Here’s how to help end gun violence with thoughts, prayers, awareness and action

God have mercy on us: there was another mass shooting in the USA yesterday. Five people were killed, including the perpetrator.  An elementary school was one of the targets.

Once again we have failed, as a nation, to protect life and to shield children from the horrors of gun violence.

When the shooting happened yesterday, it had only been 10 days since the previous mass shooting in the tiny church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It’s barely been six weeks since the massacre in Las Vegas.

As far as mass shootings go, 2017 is the deadliest year in my life of 36 years. This chart is shocking to me.

 

Photo Credit: http://www.economist.com

When I first saw it, I was especially shocked by how the school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut, compared to some of the recent shootings. As far as my emotional reactions go, those are probably the most memorable. What is going on in me, in our society, that I am becoming numb to the horror, the headlines–to the numbers of injured and deceased?

We have much to lament. We have much to grieve, to give to our merciful, loving God in prayer; our God who is so eager to help us heal and work with us to create a more peaceful society.

What is a Christian to do, though? How can someone who takes seriously Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and the Gospel demand to be a peacemaker, get started? How are we to respond in a way that protects all life, that promotes forgiveness and healing? How are we to help all people keep God’s commandment not to kill?

Here are my steps: the plan that is working for me to not stay numb and motionless but instead to keep trying to be a peacemaker in our hurting, frightened world.

It all starts with thoughts and prayers.

Yes; although some may mock our faith and our tendency to turn to God first — and even make games called “Thoughts and prayers” to tease us for it — tracking our thoughts and lifting our hearts to God in prayer is the only way to start.

Let’s listen to the feedback too. If folks tell us that it’s sounds “so profane,” when we say we are offering our “thoughts and prayers,” then we ought to stop communicating with clichés.  Let us turn to God to help us be more creative and compassionate; let’s use our thesaurus for better words. We need to offer our sympathies and kindness, to tell the people of God that we are lamenting, we are mourning, we are sorry.

I find Fr. James Martin’s prayer, “Sad, tired and angry: a prayer in the face of gun violence” especially helpful.

Let us remember though, that prayer is at least half listening to God, to opening our hearts to the Spirit, as Jim McDermott wrote:

But prayer is not just about asking God for stuff, or about me speaking to God. It is more like neighbor kids talking to one another on two cans tied together with string; I talk in one end and hope that God can hear me. But I also listen for what he has to say. God doesn’t just take our dictation. He gets the chance to speak.

Amen, amen. Only God can help us through this mess. Only God can show us the way to peace and provide the strength and grace we need to persevere when we’re overwhelmed. Relying on God and moving forward can be bold. I really like how Sister Susan says it: “prayer is a radical act.”

Education. 

This might include curious, open-minded conversations with those who think differently than you. It can also mean a lot of reading and study, a lot of asking hard questions and pursuing the Truth. (Yes, with a capital T, for Christ.)

Last week, I asked myself a question and came up with a new thought. I often hear people say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I asked myself if that makes sense, if I agree. And, I realized that, although no object can be in itself evil, if it causes death and destruction then we might have a moral responsibility to remove the temptations, to make such an object less accessible. In the same sort of way that drugs kill, guns also kill. We try to make it difficult for people to have drugs, to protect them from harm. Why won’t we do the same with guns?

Obviously, it’s complicated in the United States because of the Second Amendment. But here comes another thing to learn about, in the way that Elizabeth Bruenig asks in her column, “Do we really understand the Second Amendment anymore?”  I’ll admit that I don’t like guns, so it’s hard for me to empathize with those who enjoy collecting them, who believe that they have a right to own them. I sometimes wonder if the Second Amendment is outdated, if it’s a man-made law misused to protect our greed and let us have more stuff.

The other piece of education is seeing the big picture. I encourage you to do your own social analysis of the USA’s unique gun violence problem and consider how we line up with other nations.

Here are some factual summaries that helped me learn:

How bad is US gun violence? These charts show the scale of the problem

When I studied those charts,  I learned that more people have died from gun violence in the USA than in all the wars we have been involved in throughout our history, combined.

