Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sermon for October 26, 2014

Who would Jesus Shoot?

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Matthew 26:52
I don’t know about you, but I was captivated by the unfolding story of the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. Remember them, back in 2010? I remember seeing artifacts from the rescue at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. A single piece of rock fell while 33 miners worked underground, blocking the ramp to the surface. It was later estimated to weigh seven hundred thousand tons, twice the weight of the Empire State Building. The buried men were trapped 2,300 ft underground and 3 miles from the mine's entrance. The mixed crew of experienced miners and technical support personnel survived for a record 69 days deep underground before their rescue. The resources used to save these 33 men was truly awesome. The dedication, the creativity, the love, the sacrifice. All to save 33 human lives. There was no question — nothing else mattered. That’s how important 33 human lives are.

33 People. That’s about how many lives are lost to gun homicide in this country every day. Want more statistics?

80 people die every day from guns in the United States, 10 of these are children (National Center for Health Statistics).

According to the CDC, 32,000 Americans die from guns every year in the US.

According to US Department of Defense, more Americans have been killed through gun violence in "peacetime" than have been killed in all of our nation's wars since 1776.

The FBI claims the family handgun purchased for protection, is 22 times more likely to be used against a family member or friend than to stop an intruder.
70% of Americans, including NRA members, favor stricter laws and regulations on the sale and ownership of handguns and assault weapons by 2-1, (National Opinion Research Center, Univ. of Chicago)

Not one of us is immune to the impact of gun violence. It doesn’t matter what community you live in — affluent or poor; urban, suburban or rural; black, Hispanic or white. No community is saved from the wounding. No community is free from the heart-numbing trauma. No community is protected from the hopelessness. Gun violence may be concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods, but it is everyone’s problem. It is a threat to the entire nation. And I think gun violence is a threat to our souls.

I'm not a gun owner but, if present sales data are to be believed, I'm not the target market either. The biggest target market is women. Increasingly women are purchasing guns and getting training, most typically handguns. The reasons aren't just for self-defense. Sure, women are buying guns for but sport and target shooting. Clearly, though, that's not how gun manufacturers are pitching them. Shooting clubs with names like A Girl and a Gun, Babes with Bullets and The Well Armed Woman, are growing all over the country. And a staunchly, proudly masculine industry is attempting to keep pace. Despite the best efforts of the firearms industry and its supporters to portray gun ownership as a guarantor of personal safety, reality presents quite a different picture. People rarely use guns to kill criminals or stop crimes. In fact, for every time a woman uses a handgun to justifiably kill a stranger in self-defense, about 240 female lives end in handgun homicides.

Again, I’m not a gun owner. I'm not a victim, either, although I know there are victims and survivors of gun violence in our church. Places like the Bureau for Justice Statistics and the American Psychological Association have documented the ongoing effects of trauma for gun violence survivors. The American College of Physicians recommends that Americans approach firearm safety as a public health issue. But I’m not a psychologist or a medical doctor. I’m also not a sociologist, so I can’t speak professionally about guns as tools of societal aggression. I’m not a lawyer so I cannot speak definitively about a well-regulated militia, although I have a hunch it does not mean folks should be open-carrying through Target. I’m not a historian, so I cannot speak to the importance of guns in our country’s past.

I am none of these things, but I am a minister in a Christian tradition, which claims a goal of shining light to God's world. Demographic data, historical precedent, legal interpretation, cultural mores and modern advertising are not supposed to influence me in matters of conscience and faith. When it comes to faith, I turn to the One whom my faith is named after. I look to the life and teachings of Jesus as it’s been interpreted to us in the Gospels. And when I read the gospels, it is hard for me to reconcile Jesus, this supreme gift of God's creation, with an instrument of utter destruction like a gun.

I find two episodes about Jesus condoning weapons. First is his use of a whip to drive money changers out of the temple courts. The second is an episode near the end of his ministry. Jesus knew that being one of his disciples had become a dangerous vocation. So he told them to carry a sword for self-protection while spreading the Gospel. If they didn't have a sword, they were to sell their cloak and buy one. One disciple excitedly told Jesus, "Look, I already have two!"

Jesus replied, "That's enough."

