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

The skin I didn’t ask for: Bemoaning my white privilege and the evil of racial violence

I am afraid this blog post is going to be a terrible, tangled mess: sorry about that. But considering the mess this is all about, a jumble might be the best I can give.

My thoughts are tangled because so much has been stirring within me since last week when I learned about the killings of Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile (in Minnesota), and then police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith (in Dallas).

My heart has been heavy with more sadness—too similar to my grief for the 50 people killed in Orlando on June 12th. I’ve been praying prayers of lament and trying to lean on my faith; that love prevails. As a Christian who desires to be an agent of nonviolent social change, I have also felt overwhelmed, helpless, disappointed, doubtful and frustrated—how can these horrific events and lingering tensions lead to healing and peace?

Mostly though, I have been feeling a lot of guilt.

(And I understand that some people perceive white guilt to be another type of racism, but I don’t think they’re referring to guilt in the context I’ve been dealing with.)

I didn’t ask to be born with this white skin. I never wanted to inherit centuries of stolen privilege and power. I’ve never wanted to be an oppressor and blindly participate in social structures that keep my brothers and sisters of color in poverty, assumed criminals. I’ve never wanted to walk around wearing white privilege every day, but I do.

I understand now (but didn’t before: more about it later) that much of the racial violence flaring up throughout our nation has been centuries in the making. As a nation we’ve never healed our racist wounds and now racism has become an infection, sickening and slowing our chances for unity and peace. The disease of racism has corrupted our economics, communities and ways of relating to one another.

We can’t blame anyone for the racial conflicts but ourselves, as we’ve all contributed to the causes that ignite anger and hate among us; structural racism is real and creating a mess of problems, tangled together and killing our children. When we submit to lies and take a side, when we ignore the suffering of anyone—this is sin and evil staring us down and laughing.

Whether I like it or not, I participate in the evil of racism every time I enjoy my white privilege. When I feel the tinge of excitement over seeing a “run-down” neighborhood flipped into an area with funky shops and remodeled homes (that’s what gentrification is), I’m ignoring the plight of the poor. When I savor easy access to healthy food and transportation without anger for the lack of attainability my black and brown brothers and sisters have of such beneficial basics, I’m failing to love. And, when I experience nothing but respect and kindness from police officers and assume it’s everyone’s experience, I’m turning away from the Truth.

I had to leave the nearly all-white farming community in Iowa where I grew up in order to learn the ugly truth: racism, as portrayed to me in history class, didn’t end after the civil rights movement. I discovered this in college partly through Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (which really impacted my life); while studying abroad in South Africa; while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and witnessing lack of health care for people of color. I first heard about predator police patrolling black neighborhoods from my students at an all-boys African-American high school on Chicago’s south side. The powerful truth in this video mirrors their stories (but be warned: it’s violent and contains offensive language).

It’s taken years of observing, listening and relationship-building to get to my current consciousness; to understand the privilege of my skin color and the complexity of our social sins; to realize that practically every inequality I’ve encountered is an aftereffect of our shared racial wounds; to move beyond white guilt and to white responsibility. I want to share the principles that have guided me as I clumsily deal with my white privilege, hoping to contribute to racial reconciliation.

Please white brothers and sisters, join me in these actions for everyone’s sake. And, brothers and sisters of color; please comment and correct me where I’m mistaken; suggest what we could do to better share this privilege—rightly yours—with you.

1.) Always avoid paternalistic thinking and behavior. Never give people your pity and create projects you think will increase their standard of living without asking what is needed, wanted. (And keep in mind that cultural dynamics may cause people to agree with your ideas no matter what they believe.) Similarly, make sure organizations serving people of color are not managed solely by white people.

2.) Celebrate diversity. Culture is a beautiful gift from God that ought to be understood, reverenced and appreciated. If you serve a culture not your own, it’s necessary to move cautiously yet eagerly to see all the beauty in the difference (especially if you’re a white person).

3.) Listen. While teaching in Chicago, I was frequently the only white person in the room. It was incredibly important for me to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Whenever I didn’t understand something I had to put aside my pride and fear and let my students explain their world to me. I’m sorry for not engaging in this way more often.

4.) Become allies. Any action you can muster to offer the privilege of your well-respected voice, advocacy for peace and healing, is crucial. It can take a lot of courage and skill but is very important to correct racial language, assumptions and attitudes when necessary. (Be aware that the sin of racism can creep into all of us.) Talk about racism even when it’s uncomfortable, donate to organizations of social justice governed by African Americans and ask your elected officials what they’re doing to ensure peace for the people most marginalized—our black and brown brothers and sisters.

5.) Educate yourself and the next generation. Watch the news and pay attention to bias; search for balanced news sources. Ask critical questions, read, study and share information that helps others understand the truth. If you have children under your care, especially white boys, make sure they are learning narratives about humanity that reveal the God-given dignity and equality of all people.

6.) Pray and witness. Now is a time for communal reconciliation and prayer services for peace. Join in a solidarity action or peaceful protest (like this one, recently in Madison). Plan one for your community or hold a prayer service in your Church or home and invite people of color to contribute to the planning, music and dialogue. Remember that reconciliation is God’s work and we are made to be instruments of peace, working for God’s mission. In order to build up God’s reign of love, we must truly love and pray for each other.