1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days: America’s gun crisis – in one chart

My heart sank and I felt to compelled for the dead and injured when scanned that chart.  And, I realized that I know at least three people who have died by gunfire in the past six years. My heart is broken.

America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 17 maps and charts

From those charts, I learned that the easy access to guns is part of the cause for such a high number of suicide deaths in the USA.

Then, we move into compassionate, bold action. 

Even if the facts are overwhelming, let’s get to work.

We must protest the violence and advocate for change with all our might. This editorial suggests some excellent local and national groups that we can each get involved in and other ways to “pray with our feet” and act for Gospel-centered change.  Let’s stand up for peace and model forgiveness and teach others how to act in love.

Here’s one way to act: we can be like the folks in RAWtools and melt down guns and weapons, and hire blacksmiths to make them into garden tools instead. What a great way to create life and lasting peace!

Through the grace of God, and our collective praying and acting, may God’s reign of peace prevail and may we live in a world where weapons are needed no more.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

One nation shall not raise the sword against another,

nor shall they train for war again.

Isaiah 2:4

Amen! 
Photo Credit: http://visit.un.org/content/knotted-gun-sculpture-un-–-did-you-know

They have guns, but we have flowers—a modern beatitude

The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.

Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.

What does it really mean, that

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:3-10 

This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.

“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”

Or in other words….

In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.

In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.

In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.

Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.

P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.

“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

So—keep getting into trouble!

love at the life lines

I am Pro-Life.

I tweeted this to the world a couple of weeks ago: I am #prolife! I want abortion, war, executions, gun violence, discrimination, poverty, hunger and euthanasia to end–honor all dignity!

Also a couple of weeks ago a few of my students participated in the March for Life in Washington, D.C., a peaceful march protesting the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision. I was also aware that mothers were protesting against gun violence at the same time. I wanted to support both movements with one big tweet. Yes I know, I really emphasize non-violent peacemaking and write about opposition to war, torture, violence, poverty and the death penalty in a lot of my blog posts.

The thing is, when it comes to issues of life (and death) I really subscribe to the seamless garment morality. Life is always sacred.; holy; precious gift from God that must always be honored, cherished, and protected from its very beginnings to its natural end. In my walk with Jesus, I continue to feel very clear and confident about those convictions.

Pro-life, in the messy business of Jesus, is not really that simple.

First, life and death matters aren’t always as black and white as we’d like them to be, yet I try radically to state that violence and killing are always wrong. I despise the use of guns, even in self-defense–always to hurt others, always in violence. In many respects I’m a pacifist–willing to radically state I’m opposed to militarization. But then I have to live with unresolved questions: am I okay with the police protecting me by using weapons? Can I accept how butchers slaughter the animals I eat? Do I respect the constitutional right to bear arms? What do Jesus and the Gospel teach me about national defense? Is war always wrong? Being pro-life is not just about expressing an opinion, it is also about grappling with questions.

Secondly, what if it seems like I’m being judgmental when I stand up for my beliefs? Isn’t it God’s job to do the judging and my job to help with the loving? I know there are stories behind every life that must be protected–in the hearing and the protecting we must have compassion and leave the judgement to God. When it comes to standing up against legalized abortion these stories, somewhat like war, get especially complicated. Being pro-life is not just about opposition to killing, it’s also about listening lovingly and providing healthy, just and safe options for all. I’ve worked with women who are very poor and witnessed their struggles in a world with few choices.

Lastly, I feel afraid. I worry that I’m going to offend someone, create more division or simply invite conflict with people who are mean. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable–I love peace and serenity as much as anyone else. I’m not usually afraid of being bold, but I am often afraid of the consequences. Will I be misunderstood? Am I strong enough to love people who are unkind to me? Can I have compassion and be patient when defensiveness explodes out of others? I can become frozen in my fear.

Being pro-life is about recognizing strength in the context of a loving community that holds and encourages us when we tremble. And it’s about being bold.

“Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good? But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”  –1 Peter 3: 13-17

Maybe pro-life is excitement and promotion for what I believe is good more than declaring what I believe is wrong! True, there’s a certain amount of clear-cut morality behind life and death issues and we need to share the truth. Like I tell my students, commandment five is pretty straightforward–Jesus was awesomely clear about the meaning of “thou shall not kill.” History and theology even prove that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence are right on. I love–and follow–Jesus a lot for that.

I guess I’ll keep moving through the mess as I try to live by Jesus’ life-preserving ways, even when it comes to standing up for what is right and wrong. Help me Jesus. Amen!

“I am the way and the truthand the life.” -John 14: 6

"Times Square Church God Sign"
“Times Square Church God Sign”

stories that shoot the truth

Last week there was a shooting at the Walgreen’s near the school where I work.  I couldn’t find stories about it online and it didn’t make the evening news. It probably will never make the news at all because the victim, a teenage boy, survived.

I found out about the shooting because it happened after school and one of my students went to the store to buy a poster board to make a project I had assigned.  “Sister, there was a shooting in the Walgreen’s before I got there. I saw the boy go off on the stretcher. He’s okay, his eyes were open, he just looked scared.”

I listened and was amazed. I was very upset, as I am every time my students tell such stories.  Every time I learn the truth about the violence my students live with I am stunned, speechless, scared and angry. I cry with sorrow and pain when I get home from work.  I am shot down by the stories; I am disarmed and powerless.

I know most of my students know someone who has been shot.  Many of them know someone who has been killed. Several of them know someone who is in jail.  When I learn the truth, I want to share it. I really want to survey all the students and uncover the statistics so I could publicize them to the entire world and compel others to care and pray and work for change.

A while ago I asked a group of my students how they felt about my survey idea.  I said I wanted to tell the world about what they have to live through.  I was surprised with their response.  They were very unenthused by the idea, not because it was unimportant to them or insulting, but because they didn’t think that it would change anything.

“Sister,” I heard, “if you really want people to know about the violence we live with, then gather a group of us and let us tell our stories.”

Of course!  Duh me!  I know that stories are more important than statistics.  I know compassion is developed through relationships.  I believe that Jesus modeled how to listen and to teach through storytelling.  When we serve and love we need to know the people we are concerned about.  This is ancient history:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.God is with you statue
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”Lv 19:1-2, 17-18

And then of course Jesus inspires us:

““You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”    –Mt 5:43-46

We can’t love our enemies unless we really know who they are.  Once we really know someone and have heard what they have lived through — no matter what they have done — it is hard not to love.  God’s designs are perfect.  If we heed the words and the ways, the world will surely be changed. The kingdom of God will come.

In my classroom we discuss the challenge of loving our enemies, like Jesus and the Bible teach us.  The students understand the theories of non-violence very well, much better than I did at their age.  As they walk through real battlefields between school and home, their youthful ideals are challenged.

Yet, I know storytelling changes things.  My senior Peace and Justice students have been examining the influence and the power of non-violence by watching a documentary that tells stories, not statistics.  Through media, we are meeting people around the world who have really changed the oppressive systems by loving their enemies.   The film is appropriately called A Force More Powerful.

I admire my students very much.  Their hearts have been broken, yet they believe in the power of love.  I asked the students to tell  me why non-violence is called a force more powerful.  Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Non-violence makes the people who are hitting them feel bad because they are not being hit back.”

“Non-violence is more powerful than any other method of difference-making because it requires the most discipline, endurance and mental strength.”

“Non-violence is a force more powerful because it is showing ultimate love and resistance towards evil and violence.”

“Non-violence is more powerful because it makes people look at the opposed as if they are wrong when they become violent.”

“Why is non-violence a force more powerful? Because it makes a social revolution in the lives of everyone through reason and dignity.  Violence cannot do this.”

I teach non-violence in the middle of a war-zone.  Our entire globe is at war too, fighting for rights and freedom.  The cries for democracy in the middle-east and protests at state capitols cause us to wonder how peace and justice can truly emerge.Peace sign

What will it take for our rage to transform into love?  Parker Palmer, modern-day prophet, says that it is storytelling.  I agree.  When the real truth shoots us down, we have to reach to the other to rise up into change.

