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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A Christian Letter to the Mosques

Perhaps you have seen the news reports of the vile letter that was sent to a number of mosques throughout the country, threatening genocide against Muslims in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The accompanying photograph of the handwritten note shows the letter signed “Americans for a Better Way.”

Well, the earliest Christians were called followers of “The Way” and this letter represents no part of that faith that I know. And so, I took it upon myself to write my own, handwritten letter—a Christian version of that same screed, improved to reflect the values and faith that are at the heart of The Way.

To the Children of Abraham and Ishmael,

You in the Muslim community are a generous and faithful people. Your mothers are compassionate and your fathers are giving. You are good. You worship God. And the day of your redemption is at hand.

img_5138There is no new ruler of the earth except the King on the Throne whose name is God. He will cleanse the world of sin, of racism, of bigotry, and hate, and will make it good again. He is going to start with us Christians. He is going to do with us as the Prophets did with the Jews—re-instilling in our hearts the Divine Law of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and love of neighbor. You in the Muslim community are our neighbors and will be blessed to remain so.

This is a great time for Faithful Christians to recommit themselves to the gospel of love that Jesus called us to live. We send you our prayers for long life and blessings upon you all.

American Followers of The Way

A Sacred Task

I am not about to argue that voting in itself is sacred.  Nor will I pretend that democracy is a political system ordained by God.  Those sentiments stray too closely into the Civil Religion of our country that is too often confused with Christian faith.  But I will say this: voting is a spiritual task and a sacred obligation for us as Christians.

ballotWhen Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment in the law, he names two: “Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” and “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31 CEB)  Jesus quotes the great confession of Hebrew faith, the shema, as the first great commandment, but then reminds us that our covenant with God is accompanied by a covenant we have with one another, and a duty to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Voting is power.  It is the one great leveler in our political culture.  Regardless of wealth, education, status, race, or creed we all stand as equals in the voting booth. (Yes, I am aware that for those of us who live in the District of Columbia this isn’t exactly true.)  But the exercise of the right to vote is an exercise in political power.  And as Christians, we are called to use our power for the sake of our brothers and sisters, for the sake of our neighbors.

If we truly love our neighbors, then we care about their well-being.  We care about their health, their safety, their job security, their educational opportunities.  We care about all the things that lead to wholeness of life.  Voting, then, is not an exercise in insuring that we get what is beneficial to us alone, it is a sacred trust to exercise that power on behalf of others.

John Wesley wrote that to make Christianity into a “solitary religion is indeed to destroy it”.  Christian faith is inherently about community.  From the Immanent and Economic Communities of the Trinity to the community that is the church itself, we are believers in a God who expects us to be in relationship not only with God but with one another.

Voting is not in and of itself sacred.  We are not Roman Catonians who believe in the Divinity of the Republic itself.  We are Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ, who calls us into fellowship with him and one another.  Who calls us to be “last and servant of all”.  Who calls us to exercise power on behalf of “the least of these, my brothers and sisters”.  We are given an opportunity on Election Day to exercise power.  To do so on behalf of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, is indeed a sacred task.

Christian Ethics and Voting Rights

I. Introduction

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The logo of the Foundry Democracy Project of Foundry United Methodist Church

The people who inhabit the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., are the only American citizens who are subject to the draft, who pay their full measure of federal taxes, and who are subject to federal legislation, who have no voting representation in the Congress of the United States of America. While the city received a home rule government in 1974, the Congress has ultimate say over D.C. legislation and has in the past legislated specifically for the people of Washington, often on matters contrary to their will. Various movements have attempted to secure voting representation for District residents through a variety of means. In recent years, the  intensity and activity of the voting rights movement has reached a level unprecedented in the history of Washington.

 

This paper is addressed to Christians who seek to discern what the church’s role should be in this cause. It is written for Christians
who believe that they should be active in the political order and that the
Church does have something to say about the forms of government under which
we live.[1] Continue reading