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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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

A Prayer for Our Republic

American democracy is an idea.

It is not established by immutable law. It is not a guaranteed by the relentless forces of nature. Should we fail at our democratic enterprise, there is no outside force that will compel us back on the road to a just and free society. There will be no humanitarian intervention from the U.N., no NATO armies attempting regime change here. If our democratic republic fails, it will be because we will have allowed it to, and we will have no recourse thereafter.  No, our democracy is not guaranteed, it is sustained only by our common commitment to that democratic idea.

The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, a lobbyist, and two Capitol police officers is a symptom of a deep problem in our political life, that goes right to the heart of whether our democracy can be sustained. For while it is not the first act of political violence that we have seen in our 241 years as a nation, it takes place against a broader backdrop of incivility, hyper-partisanship, and divisive political discourse that makes me wonder wither this is a harbinger of things to come.

If it is not to be a portent of the complete breakdown of our democracy, then that will only be because we will have recommitted ourselves to the fundamental values and virtues of our republic. The first and foremost among those values is that we are one people—all of us.

Our first national motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It serves as an all too important reminder that we have a common destiny, a common life together. It is a motto we need to reclaim. Continue reading

A Christian Country or a Country of Christians?

I teach a course in which the central thesis is that but for the Western religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), the Western world would not look the way that it does today. There is much in our culture—fundamental respect for human rights, affirmation of the dignity of human life, an emphasis on common humanity and equality before God and the law—that would not necessarily have existed had the dominant religious influences been Norse or Greek paganism. And so, there is some truth to the claim that our nation was founded based on religious principles, even if those principles were of the more implicit kind noted above than explicit ones.

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The U.S. and Christian flags fly not quite side-by-side.

But there is an oft-repeated refrain that America was founded as a “Christian country” and there is happiness in some quarters over the belief that it is “returning” to that intended state. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether the Founders intended to erect a Christian state (they didn’t) or whether a state that privileged one religion over another would violate our fundamental democratic precepts (it would). Let’s look simply at the question of what do we mean when we say “a Christian country” and whether such a thing is even possible. Continue reading

The War on Christmas (2015 Starbucks Edition)

So. Apparently, we’re still at war. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or against ISIL. We’re still at war over Christmas. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are reprising their now decade-long campaign, protesting what they suspect are signs of a great liberal plot to eradicate Christmas—and then Christianity—from the public square. They point to the fact that a number of major retailers continue to greet patrons with the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This year, the great enemy is Starbucks, who for reasons that can only be considered anti-Christian, apparently, have neglected to include any iconography on their holiday coffee cup.

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Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that red is a Christmas color. Let us leave aside the fact that “Happy Holidays” is a greeting that has been around for decades, and is usually assumed to be shorthand for “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Let us also leave aside for the time being the fact that prior to December 25th, no one should be wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas”—(it’s still Advent before that). Let us skip for now the fact that in the last decade some of the largest mega-churches did not have services on Christmas Day, even when Christmas day fell on a Sunday (Sunday happens to be the most important day of the Christian calendar) to little or no criticism from the loudest voices objecting to the “War.”

The greater issue is that if there is actually a War on Christmas, it was lost decades ago. Continue reading

The Children of God

“Are you not like the Children of Cush to me, Children of Israel?—an oracle of Yhwh—Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” — Amos 9:7

I can remember when I first broke down on September 11, 2001.  I had been, as many of us had been, shocked and dumbfounded by the unfolding events and the horrific images on my television screen. Too shocked to weep, too stunned to do anything.  But then I heard it reported that on Flight 77, which had crashed into the Pentagon, there had been five children: two children accompanying their parents to Australia, and three sixth-graders traveling to a National Geographic Society field trip in Santa Barbara, California.  That was it; I broke down and began to weep.

We adults can seemingly justify all kinds of tragedies that befall each other.  We always look for reasons why someone might have had it coming.  But not so with children; children are innocent. And more to the point, they represent promise and potential and hope. When a child dies, it hits us in a way that other deaths do not.

The thought of those five children, full of anticipation—for a new country, for an adventure with the National Geographic Society—suddenly and tragically murdered in an act of violence was the devastating element of a day that has been shrouded in pain and tragedy ever since. We hear of the suffering of the innocent and we weep.

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Photo credit: Ugur Demir

How can we not have the same reaction when we hear of Palestinian children killed while playing soccer on a beach? Or when we hear about the psychological trauma endured by children—Israeli and Palestinian alike—under the threat of imminent attack? Or lament the senseless abduction and murder of three Israeli settler teenagers? Or the equally senseless revenge killing of a Palestinian teen and the beating his Palestinian-American cousin?

At times like this—and these times are all-too frequent—there is always a tendency to find someone to blame: It’s Hamas placing arms in civilian areas, it’s the Occupation, it’s radical Islamic incitement, it’s rabid Jewish nationalism, it’s colonialism, it’s Iranian meddling, it’s American Imperialism, and the list goes on. Further, the attempt to place a “starting point” to the current conflict is always one-upped by the identification of a still-earlier wrong perpetrated by the other side.

But if you really want to know who’s to blame, I’ll tell you: I am. You are. We all are.

We are all complicit in systems of violence and power that grind up the innocent on a daily basis.  The conflict in Palestine and Israel gets the most media attention, but throughout the world there are millions of innocents who are suffering at this very moment. And we are complicit in all of it.