The evidence for peace far outweighs those two stories. Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers." He tells followers not to repay evil for evil, but to bless our enemies and turn the other cheek. At one point, as Jesus was being arrested, a disciple tried to protect him by cutting off a soldier's ear with his sword. Jesus healed the wounded soldier, then scolded the disciple saying that those who live by the sword will surely die by the sword. He saw himself as a one who dies as a ransom. Jesus’ death on a cross holds a mirror up to society’s lust for violence and humankind’s willingness to watch innocent people suffer.

So, to sum up, Jesus refused to carry weapons, he allowed his disciples to do so for protection, and he opposed stockpiling them.

After Jesus' execution, early Christians lived unarmed. We are told, both in Scripture and Christian tradition, that the apostles avoided weapons. All of them were beaten, arrested, and tortured and they offered little or no resistance. Since then, Christians from the Franciscans to the Quakers to the Mennonites to Martin Luther King Jr. have provided a strong, non-violent, non-weapons-bearing Christian witness.

Some tell me this belief is simply not practical — that there are "bad guys" who must be stopped and the best way they are stopped is at the end of a gun. I can understand the social ethic there. And yet I wonder if another way is yet possible.

In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, there is a picture of a Polish priest. In the background is a freshly dug mass grave and just in front of it the bodies of those already killed. In the immediate foreground is the rifle of a Nazi officer, aimed directly at the head of Father Piotr Sosnowski. Father Piotr was not a Jew, and yet he was a threat to the state as he cared for those of the city. Those who rode with him to the execution field in Northern Poland reportedly suggested making an escape at one point, but Father Piotr discouraged it, saying that if they went resolutely perhaps they would spare others in town who might have time to escape.

We can only assume that the guard who took the picture wished to show the superiority of the gun and its power to take the very life of another human being. The picture tells a different story. Father Piotr stands not with bowed head or on bended knee, but staring down the rifle and into the eyes of its operator. His hands are at his side. His knees are relaxed. I think Father Piotr knew something about Jesus’ words: no one can take my life from me but I lay it down as a ransom for many. The forces and instruments that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage. Our faith insists that life affirms itself;
that 33 human lives are invaluable,
that even one life is invaluable,
that when we work to save lives, we honor the divine spirit in each of us
that when we insist on the dignity of each and every one of us, we can hew a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.
This is the path of Christian life. This is what I am called to as a minister and a Christian. Does it make sense? No. Is it practical? No. But it is the only example that the living Christ gives us.

The United Church of Christ has taken an official stand on Gun since 1995. The resolution that came out of the 20th General Synod called on members of the UCC:
  • To engage in conversation to understand the roots of violence and consider the sources of our faith that call for an end to violence;
  • To negotiate with the NRA to secure help in limiting firearm violence;
    strengthen the licensing and registration of handgun transfers;
  • To restrict firearm possession by juveniles and those convicted of violent crimes;
  • To strengthen regulation of gun dealers;
  • To prohibit semi-automatic weapons, large capacity magazines and explosive ammunition;
  • To require gun safety devices; and
  • To require training in gun safety as a condition of licensing.
Honestly, we have not made much headway. The UCC's General Minister and President, Geoffrey Black, recently reaffirmed our resolution by adding his signature to a letter with 42 other faith leaders asking President Obama and members of Congress to, "do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others." The letter supports background checks for those who intend to buy a gun and demands legislation outlawing high capacity weapons and ammunition clips. The letter also declares that gun trafficking should be made a federal crime.

So, would Jesus agree with the stance of the UCC or with the National Rifle Association's approach that encourages more people, including school teachers, to wield guns for protection? It could be argued that Christianity is entirely consistent with possessing guns for hunting and self-defense. But being Christian also means resolving problems peacefully, to the point of willingly giving up possessions and obsessions for the welfare of others. Some have argued that there is no reason for a Christian to carry a gun. Should Christians be willing to limit, or even forgo, their access to guns, especially if it might reduce gun deaths?

Christians are called to be healers and peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to bless their enemies and to respond to evil with self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence. How do guns fit with these teachings? Do we love guns more than we love people?

These are questions with which Christians must struggle. No matter what, may we have the courage of our convictions to be peacemakers in a world full of guns, and to counter the night of violence with the starry light of hope.

recommendation to approach firearm safety as a public health issue

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