Made With Our Own Hands

Remarks delivered at “Critical Conversations: Gun Sense,” convened at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, October 17, 2017.

Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe has spoken already to the policy and advocacy side of the question here today. I have been invited to address a theological perspective. As any good Methodist, I am naturally drawn to using the Quadrilateral and so, began my own reflection with the scriptures.

Scripture does not make explicit mention of firearms, of course, but it certainly has a lot to say about violence. And the scriptures are replete with references to swords—there are 407 verses that reference swords in some way, with the highest number in Ezekiel, followed by Jeremiah and 1 Samuel—books relating the story of Israel and Judah at war.

If one is to look for a consistent ethic, it is not always easy to find. There are certainly versus where God commands violence. There are verses in which violent retribution for some offenses is affirmed or tolerated. And of course, there are verses that counsel another way forward:

Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 10:34; 26:51–52 NRSV)

Let Us Beat Our Swords into PloughsharesWhile it may fairly be asked, Why does any of the disciples of Jesus even have a sword?, it is clear that the sentiment expressed in the statement “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is in accord with Jesus’ admonishment that all his disciples be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). It is a sentiment in line with the beatific vision found in Isaiah and Micah of the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares. It is emblematic of the perfection in love that Jesus calls us toward.

In an attempt to see if there were any other verses commonly cited in the church’s reflection on gun violence, I searched online and thereby came across a number of curious phenomena.

1b1d592a96fb8146b5de9b8bae21bcda--word-of-god-god-isFirst, was an image of a Bible cut into the shape of a gun with the caption, “The most powerful weapon in the world is the Word of God.”

Second, was an image of a number of weapons which had been inscribed with a verse from the 144th Psalm: “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”

Third, were images of gunsights that had been sold to the military for use in Iraq and Afghanistan that had had scriptural references engraved on them for verses like 2 Corinthians 4:6 (“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”) and John 8:12 (“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”)

There was something about the juxtaposition of these weapons of violence with scriptural references to Jesus that was troubling.

And no, it’s not that it’s incongruous for a Christian to be a gun owner, or in the military, or in the police. St. Augustine addressed that question 1600 years ago. It was about the role that the firearm was playing in many of these images.

There was a conflation of Christian faith with the firearm that was problematic. As if the firearm was not simply a tool used by a Christian, but was somehow the expression of Christian faith.

There is something particular about the gun: it is powerful, it is immediate. In the martial arts, by the time you get to the point where you could kill a person with your bare hands, you don’t. You’ve undergone so much discipline and training that the awesome power you now wield is grounded in that very discipline and training. But a gun requires no such discipline—it is immediate, it is powerful, it is deadly.

And that deadliness is what concerns so many. Could the mere presence of the gun be the cause of so much violence?

Whence the Violence?

In his 2003 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore set out to explore why it was that gun violence was so high in the United States. He looked seriously at the question of whether it was the presence of firearms alone.

In statistics that today are similar to the results Moore found in 2003, there are 112 guns per every 100 residents in the US. In Canada, there are only 30.8 guns per every 100 residents. A nearly 4-1 difference. But the U.S. sees 3.5 firearm related homicides per 100,000 people versus Canada’s 0.5 firearm-related homicides per 100,000. That’s a 7-1 difference. That cannot be accounted for by the number of guns alone. Something else must be at work.

Is it that we’re more violent than other peoples? That is certainly a fair question to ask in a nation founded on settler-colonialism, genocide of indigenous peoples, and captive slavery of Africans. But it would be hard to say that we were more violent than, say, the Germans or the English or the French, all of whom have firearm related deaths 14 to 35 times lower than we do.

In talking to some Canadians, Moore encountered a common refrain they had about the US after having watched a fair amount of American television: “It seems you all are really scared down there. What are you so scared of?”

