Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath 2014

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

When it comes to gun violence, we discover a sinister side to American exceptionalism.

The average annual number of gun homicides in Japan is 50. Germany fewer than 150, a range that holds true for Italy and France as well. Canada, fewer than 200.

Combine those rates and there are about 700 gun homicides yearly, grouping all five of these countries whose combined populations equal just over two-thirds of America’s.

In the United States, the average annual number of gun homicides exceeds 10,000 people. Counting suicides, self-defense, law-enforcement and accidental shootings, more than 30,000 people are killed by firearms yearly. Half of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. One third are under the age of 20.

There’s no mistaking the fact that a disproportionate number of victims of our glut of guns are young.

And glut is the right word. 283 million guns are in civilian hands, a number that grows by 4.5 million annually. On the bright side, the percentage of American households with a gun has been steadily declining (from 54% in 1977 to 33% in 2009). On the troubling side, the average number of guns per owner has increased from 4.1 in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004.

When it comes to gun control, it seems as if there are two very different Americas. Nothing has brought that home to me better than a recent op ed piece by Patt Morrison, writing in the Los Angeles Times this past Tuesday. Hear what she wrote.

“What would Jesus shoot?

Some churches in Kentucky and in upstate New York are doing what it takes to get people into the pews to hear the word of God — and in their neck of the woods, that means giving away guns.

The flier for the raffle at Grace Baptist Church, in Troy, N.Y., shows an AR-15 — an assault rifle altered to make it legal in that state — with a quote from the gospel of St. John, “My peace I give unto you.” It isn’t spelled “piece,” but it could have been.

The church's pastor, John Koletas, told the Albany Times Union, “I’m just trying to be a blessing and a help to the gun owners and the hunters and give away a free AR-15. It’s the right thing to do.”

In Kentucky, where gun giveaways happen in some churches just about every week, a free raffle of 25 guns by Paducah's Lone Oak First Baptist Church got about 1,300 people into the church hall for a steak dinner and a pep talk by a gun fancier named Chuck McAlister who’s been hired by Kentucky’s Southern Baptists to help boost congregations by evangelizing — in this case, about guns and sin and Jesus.

A good number of those 1,300 may not wind up in the pews on Sunday morning; a lot of them go to other churches. And there was no Sermon on the Mount, with its remark about the blessed peacemakers, to generate big applause; it was McAlister displaying his grandfather’s gun and saying, "There's no government on the face of this Earth that has the right to take this gun from me.”

Sunday school teacher David Keele told NPR that the church was accomplishing two things: “One, we're going to talk about the 2nd Amendment to bear arms. But that isn't the primary thing. The primary thing is who Jesus is.": And Jesus, in the form of a stack of Bibles, is right there alongside the display of donated guns — but the Bibles, as NPR pointed out, will cost you money.

Tom Jackson isn’t a regular churchgoer, but he showed up for the Kentucky raffle, saying what many say when they’re asked about why they need guns: “If somebody kicks your door down, means to hurt your wife, your kids, you — how do you turn the other cheek to that?”

But there are a lot of things to defend your family against, and a lot of other ways to defend them apart from what comes out of the barrel of a gun.

There’s defending them from illiteracy and sickness. So are there churches in New York or Kentucky, or churches anywhere, raffling off a year’s worth of healthcare coverage, or $500 savings bonds for a child’s education?

Eighty-nine years ago, an adman named Bruce Barton, who co-founded the renowned advertising company BBD&O, wrote a book that proclaimed Jesus to be “the world’s greatest business executive,” and “the founder of modern business.” That Jesus would have understood the principle behind getting people in the door — by loaves and fishes, but probably not by Smith & Wesson.”

I have an idea. Let’s not raffle anything. With the bishop we have, as committed to preventing gambling as he is to preventing gun violence, raffles don’t face a bright future in Western Massachusetts.

Just as well. Let’s keep providing good things—goods and services to those who need them, good services rooted in the challenging culture of the kingdom of God—and rather than try to attract people by appealing to their acquisitive nature, let’s appeal to their inquisitive nature.

And to guard against any holier-than-the-Baptists attitude that I might have unintentionally encouraged this morning, let me say that one of the very best online resources I could find in preparing for today is the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. I doubt the folks at Grace Church in Troy align themselves with that branch of the Baptist tree.

There are two Americas, when it comes to guns and gun control. That division runs right through communities, denominations, and families. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there’s a third America as well, uncommitted, unpersuaded, disengaged. This first Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath is an effort to get dialogue opened among all Americans, for the reconciliation of differences, the discovery of common ground, and an end to the exceptionally high incidence of gun violence that threatens our future.

(Patt Morrison’s article, “Guns for Jesus: Churches fill their pews with weapons giveaways” appeared in the March 11, 2014 issue of the Los Angeles Times.)