March 21, 2014

Gun Violence: What Would Jesus (Have Us) Do?

In Isaiah 2 the prophet describes taking weapons and fashioning them into farming tools–tools that will care for the land and bring food to the people. What an image! It’s redemptive. It’s creative.

It’s redemptive because it repurposes the brutal instrument rather than destroy or demonize it. A cycle is broken, even down to the devices used to perpetrate violence.

Not only is the redemptive potential of these tools found, their creative purpose is as well. Their redemption finds them tilling land, creating food–sustenance to those that use the tools and their families.

It takes a lot of imagination to come up with ways to shape destruction into creation, hate into love, enemies into friends. But this is what we find described in this biblical passage. It’s also what we see Jesus embody, announce and instigate in the Gospels. He loves the hated. He turns death into life. He wins by losing.

He ends up being everything his mother imagined in her prenatal song.

The debate around gun violence lacks imagination. It lacks gospel.

The fact that so many young people are shot and killed across the U.S. terrifies each of us. Yet, most have come to the conclusion that the final decision on how Americans will address gun violence will be resolved by legislation. Our position on this issue will come down to how, and for whom, we vote. Really? That’s it?

It’s not enough.

No matter our position on this issue, no matter what actions politicians may take, what does the Gospel require of those of us that profess to be followers of Jesus Christ?

I recently spent time with students from Howard University, assembling crosses that would be displayed in memoriam to those who have lost their lives to gun violence. As I listened to them reflect on their own experiences with gun violence I was touched by their insights.

Each of the students I met with were young women of color. Several of them have grown up in contexts that assume violence happens. My life experience has been quite different: violence is the random, unexpected occurrence. The truth is that while suburban mass shootings make the news, the largest number of perpetrators and victims of gun violence tend to be young people of color. But this reality is rarely brought to our attention until left-leaning folks need to produce numbers to argue for political change.

The largest numbers of those that fall victim to gun violence are, in fact, more than numbers.

As that afternoon with the students wore on I realized that we would not finish writing out all the names of the victims to be placed on the crosses in the timeframe we had committed to. I told the students that they were welcome to leave, I could finish them soon enough. The life experiences and conviction of these young women wouldn’t allow them to leave. They committed to write out each name of the homicide victims from Prince George’s, Montgomery, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. It was a spiritual practice for these students but it also did something else: it made each of these murder victims more than a number. They each had a name. They each died on a particular day. They each lived only a certain number of years. These students wouldn’t leave until each name was remembered, was made human. Not just a number.

One of the most profound aspects of Jesus ministry was that he offered human dignity to those that popular culture of his day did not. When we mark the statistics of gun violence but do not recognize the humanity of the victims of both the perpetrators and victims we miss part of what it is to live a life modeled after Jesus’. They are often the mentally ill, the jobless, the poor, the neglected, the orphaned, women and children.

This is more than a legislative issue. Gun violence is a symptom of sick communities, a sick culture. In the spirit of Isaiah 2, what is the redemptive potential, creative purpose within this situation? It requires a little more imagination than we may want to offer. But consider this, I once heard Dr. Arthur Kellermann asked, “As a parent, what can I do about gun violence?” His response, “Read to your kids.” How ordinary yet profound. How simplistic yet holistic. Maybe those things that will not only diminish the violence of the future but heal the wounds of the past are more available to us than we at first imagine.

Let’s read to kids. Plant gardens with friends. Put up street lights. Make public art. Walk through neighborhoods rather than drive through them. Throw parties. Make friends. Listen to people tell their stories and tell our own. Let’s cultivate environments and lives that do not require violence. We have an opportunity here. We have an opportunity to give a name, human dignity to the numbers, the nameless. It is an opportunity to extend the human touch, to be in new relationships. We have an opportunity to embody the gospel. And I believe the gospel defeats death.

NOTE: Check out this and this. Talk about taking Isaiah 2 literally?! Love it!

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