it. They began by marching in the streets, and after the nation watched them mercilessly attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and angry mobs, they marched into our hearts.  But it took a realist and a truth-teller, a politician and a poet… because someone has to teach the people how to dream. (The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 20)
To teach the people how to dream is a hallowed calling shared with pastors and poets, rabbis and imams as well as organizers, counselors, teachers, parents and all who are willing to learn to simultaneously embrace the truths of our current political culture while envisioning a deeper encounter with God’s sacred shalom.  The prophetic poet is sensitive to the reality of our time without being constrained by it.  Like the medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who said, “Reality is the will of God – but it can always be better,” these advocates honor reality and invite us towards a better future, too.  They are heirs of an empathetic tradition willing to critique the status quo while energizing an alternative through compassionate imagination.

One master of the ancient Hebrew texts, Walter Brueggemann, put it like this:
We need to ask not whether (an alternative to the status quo) is realistic or practical or viable, but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the dominant consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought. Imagination is a danger… that’s why every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.  It is the vocation of the prophetic poet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one. And the characteristic way of the prophet is that of poetry and lyric. (The Prophetic Imagination)
Think of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic Nobel Peace Prize pronouncement where he confessed that as his own novels and poetry were shared with others he discovered the truth of Dostoevsky’s axiom that “Beauty can save the world;” it was his art that moved the international community  to rise up and condemn Soviet oppression after truth and goodness had been driven underground.

Think of pop music poet and performer, Paul Simon, who 25 years ago risked the wrath of the commissars of culture when he learned that South African musicians had something more beautiful and healing to share with the world than politically correct ideology – and brought to birth the world music collaboration we know as “Graceland.”

Think of the visual artist, Mako Fujimura, who when asked, “Why does art matter in a post-September 11th world” said:

September 11th taught us that we can use our imagination either to destroy lives or to save lives. On 9/11 we had on the one hand militant hijackers who turned their imaginative vengeance into determined evil acts. On the other hand were firefighters who climbed the falling towers. We have to realize that before any of these terrorist acts were committed, they were imagined. We swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions. We are responsible for how we respond to that power. We do have a choice between saving lives and destroying lives. If we do not teach our children, and ourselves, that what we imagine and how we design the world can make a difference, the culture of cynicism will do that for us. If we do not infuse creativity, if we do not take the initiative to help our children imagine better neighborhoods and cities, despair will ruin their imaginative capacities and turn them into destructive forces.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” wrote Theodore Parker in 1850, “but it bends towards justice.”
Artists and prophetic poets help us see the eagle within the egg and hear the whisper of hope within the silence. The Reverend James E. Atwood, a clergy person from Columbine, Colorado, who was at ground zero in the aftermath of that attack, understands that ours is an era aching for a spiritual awakening:  for three generations our culture has been nourished on the barren metaphors of the market place.  We think and act from the bottom line rather than the common good.  Consequently our moral imaginations have atrophied and our sense of connection to the truths greater than ourselves has withered.  Atwood suggests an alternative in his all too timely book, America and Its Guns.

First, he would have us remember that time and again our chosen political leadership chooses to keep us deluded, chasing after shadows rather than telling us the truth.  He notes that when:
President Bush addressed the community at Virginia Tech he said that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the truth is they were in the right place at the correct time.  They were doing what college students do – going to class. In reality these students were shot because of the “principalities and powers” created by America’s love affair with violence, guns and power. (Congregations, Alban Institute, p. 29)  
When politicians lose sight of their higher obligations to radical freedom, they will obscure the truth – especially if they are overly indebted to their financial benefactors.  On the Left and the Right and everywhere in-between, this happens all too over in American politics.  So first the poets of prophetic love must speak truth to power.

