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Our Violent U.S.: A Christian Perspective

Epiphany 4A. 1-30-11 St. Augustine’s Church

Reverend Jennifer Phillips Micah 6:1-8;1 Cor.1:18-31;Mtt.5:1-12


I find I am not preaching the sermon I had planned at the start of the week for today. In fact, you are about to hear the sort of message I do not often claim a bully pulpit to deliver, and so I invite your response over coffee in a bit, or by email or phone or in person later on, if you feel moved. I don’t like to proclaim from the pulpit the first Sunday after some piece of major breaking news shocks us. I suspect we all hear and see the news and are not unaware. It takes a little time to pray things through, to read and think and reflect and respond. Reflexive instant response breeds more violence in the heat of those many moments. But in the aftermath of a shooting rampage in Arizona, a school gun accident in Los Angeles, and this time in between commemorations of Dr. King and President Lincoln I am left ruminating about guns and God.

What kind of sacrifice honors God? - the prophet Micah is absolutely clear: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. And what Matthew’s Jesus does not say on the mount: blessed are the strong. Blessed are the powerful. Blessed are they who can take care of themselves. Blessed are they who live by force!

 In the week ahead URI is celebrating (a bit after the date) the life of a passionate advocate for justice and nonviolence, shot on a motel balcony by a fellow citizen with what was reported to be a rifle. We are still collectively recovering from that shooting in Tucson which left several dead and others including a congresswoman injured, and from two children wounded in an inadvertent shooting by a loaded gun in a backpack in Los Angeles this month. But then…

We in the United States are collectively willing to sacrifice hundreds of children each year - and a lot of adults as well- to our constitutional right to own and carry guns with little or no limitations.

*The CDC reports the United States has the highest rates of childhood homicide, suicide, and firearm-related death among all industrialized countries. Firearms deaths are the second leading cause of death in our children and youth. (Bear in mind survey statistics always lag behind the present year.)

*During 1950-1993, the overall annual death rate for U.S. children aged less than 15 years declined substantially (1), primarily reflecting decreases in deaths associated with unintentional injuries, pneumonia, influenza, cancer, and congenital anomalies. However, during the same period, childhood homicide rates tripled, and suicide rates quadrupled (2). In 1994, among children aged 1-4 years, homicide was the fourth leading cause of death; among children aged 5-14 years, homicide was the third leading cause of death, and suicide was the sixth (3)

*The suicide rate for children in the United States was two times higher than that in the other 25 countries surveyed combined (0.55 compared with 0.27)

Worldwide, a firearm was reported to have been involved in the deaths of 1107 children; 957 (86%) of those occurred in the United States. (Div of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC.)

* The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000. for 2006, there were 30,896 deaths from firearms in our country.

* About 1/3 of U.S. homes have one or more guns stored there.

*If you do own a gun and think your child won't get to it, listen to this: A recent study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found 39 percent of kids knew where their parent's guns were stored, while 22 percent said they had handled the weapons unsupervised despite adult's warnings to stay away. What's more, age was not a factor in whether children had played with the guns -- 5-year-olds were just as likely to report doing this as 14-year-olds.

 We, collectively as Americans approve of this, our courts uphold it, our politicians by and large support it or leave it alone. It is not a new decision for us as a nation. We are willing to pay this price.

 So when a young man with a gun goes on a shooting spree to assassinate a congresswoman and take down in seconds several citizens exercising their right and responsibility to meet with their legislator in a public place, I have a hard time simply blaming a mental illness (though this was a factor), or an individual bad character (maybe also a factor), or even another irresponsible politician who places target-crosshairs over pictures of her political rivals on a website, and speaks of locking and loading to prepare to retaliate for their successful elections to public office. A society that neglects its mentally ill citizens, that equates manhood with firearm violence, that fills its eyes with images of gun crime and gun revenge, and that rejects even moderate regulations and limitations on gun ownership, and the shame and rage of a young man - all these have collided in Tuscon - as they might anywhere.