That’s a really good question. There is no doubt that we Americans are a scared lot. Fear is used to sell foreign policy: fear of terrorism. Fear is used to sell domestic policy: fear of immigrants, fear of racial minorities, fear of economic instability, fear of change. Fear is used to get you to tune in to the evening newscast: “An everyday product probably in your house right now can kill you! Find out which one at 11!” Fear is used to sell products: we are told to fear receding hairlines and off-white teeth. Fear pervades our national life.

When I reflected on this, I realized why the juxtaposition of Bible verses and guns was so troubling: because it’s the modern-day version of a very old and troubling practice.

Power and Salvation

The ancient prophets of Israel were never really concerned that the people would abandon their worship of God in favor of worshiping pagan idols; they were concerned that the Israelites would supplement their worship of God with pagan idols. They’d hedge their bets with a little sacrifice to Asherah in addition to prayers to Yahweh. Out of fear, they’d seek to blend the two together.

And that’s what we’ve done.

We’ve created a culture of fear in which we are all terrified of one another. We are all scared and feeling out of control. A firearm is an incredibly powerful tool that gives us the illusion of control and so we turn to it—not out of necessity for hunting or self-protection—but because we want that security and control. The lure of that immediate, powerful, and deadly tool is strong when we are feeling afraid. When we are feeling alienated, disrespected, or powerless the siren song of immediate power is often too great a temptation.

But in doing so we run the risk of diminishing our faith in God. And I am reminded of this passage from Isaiah:

A carpenter stretches out a string, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with carving tools, and marks it with a compass. He makes it into a human form, like a splendid human, to live in a temple. He cuts down cedars for himself, or chooses a cypress or oak, selecting from all the trees of the forest. … Half of it he burns in the fire; on that half he roasts and eats meat, and he is satisfied. He warms himself and says, “Ah, I’m warm, watching the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, into his idol, and he bows down, worships, and prays to it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:13–17 CEB)

It is not the tool itself alone that is the problem. It is the fear we have created. It is the way we look to the highly seductive tool that we have made with our own hands as our salvation rather than God. It is the idolatrous theology that we construct around our idols, to keep our illusions secure. It is when we trust more in that tool than in the God we have come to know in Christ Jesus, whose perfect love casts out all our fear.

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Fearlessness

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 4, 2017
Exodus 1:15-17; Acts 5:27-35, 38-42; Romans 8:31-38; Qur’an 3:172-180

I. BEGINNING

Fear is hard-wired into us. It is a function of biology that we should be afraid. Very often, the things we are afraid of are the kinds of things that can kill us.

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Image courtesy wordle.net

We dread the dark for fear of what predators might emerge from it. We jump at sudden noises for fear of the danger that seeks to surprise us. We feel our hearts race as we move toward the edge of a precipice, sensing our lives are in danger. We grow anxious when we lack certainty about our surroundings, because unfamiliarity and uncertainty often bring danger and death. Continue reading

Lessons of the Past

Kay Spiritual Life Center
September 5, 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Hebrews 11:32-12:3, Qur’an 27:67-73, 22:39-48

I. BEGINNING

A classmate of mine in seminary once told me that there’s a peculiar way that Southerners give directions. He was from eastern Tennessee and had observed this peculiarity having grown up in that region. He said that Southerners tended to give directions like: “Go down to where the Johnson farm used to be and turn left. Then when you get to the store that Mavis Williams used to own, take a right…”

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Image courtesy wordle.net

These are not directions that someone new to the area could possibly understand. They relied not just on good spatial reasoning and a good sense of direction, they relied on a personal experience of the history of the place you were in, which, if you think about it, would obviate the need for directions in the first place.

But I suppose I should not be quick to judge our Southern brothers and sisters, at least not as long as I keep referring to the East Quad Building as “the Old SIS Building” or struggle to avoid calling the American Café in Ward “Wagshal’s,” which it was called about a decade ago. And while we’re on the subject, it’s no longer the Ward building anymore, is it? It’s Kerwin Hall.