Second, those charged with the work of advancing the beloved community must regularly articulate a vision for life that reaches beyond naked self-interest.  We cannot blame our people for choosing the safety of the status quo if powerful and persuasive alternatives are not clearly articulated.  Sr. Joan Chittister notes that “simply living with people does not by itself create community.”
People live together in armies and prisons and college dormitories and hospitals, but they are not communities unless they live out of the same reservoir of values and the same supply of love… [We have been called to articulate] and share a common vision. We have to want the good for one another. We have to be able to draw from the same well together… otherwise we have privatized the blessings of the Garden of Eden. (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily)
When cynics snipe at our notion of the beloved community, we must reply:  If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And the murder our children must never be what we want.  So when those driven by fear or greed plot, we must plan and organize.  To paraphrase Dr. King:  “When the evil burn and bomb, the good must build and bind. When evil women and men shout ugly words of hatred, good folk must commit themselves to the glories of love.”
[Because] darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction... The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars, guns begetting more guns – must be broken or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
This history of social and moral change is clear:  it falls to the poets and organizers – the communities of faith and those not bound by the constraints of politics – to creatively advance the cause of the beloved community.  And I am increasingly convinced that this must include calling into question the power, influence and actions of the NRA and its allies.  Once again, Dr. King is instructive:  “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”  It is to this truth that I now turn my attention:  specifically calling into question the current activity and moral legitimacy of the NRA at this moment in history.

Challenging the influence of the National Rifle Association

In January 2013, after nominally participating in the White House sponsored task force for new safeguards to increase the safety of America’s children in the context of the tragic shooting in Newtown, the NRA issued a challenge to their supporters in Congress.  Not only did they denigrate the effectiveness of any type of gun control or registration, but they sought to change the public conversation away from the dangers of easy access to assault-like weapons and towards other problems.

Their solutions did not call for a more careful regulation of who can purchase weapons – or limitations on the types of weaponry available to citizens – but rather the placement of more armed guards in all of our elementary, middle and high schools.

So rather than explore any critique of our American culture of violence and the role easy access to weapons plays in it, the NRA turned to the culture wars of a previous era.  In their own words the murder of those at Sandy Hook Elementary school were victims of Hollywood elites, the creators of violent video games and an inadequate and poorly funded mental health system. To add insult to injury, on January 16, 2013 the NRA launched an attack on President Obama calling into question his integrity because he is skeptical about their claim that more guns in schools creates greater safety for the nation.

Clearly they know how to appeal to their base and fan the fires of fear for those who mistrust Obama.  They are neither afraid to demonize their opponents nor go on the offensive.  In response to the President’s national safety actions, the NRA issued this clear reply:
The National Rifle Association of America is made up of over 4 million moms and dads, daughters and sons, who are involved in the national conversation about how to prevent a tragedy like Newtown from ever happening again…  we will not allow law-abiding gun owners (and hard working tax payers) to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works — and what does not.  
I believe in vigorous political give and take.  I also have come to believe that individually and personally many within the leadership of the NRA are as heart-broken about the massacre at Sandy Hook as anyone in America.  I am certain, too that their management cadre is as interested in stemming the culture of violence in the United States that has now reached epidemic proportions as the President.  At the same time, however, in matters of public trust there is some wisdom to the old Watergate adage, “follow the money.”  Because when you do, the reality of contemporary NRA actions show an organization that is far less a simple association of small town individuals and hunters and much more a powerful lobbying consortium working on behalf of the weapons manufacturers.

In 1990, the NRA created a new “corporate sponsor” program designed, according to their own Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, to be “an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA … (in a way that is) geared toward your company’s corporate interests.” (Violence Policy Center)  As a result of this policy change, the gun industry is now able to directly support the NRA with financial gifts.  Of the 24 corporate sponsors, 22 are gun makers including: Arsenal, Inc.; Benelli; Beretta USA Corporation; Browning; DPMS Panther Arms; FNH USA; Glock, Inc.; H&R 1871, LLC; Marlin Firearms; Remington Arms Co., Inc.; SIGARMS, Inc.; Smith & Wesson Corporation; Springfield Armory; and, Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. And of those 22 gun manufacturers, 12 specialize in assault weapons and/or the production of high-capacity ammunition magazines. (Peter Drier, Huffington Post, and Friends of the NRA)

According to Forbes Magazine, “the gun industry – led by Ruger – and the NRA have both benefited tremendously from this change in policy.  According to IRS fillings, between 2004 and 2010, the NRA’s revenue from fundraising — including gifts from gun makers who benefit from its political activism — grew twice as fast as its income from members’ dues.” (Peter Cohan, Forbes) In 2005, in addition to the corporate donor program, “NRA lobbyists also helped get a federal law passed that limits liability claims against gun makers.  Former NRA President Sandy Froman wrote that (this act) “saved the American gun industry from bankruptcy,” according to Bloomberg.

