Friday, January 18, 2013

But Can’t We Just Avoid the Conversation About Gun Violence?

We’re told not to expect much change anyway. And why do we need another divisive issue in the church. Nothing will change! Unless. . . .

Don’t expect. . . .

But we must dare to expect this time. We the people need to be active because we really do have the opportunity to change our culture of gun violence.  We continue to hear that now is the time for a “Conversation” about gun violence.  This blog is called “Conversations on the Church’s Vocation in the Public World.” “Conversation” is actually a pretty safe word.  Can’t we at least have that?  But, “It won’t make any difference,” we hear and believe.   President Obama in his press conference January 16, invited all kinds of community people, including pastors, to take a lead. Now is the time.

King marched and we the people marched during the Civil Rights Movement, a few of us at first.  Most thought it would be impossible to change a culture of segregation which was a “way of life.”  But the movement grew.  Issues remain: racism, classism, voter suppression laws.  But we as a nation changed.

The “Abolitionists” is on PBS these weeks.  In the 1820’s slaves had become the largest economic asset in the country. Blacks, in great danger, raised their voices but white America, with an institution so deeply embedded culturally, politically and economically, could not imagine turning monetary assets into compatriots.  Slavery was a religious issue. People spoke and wrote and led and fought and so we have the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Many did not expect Barack Obama to be giving a Second Inaugural speech this January 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Many did not expect him to be elected four years ago. How could one have expect an African American to be president?  But he is, despite efforts to nullify him and and his executive orders. Still people say, “Don’t expect too much from what he said in his press conference.” “He won’t get things through Congress.”

Unless. . . .  Unless we the people become actors in our own drama of change beyond expectations.

Walking through centuries old cemeteries one sees grave stones of small children who died of disease. Families then could not expect all of their children to grow to adulthood.  The same is still true in many nations around the world. But through research and work, we as a nation now do expect our children to grow up; so we experience tragedy when lives are cut short by mass murder.  But I have heard this week, “Of course we can’t stop all the shootings.” Have we come to expect nothing can change a culture of gun violence? On the streets of some cities young people themselves think they may die of gunshot wounds, perhaps in a drive-by shooting, before they reach adulthood.

Not many decades ago in the United States it was expected that when children returned to school in the fall, some classmates would be missing because they had died of polio during the summer. We stopped polio. That change is true almost all over the world except for a few countries. The World Health Organization recently announced a nationwide Pakistani polio vaccination campaign has been temporarily suspended because at least eight Pakistani health workers were shot to death as they administered the vaccination to children. We worked, and are working, to change the expectation that children die from the epidemic of polio. What about the epidemic of gun violence?

At the time of President Obama’s press conference January 16, 900 Americans had died “at the end of a gun” since the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary school. How many more have died in the days since? Don’t expect much change unless in each community, in each extended family, in each faith community at the local, state and national level, we the people are determined to work together to change a killing culture.  Death and life are issues that Christ calls us to care about. Christ’s death and resurrection free us to be agents of life in a death denying, death-defying culture.  

We can expect gun laws to have little effect unless we pay attention to the ongoing legislative process. About ten years ago then Kansas Representative Todd Tiahrt was able to place amendments (the wording of which was approved by the NRA) in a congressional spending bill that significantly weakened law enforcement efforts to prevent gun crimes and prosecute gun offenders. While some components of the Tiahrt Amendments were improved in 2007 and 2009, several damaging provisions continue to tie the hands of law enforcement. Background check records are still destroyed within 24 hours. ATF still does not have the power to require dealer inventory checks to detect lost and stolen guns. Cities and states are still restricted from using trace data to fully investigate corrupt gun dealers and traffickers.  What can we expect? We can insist that Congress confirm the appointment of a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The NRA will literally call the shots unless. . . .

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day my husband and I will attend a breakfast here in Dubuque at the Grand River Center overlooking the Mississippi River.  We have done this for years. It began as a small group, then moved to local Loras College dining hall. Now families, high school and college students, business people and more gather. People are participating in not just a day but a weekend of service all over the city. We will not take guns to the River Center. Likewise a small group of people has begun to organize here, energized in part by nuns, to help this community address issues and causes of violence, all kinds of violence. The group will gather for the second time February 3.  What should we, together, dare to expect? To work, to walk, to “like, share and tweet,” to organize, to persuade congressional representatives and senators who say they will simply vote against anything. Nothing will change.  Unless. . . .

