It’s enough to make your skin go all goose bumpy, and the hair stand up on the back of your neck—the fact that the same night we were in this place singing songs and praying prayers for an end to gun violence-- in another part of the country, a deranged killer was gathering together his weapons and loading his guns and in other ways making ready to shoot up a concert in Las Vegas. An outsider not familiar with our planning for the October 1 concert might have wondered, “Did the musicians and pastors and everyone else involved in the concert, have some foreknowledge about the shooting? Were those involved prophets in the tradition of Isaiah or Jeremiah? Yes, some people might think that it is just too much of a coincidence.
But of course, we weren’t prophets, Yet it was more than mere coincidence that the two events happened back to back. Sadly, it has been my experience that every time that the group with which I am affiliated, the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention, has staged a vigil, held a symposium, or made a visit to congress, the country has either just suffered a mass shooting, or is about to. The fact is, mass shootings are just so very common. No sooner have news reporters put down their microphones having finished reporting on one mass shooting, then they are picking them up again, to report on another one. So far this year, there have been 273 mass gun shootings in the US—that’s almost one a day—although the vast majority do not make it past the local evening news. And just so you know a mass shooting is one in which at least 4 people are shot. That number, 273? Again, you getting goosebumps.
Today I want to do something I almost never do—I want to preach about the gun violence epidemic in our country. I almost never do that because it is too close to my heart—my mother was held at gun point during a robbery attempt, and as you know my youngest daughter Paige, was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting there. She and I attended the vigil on Virginia Tech’s drill field the night following. The grim faces of the parents, the parents who had lost their children, will remain with me as long as I move and breathe and have my being.
I also almost never preach on gun violence, because I have been working on the issue five years now, since Sandy Hook, and I know too much to squeeze into a 10 minute sermon. But the times require a sermon on gun violence, I think—so I will try my best to keep the tears at bay, my own frustration level down, and focus today on some basic theological points. Yes, we can apply good Christian theology to this topic of guns-odd as that may sound.
I am calling this sermon Gundamentalism—Gundamentalism. The word was coined by “sensible gun laws advocate,” Rev. Rachel Smith. I consider myself a sensible gun laws advocate, too. That is, I am working with others NOT to take guns away from responsible gun owners, but to make the country safer for all of us, gun owners and non-gun owners alike by calling on congress to enact sensible gun laws—like universal background checks. Rght now, 40% of gun purchasers in this country don’t have a background check—they buy their weapons on line or at a gun show. So again, the word is Gundamentalism. You recognize that it’s a play on the word Fundamentalism, right? Fundamentalism is, and I’m getting this from the dictionary—Fundamentalism is the strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. Usually it is used in a religious sense—a religious fundamentalist is someone who embraces certain religious principles—with unwavering certainty. So, a Christian fundamentalist strictly adheres to the principles espoused in the Bible, but in a literal way. “By golly, if Genesis says that the universe was created in 6 days and on the 7th day God rested, then that is the way creation came about. Evolution is a silly idea concocted by amoral, or immoral, non-Christian men and women.”
Most people, except the fundamentalists themselves, of course, would say that religious fundamentalists are extremists. There’s no thinking through for themselves. No compromises. No listening to reason. No middle ground. It either is or it isn’t.
Many gundamentalist beliefs sound like religious fundamental dogma. You see these dogmatic gundamental one-liners on bumper stickers. Guns Save Lives. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. It’s my God given right to carry a gun. It’s good, I think, for those of us who are NOT gundamentalists to think through how to respond to these positions. So let’s now really gundamentalist doctrine.
“Guns Save Lives.” That’s a good one. First off, just as guns don’t kill people, people do, a line that we hear all the time, so guns don’t save lives. Sometimes the people who USE guns save lives; But it’s a relatively rare happening. That’s because guns, not all guns, but most guns are weapons designed to kill. People who get their hands on guns—and that includes curious children, angry spouses, confused teenagers, middle aged men facing financial crisis, robbers, and gang members—people like that, pull a trigger and kill themselves, or a loved one, or an unsuspecting stranger or a rival gang member 33,000 times in this country every year—Every year! Once in a great while, you read about someone who is able to fend off an attacker with a gun, but the reason that makes headlines is because it hardly ever happens. Even police officers and soldiers who are trained to shoot, are successful in hitting their human target only 30% of the time. It is most often the case that guns do NOT save lives. Penicillin saves lives; defibrillators save lives. Guns take lives. Neither is it the case that guns save souls. As far as I am aware only God can do that.