To be sure, the NRA was once driven and funded by sports enthusiasts, individual hunters and outdoors-people – an image it still works hard to publicize – but in reality today less than half the organization’s funding come from program fees or membership dues.

“The bulk of the group's money now comes in the form of contributions, grants, royalty income and advertising, much of it originating from gun industry sources.” Specifically since 2005:
The gun industry and its corporate allies have given between $20 million and $52.6 million to it through the NRA Ring of Freedom sponsor program. Donors include firearm companies like Midway USA, Springfield Armory Inc, Pierce Bullet Seal Target Systems and Beretta USA Corporation. Other supporters from the gun industry include Cabala's, Sturm Ruger & Co, and Smith & Wesson.  And the NRA also made $20.9 million — about 10 percent of its revenue — from selling advertising to industry companies marketing products in its many publications in 2010 according to the IRS Form 990. 
Walter Hickey of The Business Insider has noted that by turning away from their original mission as a member-driven organization dedicated to gun safety and education to a corporate lobbyist, two important changes have taken place in the NRA:

  • First, the gun industry has created a highly effective marketing mechanism with sympathetic consumers through NRA sponsorships and gun and ammunition manufacturers have reaped record profits.    
  • Second, these same manufacturers have been shielded from direct blame for such acts of mass violence as Virginia State, Aurora, CO, Tucson, AZ or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  The NRA staff has run effective interference for the corporate CEOs who are not held directly accountable for the massacres created with their products nor compelled to personally testify before Congress.

It's possible that without the NRA, people would be protesting outside of Glock, SIG Sauer and Freedom Group — the makers of the guns used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — and dragging the CEOs in front of cameras and Congress. That is certainly what happened to tobacco executives when their products continued killing people. Notoriously, tobacco executives even attempted to form their own version of the NRA in 1993, seeing the inherent benefit to the industry that such an effort would have. Philip Morris bankrolled the National Smokers Alliance, a group that never quite had the groundswell of support the industry wanted. Notably, the tide has shifted slightly in the wake of Sandy Hook, with Cerberus Capital Management's decision to sell Freedom Group, the company that makes the Bushmaster rifle. (Business Insider
This is a far cry from original intent:  when the National Rifle Association was created in 1871 its founders were two Civil War veterans, Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate, whose experience in combat led them to believe that poor marksmanship contributed to the Civil War’s bloody duration.  Their solution was to “promote, teach and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis."  In time, the NRA opened shooting ranges with trained instructors throughout the country to advance careful marksmanship and gun safety.  After WWII, they expanded their educational efforts to include the world of hunters in 1949 and later still to address the need of law enforcement in 1956.

Since its inception, the NRA had consistently supported common sense gun legislation as well as consumer education and training.  In 1934 they endorsed and helped secure passage of the National Firearms Act that prohibited the sale and distribution of sawed-off shot guns and machine guns.  It was understood that this legislation was essential in leveling the playing field for law enforcement officers in their fight against organized crime.

Likewise, in the 1968 after the assassinations Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., a law was passed to make the guns used in these – and the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963 – harder to acquire.  “When he testified before Congress on the legislation, NRA President Harold W. Glassen said that "200 million guns did not strike down Senator Kennedy; only one did." And the NRA endorsed the law.

This commitment to common sense legislation was altered, however, by a dramatic leadership change in the 1977.  In what some have called a corporate coup, the NRA’s former emphasis on sport gun education and safety was supplanted by a highly conservative political agenda that not only resonated with the Republican Party’s emerging “southern strategy,” but also enflamed rural America’s fears over alleged or potential violations of the Second Amendment.  In the rapidly changing social and racial turmoil of this era, this new direction proved to be golden politically and economically for the NRA.