We give legitimacy to the notion that conflicts between competing claims of right can be resolved through force.  We have taken the noble self-sacrifice of soldiers who defend our shores and turned it into a near fetish, celebrating militarism and power, while simultaneously ignoring the very real needs of those same veterans who had put themselves in harm’s way.  Much has been made in the media (who are also part of the problem) about the way that Palestinian youth might be radicalized against Israel or the increasing militarization of Israeli society, but we can look around and see increasingly militarized police forces throughout our country.  We live in a culture that refers to hard-working professional athletes as “warriors” and the grassy lawns on which they play as “battlefields.” We talk about exercising obscure and arcane parliamentary tricks as the “nuclear option.”

And lest you think the Christians are off the hook, think again. Our churches are replete with militaristic imagery: from hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, to our frequent appeals to warfare imagery in fundraising “campaigns” or our talk of spiritual “warfare.”  We Christians like to think that we stand outside the cycles of violence and suffering, but we don’t: we are complicit in them.

Of the many beautiful truths found in the Hebrew Bible, one of the most profound is the sentiment expressed at the top of this post by the Israelite prophet Amos. The prophet speaks to the people to remind them that God is a God of all peoples.  This universalist idea is echoed in the later prophets, especially in Isaiah, and is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths.  It is instructive to note that the prophet begins by referring to the “Children of Cush” (Ethiopians) and the “Children of Israel” when he might have used the terms “Cush” and “Israel” the way he does later. Perhaps it’s merely another instance of parallelism in Hebrew poetry and is meant for a little variety. But perhaps it speaks to another truth: we are all Children. Children of Israel. Children of Ishmael. Children of Abraham. Children of Noah.

What would the world be like if we were to weep over every death the way we do over the deaths of children? What if we thought of our domestic policy, our foreign policy, our economic policy, our church practices, our social lives, as part of a grand “child safety program” only instead of encouraging kneepads and bike helmets, we’d be encouraging something more radical: caring for each other as fellow children?

What if we were to examine–really examine–the ways that we are not the helpless bystanders in the world’s violent conflicts but are complicit in the very systems that bring about violence in the first place?   What if we stopped pointing fingers and started looking in the mirror?

Well, we might not find that we like what we see. That’s okay. As Peter Rollins points out, “confronting our own monstrosity” is not easy, but it is necessary to real human interaction and compassion. It’s how we move away from a paradigm defined by who’s right and move to one of building relationships. And might be the first step in making real, substantive, structural changes to a world overrun by violence.

And in so doing, we might find renewed meaning in the teaching of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”

A Light in the Darkness

 

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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” —John 1:5

There are some Christmas traditions that are old and some that are new.  Of the newer ones, the tradition of pointing out that Jesus was not likely born in December is one that is heard more and more frequently. It will often be noted that Christians just stole the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and Christianized it for their own evangelistic purposes.  Critics of Christianity will often use this fact to suggest that the faith as a whole is a fabrication, a deliberation creation for some nefarious purpose.

There is a fair amount of scholarship to suggest that the Church did not simply steal the Saturnalia, but figured the date of Jesus’ birth built on the assumption that the date of Jesus’ conception was the same as the date of his crucifixion: March 25 (nine months before December 25).  In spite of that, it is a fair comment to note that we have no real way of knowing the actual date of Jesus’ birth.  But that doesn’t mean that the December 25 date is not true, even if it didn’t actually happen that way.

The Truth Behind December 25th

In the northern hemisphere, where the ancient church found itself, the third week in December also coincided with the winter solstice, and the accompanying Saturnalia celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebration of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. It is the time of the year when the days are shortest, the night is longest, and the darkness dominates.  In the midst of this time comes the Light of the World.  There is no nativity story in John’s gospel, but he starts off his gospel with a reflection entirely appropriate to Christmas: “…through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:4-5 CEB).

We know that Christmas is not about the buying of things or the giving and receiving of presents, but neither is it simply about the birth of a child.  Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Word in the flesh.  It is about the very self-communication of God taking on our life, our joys and our sorrows, our triumphs and our sufferings,  even our death.  It is about the radical declaration of God’s solidarity with us and with the creation. A declaration of solidarity so powerful that it is a light shining in the darkness.

For what the solidarity of God means is that there is no darkness into which we can go that God’s light does not come with us.  There is no sorrow, no suffering, no injustice, no pain in which we are alone, in which we are removed from God. It is a light that shines in the darkness.

dsc_0487-199x300And lights shining in the darkness are powerful signs of hope.  I once had a conversation with a rabbi who told me that he loved Christmas.  He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where the winters can be long and dreary.  But at Christmastime, the city came alive with lights: colorful, festive, lights illumining the dark days and long nights of winter. Bringing hope and joy into a dreary season. The Christmas festival itself, then, becomes a metaphor for Christ himself: the light shining in the darkness that brings hope.

And so, whatever might have been Jesus’ actual date of birth, whatever the associations might have been with early Christian theological calculations or with pagan celebrations, there is a truth to December 25th as the date we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world: that even in the darkest days, when the nights are longest and the sun’s light seems fleeting, we are not without the light.  That here in the darkest time of the year, the coming of Christ lets us proclaim with the prophet Isaiah: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come.”

Merry Christmas.