Ok. How about this one. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Yes? We’ve heard that? That may seem true if you see the world in black and white—as fundamentalist gundamentalists do.
The truth is, though, all people are both bad and good. The Apostle Paul said, “I do the very thing that I hate.” A basically good person can have a bad day, go out and get drunk after work, and with impaired judgment, use his gun to kill someone he is angry with. A basically good person can leave her loaded gun in her pocketbook within reach of her curious toddler; a basically good person can get depressed and decide his only way out of some problem he is dealing with, is to shoot himself. Good people sometimes do bad things, irresponsible things, stupid things. If a gun owner owns that, he or she will be especially vigilant. But a lot of gun owners fool themselves. They believe they have absolute control over their gun, their emotions, their actions. They aren’t God but having a gun, they do have god-like power. That’s the problem.
I have a friend who is a hunter. He tells me that the best way to ward off an angry bear, is with pepper spray. You don’t have to have great aim with pepper spray. And unlike with a bullet, pepper spray will immediately and completely disable a charging bear—98% effective, according to researchers. Pepper spray can disable a human assailant, too. The effects last 30-45 minutes, which gives you, if you are the victim, plenty of time to get away and call 911. Pepper spray’s stream travels up to 30 feet—so a goodly distance. And it’s on the cheap side—around $20.00 from Amazon.com. I checked. So a more sensible way to stop a bad guy with a gun, may be a good guy with pepper spray.
How about this gundamentalist tenet which a clergy friend read on a –T-Shirt: “It’s my God-given right to carry a gun.” Is that right? If Jesus were here on earth with us right now, would he be armed? There is a website that actually has downloadable pictures of Jesus holding, cradling, shooting --guns! I went to that site this week. In one picture, Jesus is sitting at the table with his friends at Emmaus, Jesus, the prince of peace, is holding a gun to the head of one of his table companions; I think that qualifies as religious pornography.
Where does the notion that gun violence is sanctioned by God, come from?! Give me a book of the Bible with chapter and verse, please. For sure, some old testament scripture supports our attempts at self protection and the protection of our loved ones, but the new testament offers a different message. Jesus said, remember, “LOVE your enemy; and “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”
I’ve got one more guntamental tenet for you. I’ve never seen it on a bumper sticker, but it’s real enough. It is: “Put your faith, your trust, in guns.”
OUR Christian counter-mandate to “put our trust in guns,” is this—Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God and neighbor, putting our trust in God and neighbor, we work together, side by side, arm and arm, sometimes marching footstep to footstep, to build healthy, loving and safe communities.
I’ve never been to Las Vegas. I have been to Disney World. I think of Las Vegas as like that, but for adults. It’s like a cardboard replica of the real world. However, after the shooting in Las Vegas, what people were commenting on in interviews, what reporters talked and wrote about was community spirit. Community spirit in Las Vegas? Community members gave blood. Hospital personnel at area hospitals worked round the clock to staunch bleeding, and set broken bones. Community pastors led people in prayers and sat with those who were grieving. Way to go, Las Vegas!
I began this sermon by reflecting that a short week ago, we prayed and listened to musicians share their gift of music as we raised awareness of gun violence. And, in another part of the country, gun violence was about to happen. We are not prophets. It’s just what happened. Mass shootings have become common. I DO have a prophesy though. Yes, just call me Madam Jeremiah!
I prophesy that If we continue to put our trust in guns, instead of God and each other; if individuals who own guns fail to take their responsibility as gun owners seriously—then we will continue to witness gun violence as the world has never known. We have a choice here. Let us use this atrocity as an opportunity—an opportunity to begin turning things around. Amen