At the beginning of the decade, there was growing support for increased gun control during the 1970s.  In what was clearly a backlash against rising urban crime and the abundance of Saturday Night Specials, public opinion was eager to reduce gun violence.  In this milieu, the old guard NRA leadership decided it was wise to leave the world of Washington politics, relocate to a more rural Colorado Springs, CO and deepen their mission to hunting and sports enthusiasts.  Their primary interest in any gun legislation at this time was still limited to issues of safety, encouraging better marksmanship and advancing recreational hunting.  Jonah Sugarmann, in his history of the NRA writes that the old guards’ “concerns over gun control were limited to their effect on traditional sporting activities.”

As was true throughout the United States at this time, there was also a growing socially conservative – and sometimes politically fear-based – movement within the NRA.  They believed that a narrow focus on recreational weapons was politically short sighted and na├»ve.

From their perspective, the right to freely own weapons was intended by the Constitution to protect citizens from criminals and the government; any curtailment of gun ownership was seen as evidence of an emerging dictatorship and public safety hazard.

Consequently, writes Sugarmann, the new cadre within the NRA was enraged by plans to move the organizational headquarters of the NRA to Colorado.  Under the leadership of Harlon Carter, a radical social conservative:
The hardliners secretly organized against the NRA's moderate leadership at the annual meeting of the membership in Cincinnati. Manipulating the rules of order, the hardliners staged a coup from the floor. When the sun rose the next day, the entire leadership of the NRA had been replaced by strong advocates of the right to bear arms. Rather than move to Colorado Springs, the new NRA built a larger headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area and made its central mission to fight against gun control. The hard-liners’ answer to gun violence wasn't more gun control. It was more guns. If only more law-abiding people were armed and prepared to fight back, then criminals wouldn't be able to so easily victimize Americans (In this) the new NRA became an important member of the New Right coalition that lifted Ronald Reagan to the presidency. 
Harlon Carter’s 1977 “Revolt at Cincinnati” set in motion the transformation of the NRA from a mainstream organization committed to the common good and gun safety to a more polarizing, political action network with a fear-based understanding of the federal government.  For thirty five years, they have carefully cultivated their peculiar perspective of what gun ownership and the Second Amendment mean in America.  And in doing so have not only contributed to the legislative gridlock that keeps common sense guns laws from seeing the light of day, but have also emboldened uncompromising and often bigoted politicians who are taken seriously whenever they advocate for God, guns and the Constitution.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi chief of propaganda, once said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”  And apparently he was right as many 21st century Americans now believe that the NRA’s misreading of the Second Amendment trumps the Constitution’s call to keep all US citizens safe. But uber-suspicious, ginned-up conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scenarios about creeping socialist dictatorships ought not to drive public policy considerations. The political rhetoric of the NRA is incendiary – red meat to hungry and wounded souls left behind by the current American Dream –  designed only to exacerbate fears not find common ground.

For nearly 40 years, they have effectively linked their conservative fear-mongering with the cultural habits and traditions of Americans who teach their children to hunt responsibly and practice self-defense and self-reliance carefully.

In a culture where guns are a part of life – necessary on the farm and essential in the forest – the NRA regularly plays upon people’s worst fears.  At times they have been more than willing to manipulate their political base with race baiting, too.  Just think back to Willie Horton if you sense I exaggerate.  Strategists like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove – masters of the so-called “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party – have proven time and again how important manufacturing fear can be in building a winning electoral coalition for conservative politicians

Small wonder these same political operatives are so opposed to the Obama administration, who both outfoxed the foxes, but did so with a coalition of minority voters.  From my perspective, the callous and calculating machinations of the current NRA leadership are dangerous – a clear and present threat to public health and safety – that neither advance radical safety in the United States nor the beloved community.  How does living in an armed camp with more security guards and check points reflect our deepest aspirations and dreams?  Even in the Wild West, cowboys had to check their guns at the saloon door and young hunters were prohibited from bringing their weapons to school at the start of deer season.  

