Monday, May 16, 2016

Guns, God-given Rights, and Holy Commandments -- Faith-based Responses


I watched night two of the PBS Independent Lens event on gun violence and the faith community. The program featured an evangelical minister who struggles with the conflict between pro-life and pro-gun and how it’s impossible to be both.

“The Armor of Light“ followed Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck and Lucy McBath, whose teenage son, Jordan Davis, was fatally shot at a Jacksonville gas station in 2012. The incident was the focus of another film, “3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets,” which brought attention to stand-your-ground laws.

Reverend Schenck, a well-known anti-abortion activist and fixture on the political far right broke with orthodoxy by questioning whether being pro-gun is consistent with being pro-life.

Rev. Schenck was shocked and perplexed by the reactions of his long-time friends and colleagues who warned him away from this complex, politically explosive issue.

The PBS release bravely attempted to make others consider America’s gun culture through a moral lens. The film was also a look at our fractured political culture and an assertion that it is, indeed, possible for people to come together across deep party lines to find common ground.

America has a very diverse religious landscape, but faith groups are increasingly agreeing that there is a religious imperative to prevent gun violence – especially when it comes to provisions such as banning assault weapons and instituting universal background checks.

Recent polls have shown an uptick in support for gun-violence prevention legislation across the country, and religious Americans are no exception. A recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found increased levels of support among religious groups for stricter gun laws after the Newtown massacre, with support among white mainline Protestants jumping 15 percentage points from 42 percent in August 2012 to 57 percent in January 2013. Catholics also saw a small jump in support, with 67 percent supporting stricter gun laws in January compared to 62 percent last August.

White evangelical Protestants are the most likely group to live in a household where at least one person owns a gun. Gun ownership and opposition to gun control are part of the worldview of many Christians evangelicals and Pentecostals in the South and West. Southern Baptists and Mormons, in particular, are influential voices opposing restrictions on gun ownership.

Yet, evangelicals now appear to be undergoing a dramatic shift on the issue.

Although an August 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that only 35 percent of white evangelicals support stricter gun laws as a whole, a January 2013 survey conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 73 percent of evangelical leaders say the government should increase gun regulations.

(Jack Jenkins and Eleni Towns. “Thou Shall Not Kill: Faith Groups and Gun-Violence Prevention.” Center For American Progress. April 23, 2013.)


Is There a Religious Imperative To Prevent Gun Violence?

Progressive clergy have long preached for tighter gun measures. But, many of these progressives feel religious leaders have not been visible in efforts to stop gun violence. They believe many ministers have ceded the public debate square to religious conservatives.

The Rev. Larry Snyder, the head of the Catholic Church’s social service arm; National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson; and mainline leaders from the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, among others issued a statement to President Obama (2013). It read in part ...

“[We] call upon our communities and our elected officials to make every effort to save human lives, especially the lives of children, from senseless gun violence that does not represent the responsible citizenship intended by the Second Amendment.”
(Michael Boorstein. “Faith leaders launch gun control push.”
January 15, 2013.)

On January 17, 2011, 24 national faith groups announced the formation of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence,” a diverse coalition of denominations and faith-based organizations united by the call of their faiths to confront America’s gun violence epidemic and to rally support for policies that reduce death and injury from gunfire. 

Two years later, Faiths United had grown to more than 40 groups representing tens of millions of American in faith communities across the nation – and their call to confront this epidemic had grown ever more urgent and imperative…” They asked faith communities across Americ to join them in contacting members of Congress to demand comprehensive gun violence prevention measures including banning assault weapons, universal background checks, financial support for mental health services, and policies that address our country's culture of violence such as school safety and anti-bullying legislation.

Representatives included leaders from Catholics United, the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Alliance of Baptists, the American Baptist Churches of the South, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, the National Church Women United, the Major Superiors of Men, the Disciples of Christ, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, the Franciscan Action Network, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education USA, the Unitarian Association of Congregations of the United Church of Christ, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Hindu American Foundation, the Islamic Society of North America, and the National Episcopal Health Ministries.  

(“Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence Press Releases. Faiths United. January 15, 2013.)

Did it take Newtown to bring focus on an issue that has long afflicted black children in American cities?

“African American clergy have been saying these things, we just haven’t been with them,” said Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde. “We live in such economically and racially segregated times, you don’t see it until acts cross the color and economics line, and gets people’s attention.”

(Michael Boorstein. “Faith leaders launch gun control push.”
 January 15, 2013.)

The religious imperative to stop gun violence? Some would say simply, “Pray.” However, though prayers may work miracles, immediate commitments and actions are needed to change a nation in which guns are worshiped as idols and used to commit violent, deadly crimes.

People of faith claim to be peacemakers. Putting this mission into action means getting out from behind pulpits and into the public square. I believe it is time children of God consider the sanctity of life and rethink indifference.

“To me, gun violence is a natural because it’s such an obvious theological issue,” said Dean Gary Hall of the National Cathedral, and the chair of Faiths United Against Gun Violence. He continued, “Empathy for innocent suffering is at the core of Christianity and Judaism.”

Sarah Posner, reporter and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, says, “Another obstacle for faith-based gun control activists is the intensity and homogeneity with which white evangelicals view guns. While the congregants in mainline Protestant churches are split on the issue, leading to fears of stoking intra-congregational conflict by raising it, evangelical churches have 'sacralized' gun culture. (Lydia Bean. The Politics of Evangelical Identity. 2014.) Guns are not uniformly considered a 'holy' issue like abortion, there is an 'overlap of Christian heroism, gun culture, and nationalism' that gets 'packaged together.'”

(Sarah Posner. “Can Faith-Based Organizing for Gun Control Work?” December 01, 2015.)

What, if anything, will happen to strengthen a formidable faith-based movement to end gun violence? Posner postulates …

“The movement would have more than these grassroots activists. It would have willing politicians, a legal strategy, and lots of money. All of these components would work in tandem to change people’s minds, to pressure lawmakers, to intimidate politicians running for office, to go to court when necessary.”

Gosh, that sounds like creating the antithesis to the NRA. Can a small group charged with a powerful moral imperative defeat one of the most powerful Washington lobbies? Have you ever heard of the story of David and Goliath?

A field of 331 crosses on the front lawn of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 
each holding a colorful T-shirt with the name, age and date of death of one of the
 city’s 2012 murder victims. 

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