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Dignity? Violence? What Images Do We Have of Ourselves?

A joint session of Congress met Friday, January 4, to certify the results of the U.S. presidential election held last November 6th.  Tellers read the results of the states and the District of Columbia one by one:   “The certificate of the electoral vote of the state of Connecticut seems to be regular in form and authentic and it appears therefrom that Barack Obama of the state of Illinois received 7 votes for president and Joseph Biden from the state of Delaware received 7 votes for vice president…” “The certificate of the electoral vote of the state of Kansas seems to be regular in form and authentic and it appears therefrom that Mitt Romney from the commonwealth of Massachusetts received 6 votes for president and Paul Ryan from the state of Wisconsin received 6 votes for vice president.”   No guns. No violence. It was dignified, even inspiring in its quiet way. The outcome, of course, had been known; the win was substantial: 332 votes for Obama/Biden to 206 for Romney/Ryan.

Three Fridays before a different set of numbers.  Guns. Violence. We know those numbers, too: 20 children, 6 adults killed in Newtown Connecticut.
The Task force on gun violence President Obama appointed, being led by Vice President Biden, is to address the issues of mental health resources, keeping society from glamorizing guns and violence, as well as tightening gun laws. Will they as a task force, will Congress, will we as a nation truly engage the images we shape for ourselves and change what needs to be changed? 

The issues are complex. Granted. I offer no simple solution. But I do know this: “What was the motive?” isn’t the only question.   Real life violence is not merely a mystery novel.   Surely each of us is a mixture of motives not easily decoded. And the question, “What ‘triggered’ the assailant?” with its ironic verb, only conceals long term causes.

Likewise we must not be satisfied with “studies-do-not-show” arguments meant to settle the issue.  In the field of statistics there is a vast difference between “cause and effect” and “correlation.” And even when studies show “no direct correlation,” usually only one or a very few factors can be researched in any given study.  We need to look honestly at the image of guns and violence in our society, and really see the formative effect of having guns in the home and of our addiction to ever more violent films and games. Games also play us.  Statistics provide some information, but not enough understanding.
What shapes us as individuals and as a people may be hard to quantify but is observable. How are we formed? What environments, images and actions will we choose?

On another Friday, Dec. 21, President Obama spoke at the Memorial Service for Senator Daniel Inouya at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.   The heart of his message was an ordinary yet profound story of his traveling at the age of 11 with his mother, grandmother and sister on vacation on the “mainland,” watching television in motels at night when the networks were all showing the Watergate hearings. Barack Obama remembers as a boy seeing Senator Inouya, from his home state of Hawaii, with dignity and wisdom playing a part in restoring democracy to a nation on the edge. Obama said, looking back, that those images began to shape his formation of being a public servant.

Formation may include one event (in my case the death of my father at age 11), or many, of vacations with family, or no vacations, living on one street or another, what we see on the way to school.  We are shaped by one another, and formed in community.  In a culture which statistics show is becoming “spiritual but not religious,” the images these past weeks of the power of faith communities and interfaith services should not be underestimated.  Faith communities to have a role in creating places of love and care and inclusion.  Acceptance, respect, care. We can choose these.
What we see and experience has a formative affect on who we become, what we do, our purpose and mission in life. There are enough real-life struggles of poverty, illness, abuse, that we need each other in order to create supportive, nurturing communities, not invest in violence or commit ourselves to combative ways of relating.

The news image that we saw Jan 4 was not that this democracy once again made a transition, as it does every four years, without guns, without violence, but “Republicans getting their troops ready for battle for three more fiscal fights.”  We heard this might “sideline” other concerns such as fixing immigration and infrastructures, working on clean energy production and climate change, as though this is all a sporting event with eyes fixed only on the final minutes of the game. The Violence against Women Act was allowed to expire. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor flatly refused to bring the Senate bill to a vote unless stripped out was protection for Native American women raped on tribal lands by non-native men. Violence is accepted; dignity denied. What are our commitments and their formative effects? How are we shaping each other?