I do not begrudge the NRA their political effectiveness.  They obviously know how to work the system and are unmistakably effective. But after Sandy Hook I believe a countervailing voice is being raised that challenges their sense of what best constitutes the common good.  Their way does not work – more guns do not keep our children safer – and their rhetoric leads to more polarization in America rather than greater cooperation.

So here’s what I have learned over the past 30 years of listening to people whose lives are very different from my own:  when you sit down around a table and break bread together, you begin to rebuild community.  Parker Palmer, in Healing the Heart of Democracy, puts it like this:
Open and honest conversations in a setting of deep hospitality, held in an ongoing way, can plant seeds of healing and civic unity around… a variety of contentious and painful issues in our time.  And when a meal between conflicted parties begins with everyone bringing food to share, the silent subtext of the conversation is “We have the capacity to care for another and collaborate toward a common good. 
I am not a hunter – or a man of the military – but for 30 years I have served faith communities where women and men have used guns responsibly.  In Michigan, I learned about the hunt from those who had walked the woods in love and tenderness for generations. When they shot deer it was an act of worship.  In Cleveland, I had the privilege to learn about the importance of keeping the peace from WWII veterans. They were wounded healers who having been in harm’s way once were now more committed to keeping the peace than many of the so-called peace activists I encountered on the picket line.  In Tucson, this one-time pacifist, conscientious objector pastor was invited into the homes and hearts of active duty military personnel.

Time and again I was given the sacred honor of corresponding with men by email after they deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  They asked me into their homes on base.  When they were in country, their families were in my congregation – their children were part of my spiritual care – and their prayers became mine own. With an Air Force base just a mile from our church, I learned a lot by breaking bread with active duty and retired military men and women who knew a lot about what it means to keep the peace – sometimes using deadly force when every other option ran out.  They changed my life and my understanding of the world.

I will never forget one Veteran’s Day, when I asked those who had served their nation in the military to stand, and people from every conflict since 1943 to the present rose in quiet and humble reverence, until almost a third of the Sanctuary was at attention.  As my religious tradition puts it:  Greater love have no man but that he lay down his life for a friend – and these folk knew this in spades. And now after almost six years in Pittsfield, I have been given the occasion to work with and learn to love returning vets wrestling with PTSD.  From sitting around kitchen tables, breaking bread and drinking coffee – or beer – these heroes have shown me the healthy role gun ownership plays in our society

Further, I have spent decades exploring male rites of passage – how our hunters, warriors and soldiers can train boys to use their wild energies for the common good – knowing that without these rites of passage, young men who think they are immortal will often do violence to those they most ache to protect.  It is not a coincidence that some urban youth turn to violent gangs for boundaries and guidance.  Sadly, the exuberance and hubris of adolescent males needs to be trained; and without life-giving rituals and rites of passage, we create pathological ones.  Guns – and gun safety – have a role to play on this front, too.

So I hope it is clear that I have enormous respect for those warriors, soldiers, hunters and law enforcement people who have learned to use weapons well.  They have been some of my most faithful teachers in the ways of worldly wisdom.  And I grieve that some of their most profound truths have been exploited and used by the NRA for bigoted and fear-based political gain.  Sadly some of my own family falls into this group.  So it is my prayer that the collective common sense – and well-lived experience – of these wise souls become a part of the conversation as we search for meaningful solutions to our violence saturated culture.


So here’s where I come out in all of this – and I offer it up as one of many modest proposals to be evaluated by the whole American community – that will move us beyond crying in shame:

First, I have come to own the that fact left to myself, I miss and get wrong at least as much as I get right – and probably a lot more.  I need the wisdom, experience, prayer and honest critique of many other people to help me towards the truth.  In writing this essay, for example, it was essential for me to check in with a physician, a counselor, a clergy person and gun owner from time to time.  Their wise counsel and correction helped me claim my blind spots and question my snarky and/or cheap conclusions.  I would suggest that what is true for me is equally true for a public conversation about radical safety in America:  we need one another to move forward.  We have differing cultures to try and comprehend together.  We often have different stories, family histories and moral constructs, too.  As the poet Juan Ramon Jimenez observes in “Yo No Soy Yo” – I am not I… I am the shadow walking beside me whom I do not see.”  We need one another to help us claim our deeper truths.