I would not want to spend time arguing with NRA pronouncements that gun deaths have actually decreased per gun-toting capita in recent years. I simply ask the question of you all for your prayer and consideration - are you willing for a few hundred children to die by gun in this new year, and next year, and the year after. Or for that matter, to lose over ten thousand adults to suicide, homicide, and accident by firearm?

 I would ask you whether we collectively are satisfied with the constant diet of bloody death and gun-wielding fed to us on all our media every day? On TV, movies, video games, in magazines and papers, in our music, our comedy, in war, in sports, everywhere, everyday. And do we believe that this massive exposure when it intersects, in particular, young men is irrelevant? Will we accept that (as Jackson Katz wrote in the Huffington Post recently:)

How we socialize boys, and yes, how young men learn -[is] how we as a culture teach them - that blowing people away with guns represents the ultimate assertion of manly resolve, competence, and reclaimed honor.”

“According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and as reported in Bob Herbert's New York Times column on January 11, more than one million people in the U.S. have been killed with guns since 1968, when Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Robert Kennedy were killed. According to various researchers and law enforcement agencies, 85-90 per cent of those killed by guns are killed by men and boys. This is not a peripheral part of the story; it is the heart of the matter. What is going on with men in our society?” (The Huffington Post, January 19, 2011.)

When a gun in the hand, often an automatic weapon, mixes with shame, fear, and rage, it spits out death and destruction…and 90% of the time, the shooter is a male under the age of 50.

 Let me say straight out that it is not pleasing to the God who instructed that human beings “choose life” that we conduct our society this way, nor that we are willing to accept this human price as worth it for “my right to own and carry a gun under the 2nd amendment of the Constitution.” Now, I say this as someone who is not opposed to hunting - and who notes that hunting accidents make up a miniscule portion of gun deaths. I don’t demand for us to ban all firearms. I think there are differences between northern Wyoming and downtown Providence calling for different restrictions. I don’t claim to be violence-free. I am carnivore. But…

 I am pretty clear from reading the Gospels all my life that Jesus of Nazareth was opposed to violence and killing, even in self-defense. He pushed aside the sword a follower tried to use to defend him at his arrest and scolded the man - he said that living by the sword would mean dying by it. If Jesus were walking the earth today, he would not be carrying a gun, nor approving of his disciples to do so. The church since the 3rd century not been able to completely accept his path of pacifism that was so obvious to Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries, and has reached some compromises to accommodate our need to wage wars and enforce laws. But if you ask today What Would Jesus Do? the answer is perfectly clear. It was clear to Blessed Jonathan Daniels who stepped in front of a shame-and -rage-filled man with a shotgun to save at the cost of his own life the young black woman Ruby Sales targeted because she had served the civil rights demonstrators in her shop in Hayneville, Alabama in 1965. It was clear to Dr. King facing down angry armed opponents weaponless. It should be clear to us.

A good number of other nations have looked at the equation of guns and lives, and have decided that they are not willing to pay the price for unimpeded gun ownership with their children’s lives. We are unusual in our choice. Some who most want to claim the U.S.A. as a Christian nation are also the first to oppose even modest regulation of the most dangerous automatic weapons. It is simply not part of being a follower of Jesus to shoot someone (including yourself) with a handgun.

Though I feel so sad for the parents of a dead nine year old, for a gravely wounded Congresswoman and her family, and the relatives of others killed, and those injured, in Tuscon, and for a schizophrenic man for whom our society exercised so little care, and for his family, and for a Los Angeles schoolboy toting a loaded handgun in a backpack who shot two classmates when he dropped it on his desk in class while never intending to, I feel more grief for the choices we make together that produce such events - that though shocking - are unremarkable. And I name it as a symptom of spiritual unwellness, that I would call sin, in our society that we lack a majority will to do anything to change our way of life so that more citizens can live to enjoy it. Changing the collective will requires individual commitment. So I do not ask What would Jesus do? I ask What would you do as one marked and sealed as Christ’s own for ever?