‘Come and See’: A reflection from Afghanistan

Guest blogger: Jerica Arents

“Tell them to come and see who we are.” Almost every Afghan we met said that. Tell them to come and see.  While my mind flashed to nightly news programs that portray all Afghans as dark, bearded men with big guns, ordinary Afghans told me that they want Americans to see them as just that: ordinary people. In October, I participated in a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegationto Afghanistan. Kathy Kelly, David Smith-Ferri, and I spent almost a month in Afghanistan, joining the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Bamiyan for a week and spending the rest of the trip in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. The purpose of the delegation was to make human connections with those people who are bearing the brunt of our country’s policies of warmaking. Entering the 10th year of U.S. occupation, and after 30 years of almost constant war, ordinary Afghans want the 43 occupying countries and the greater international community to stop the fighting. Come and see, the Afghans would ask wearily. We are human beings.

Jerica, Kathy Kelly and David Smith-Ferri with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Band-i-Amir, Afghanistan

We were welcomed into the country by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), a group of young men in Bamiyan, an Afghan province directly west of Kabul. Bamiyan is a relatively stable area of the country with a large population of ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks. While we were there, the young men invited us into their daily lives. They work at small shops and in the fields, harvesting potatoes or hauling water by donkey. Their large families welcomed us into their homes with smiles and nods and messages of peace. We shared simple meals over food and with laughter, and seemingly insurmountable differences grew negligible.

A man and his son originally from Helmand Province, now living in an internally displaced persons camp in Kabul.

All of the families in the surrounding villages of Bamiyan share memories of fleeing the Taliban during their reign in the late 1990s — stories of large groups running down mountains in the dark, clutching small children and any possessions they could grab. Many of the very young and very old didn’t survive. Countless women and men in Bamiyan suffer from depression after experiencing the ravaging nature of war. “We age very quickly here,” reflected the mother of one of the AYPVs. Noting her weathered hands and worn eyes, I assumed she was in her late-50s. But the translator, after explaining that most women there suffer from anemia, persistent headaches, and debilitating depression, told us that the mother was only 38 years old. She went on, concluding: “I have experienced 30 years of war in less than 40 years of life.”

As the days passed, we started to weave together each young man’s story — stories experienced in the midst of lifelong war that have forced these teenagers to age quickly, too. Abdulai, a bright-eyed and generous 15-year-old member of the AYPV, lived through the Taliban’s abduction and murder of his father. Others told stories of witnessing their loved ones die, seizing the bullet-ridden bodies of their uncles and brothers. Faiz’s parents both died from illness before he turned 7. “When I remember my childhood,” he said, “tears come to my eyes.” But still, their hope was infectious. During a phone call with a young Gazan, 12-year-old Ghulamai, we heard words of encouragement that bridged the miles between these two occupied lands. “Please remain strong and brave,” pleaded Ghulamai. “We will endure this together, with you. If it’s beyond enduring, please call us. Life will pass, but if it’s beyond enduring, call us.”

The history of Afghanistan, I am learning, is a complicated web of interlocking systems of violence — a murder mystery-like story with warlords, ethnic oppression, drug rings, shadow governments, and corruption. But I am struck with the wisdom that was shared with us over tea in a Kabul café from a Western woman who has lived in the country for the last decade: There is not a military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. Forty billion dollars of U.S. humanitarian aid since the invasion in 2001 has done nothing for the poor. Policies to pump the country with even more weapons will never result in lasting peace. Young men with little education and no opportunity to provide food for their fatherless families will continue to join the Taliban for a meager salary. Come and see, the boys beg us. As they continue to bear the brunt of our military machine, may we hear them.

Jerica and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Original post: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/01/04/come-and-see-a-reflection-from-afghanistan/

This week’s guest blogger, Jerica Arents,  is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies.  Jerica lives in the White Rose Catholic Worker in Chicago where Sister Julia loves to hang out to play games, sing songs, pray for peace and justice and eat dumpster-dived food.

All photos are the property of Jerica Arents. For permission to reprint please comment on this blog entry.