Second, to that end, in addition to the various legislative initiatives being championed the time is also right for a series of quiet and safe informal conversations – call it potluck diplomacy – that bring together people in union halls, faith communities, public libraries and private homes for shared food and dialogue.  This is one way to live into the solutions we are seeking – reclaiming a discipline of prefigurative hope – for it gives shape and form to our prophetic poetry.  And as Parker Palmer has observed, not only do Americans like to eat, but we love to talk.
Open and honest conversations in a setting of deep hospitality, held as an ongoing program in a congregation, can plant seeds of healing and civic unity around… a variety of contentious and painful issues in our time.  And when a meal between conflicted parties begins with everyone bringing food to share, the silent subtext of the conversation is “We have the capacity to care for another and collaborate toward a common good.
Third, as should be apparent by now, new alliances of trust must be forged, new friendships created and new acts of political cooperation encouraged.  Here is where building bridges with our nation’s prophetic poets becomes crucial for those who have been charged with cultivating the imagination can be true lights in our darkness.  Sustainable agriculturalist and poet, Wendell Berry, spoke of the challenge of this moment in time with penetrating clarity when he said that we are being called beyond the fear of our stagnant status quo into a deep and radical freedom. This freedom is greater than political ideology, more profound than our polarization and more important than we can imagine because it embraces all that we fear with kindness and trust that God’s grace is greater than even our enemies.  Berry notes that our current:
[c]ondemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.
And fourth, while all of this work – the poetic, the prophetic and the political – is to secure meaningful legislative changes, we must be equally vigilant in discovering new alternatives to our culture of violence.  The Obama recommendations not only need revision, they need the wisdom of all of us.  The NRA perspective not only needs to be delegitimized, it must be corrected.  Laws alone will not help us move beyond our moral impasse nor will calcified commitments to outdated habits.  A humble and grassroots effort to reclaim a vision of the Beloved Community is needed for our generation.

For this moment in time has awakened us from the slumber of ignorance and neglect to the consequences of our culture of violence.  We have been summoned by our grief to make a contribution to deep and lasting safety.  Together we are discerning that while new laws and procedures can be helpful, much more is needed, too.

We need a vision that helps us practice listening to one another with respect, loving one another in our all our differences and moving together carefully and patiently towards common ground – and the common good.  Enter, once again, our prophetic artists, who have so much to teach our culture in an era of social amnesia and stagnant imaginations:  Think of Wayne Shorter, jazz sax player, who at 80 is still moving his music into ever more humble collaborative compositions with his band mates instead of the tradition’s adoration of individualized improvisations.  Think of Daniel Barenboim, classical music composer, who with Edward Said brought together Muslim and Jewish musicians to form the West-East Divan Orchestra – a living experiment in living and listening to one another in pursuit of beauty.  Think of the Canadian recording artist Sarah McLachlan, who brought together women performers in the Lilith Fair to showcase their neglected talent and creativity.

These artists – and countless others – are engaged in the new/old quest for the common good. They know that in this search whenever “one substitutes the language of human valuation for the good, one surely ends with a morality by consensus; if enough people value a practice or course of action, it is considered good – for the time being… and thus the effective criteria of acceptable behavior becomes… the constantly recurring public opinion polls by which majority values are legitimated.” (Hall, Waiting for Gospel)  Fickle morality that can be bought and sold is not the foundation for the beloved community.  Rather, as the visual artist Mako Fujimura wrote, what is needed is a generative response that helps us “reflect deeply to cherish what we love, and lament for what is lost. Art has a greater role to play today in our culture than ever before to help grieve and attempt to capture the "groans that words cannot express."

In another place and time, another poet from Massachusetts, James Russell Lowell, the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly, wrote words for a new hymn some know as “Once to Every Man and Nation.” They first appeared in the Boston Courier on December 11, 1845 but continue to resound with a truth the cries to be heard nearly 175 years later.
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Anything less would be a crying shame.

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