I suppose we all have an attachment to the way things used to be. We all have some relationship with the past. But do we have an honest relationship with the past? Continue reading

Complicit

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Center Brunswick United Methodist Church, August 20, 2017
Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, August 27, 2017
Genesis 1:26-27; 1 Samuel 16:6–7; Galatians 3:26–29

Genesis 1:26–27 • Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.

1 Samuel 16:6–7 • When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the LORD’s anointed right in front. But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.”

Galatians 3:26–29 •  You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

I. BEGINNING

I might be a racist.

I don’t want to be, but I don’t know whether I do enough to be sure I am an anti-racist.

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Word cloud courtesy wordle.net

I realize that sounds shocking, so let me break that down a little bit, because we in this country are terrible when it comes to talking about race, and we need to clarify a few things first.

White folks like me often get upset when we are accused of racism because we imagine ourselves to be good people who don’t wish anyone ill. And for the most part that’s true. But racism has nothing to do with our feelings. Continue reading

In Memoriam: Abbott L. Wiley

grandpa-army-lieutenantMy grandfather, Abbott Wiley, died today, one hundred years and eight months to the day after he was born.

My grandfather was born December 18, 1916 in a little town in Upstate New York, not far from the place he he would spend the majority of his long life. He was a World War II veteran and winner of the Bronze Star. He married my grandmother after having met her only 30 days before while he was home on leave. He was a local small business man, co-founding with his brother a successful hardware and lumber store that thrives to this day. He was a county legislator and active in local Republican politics, and a trustee for the Hudson Valley Community College. Continue reading

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Dumbarton United Methodist Church
July 30, 2017
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; John 19:13-25

Deuteronomy 6:4–9 • Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.

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Image courtesy wordle.net

John 9:13–25 • Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”
Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”
He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”
Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”
The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”

I.      BEGINNING

I started out as a child. Perhaps you did as well.

It’s interesting to reflect on the memories you carry from childhood. Some are vivid and are as if they happened yesterday. Others exist in kind of a nostalgic haze colored by emotional associations of the joys of what, for me, was a happy and largely carefree childhood.

Among the vivid memories I have from childhood, there are a couple from my experience of church.  In those days, of course, Sunday school took place before Sunday services not during, so we had no choice as kids but to squirm and fidget our way through services, the way our parents and their parents had before them.

Nevertheless, in the midst of that fidgeting, a few memories from church really stand out. Not always positive memories, unfortunately.  This is particularly true of my then pastor’s sermons. I can only remember a handful of things he said, and all but one of those things was unhelpful.

In fact, on one occasion I remember him saying clearly: “Homosexuals will not get into heaven.” I have no idea what the sermon was about or what prompted him to make this observation in the course of it, but I remember that statement thundering down from the pulpit in our modest little Upstate New York congregation.

But equally vivid in my recollection is my memory of my reaction: “Well, that can’t be right,” I remember thinking. Continue reading

Out of Many, One

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
July 5, 2017
Galatians 3:26-29 • Qur’an 23:51-72

I.      BEGINNING

What is the relationship between the many and the one?

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Image courtesy wordle.net

This is the question that preoccupied the thoughts of the ancient philosophers. They would look a forest of trees and note that all the trees were different, but yet also the same. Likewise, human beings all displayed individual differences but were obviously the same kind of thing. What was the relationship, they wondered, between the individual distinctiveness that they could observe, but the obvious sameness between all those different entities.

And so they began to posit that perhaps everything visible was merely a derivative “shadow” of some ideal. The trees you’re seeing are mere shadows of the ideal tree in the realm of forms. Or perhaps what we were seeing in the individuals were mere accidents, outward measurable variations and that which unified us was our substance.

That’s all well and good for the philosophers, I suppose, but how do we understand the relationship between the many and the one? Other than confusing undergrads in our philosophy and religion courses, what good does this do us in real life? How do we understand the relationship of the many and the one in our daily life? Continue reading