It will remain tough and messy, but all of us who are white must act. It’s just as Jesus said: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48)

As I wade further into the mess I’m aware that as one of many, I have a lot more to learn. Yet I’ll remain in this struggle and not tire because it’s what we are made for—to be one, arriving together to the time when justice and freedom is known by all on earth as it is in heaven. Through God, by God, and in God’s love, one day we’ll arrive.

Amen!

Source: missionallyminded.files.wordpress.com

Street violence and holy darkness

This past Monday one of my former students was shot and killed on the streets of Chicago.

Advent is a time of darkness.  Sometimes it is obvious to us that there’s a such thing as holy darkness. And, sometimes the darkness is so cold and heavy that it seems to swallow our hope.

During Advent we are called to open up our lives to the hope that our heartaches make us hungry for.  No matter how overwhelmed or ugly things may seem, we try to resituate our habits and hearts and create time and spaces so Love may arrive and change us.

When the darkness that corrupts our anticipation is because of ugly injustice, we can become tempted to turn away from Truth.  The Truth is that many powerful promises are packed into the waiting within Mary’s womb.

How do we not give into the temptations so that we remain faithful to our trust in Love?  The nativity story teaches us that we can only do this through community.  Together we know that even when life flings the worst at us we need to allow openings as wide as canyons for Christ’s coming.  No chaos ought to cause us to close our minds or hearts to the changes that come from Christ’s presence.  Really wide openings of anticipation and healing hope emerge when we collect as communities and pray, cry, vigil, and serve together.

Only when we’re bonded together can Christ’s peace crack through the din of despair.  That’s why good Advent activity happens in community.

Mensa’s death on Monday was another moment of senseless street violence. No one should ever be killed by another person, but when the victim is a young man full of great energy it’s especially awful. I knew Mensa  from when I served at the now-closed St. Gregory the Great High School in 2008-2009. Then, he was an ordinary teenage boy who was very kind, smiley, helpful and humble– certainly someone who could have helped create more peace on the streets.

Before my former colleagues reached me with the news about Mensa, another sister and I had spent some of Monday night hanging up Christmas decorations. We giggled, climbed on furniture and hung lights and bows in open spaces around the house as cheery Christmas carols blared from the stereo. I had the special privilege of setting up the simple nativity scene on the commode in our dining room.  The nativity scene is the centerpiece of all our decorations, so I tried to arrange it with great care.

In the creche, Mary, Joseph, an angel, and a couple of animals all are focusing their attention on an empty trough.  When Baby Jesus shows up on Christmas Eve, he’ll get tucked right into the little bed that they’re focused on.  Although Mary and Joseph are technically just figurines in the scene, their posture is a great reminder for me of how to wait in holy darkness.

"Advent Nativity" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Advent Nativity” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

They’re together. They’re quiet. They’re very still.  They could get tired from being faithful to allowing an open space for God to be between them.  Yet, they boldly believe that Love will arrive, so they continue to wait.

We all are waiting for Love to arrive and feed our hungry, hurting hearts.  We are together, trying to be quiet and still, no matter the commotion.  We may get tired and overwhelmed by the injustices and suffering, yet we’re trying to allow signs of hope to be seen in the darkness. We’ll light candles and vigil on street corners, we’ll fast outside government buildings and we’ll pray through the night. As we do, we’ll create openings for quiet so Christ can come tell us of light, peace, and joy.

The holy darkness gets cold, especially when someone like Mensa dies.  Yet we’ll keep waiting in silent expectation because we still believe. Even in the darkness, healing happens and hope can arrive. Amen!

love upon my heart for teens like Trayvon

A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils.  We’re angry, lamenting and mourning.  In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.

Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school.  He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day.  Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong.  The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital.  Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted.  This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention.  I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class.  His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him.  “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.

It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.

Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose.   My students are teens, just like Trayvon.  They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls.  They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework.  They’re typical teenage boys.

My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys.  They have to be careful about where they go and what they do.  They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason.  Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.

My students should not be in danger for being who they are.  No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like.  Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.

…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.   -Jeremiah 31:32b-34

I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice.  I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus.  My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.

It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago.  I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa.  I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity.  I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work.  To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)

It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me.  Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing.  When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.

Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator.  I am leading a service-learning trip to my home.  I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries.  We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together.  They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.

The service trip will be interesting and amazing.  We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun.  I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth.  I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace.  God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.

It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe.   Yet, I have hope.  They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth.  Together, all humanity is learning the truth.

The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice.  God’s law is written on all of our hearts.

This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part one of two

Wearing gloves severely inhibits fine motor skills. As I fumbled to extricate my Chicago Transit Authority card from my wallet and insert it into the vending machine at the Granville El Station I heard: “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” The mechanized announcement suddenly instilled in me a sense of urgency despite the fact that I was leaving hours before what was necessary to reach my destination on time.

Carefully and quickly separating softened single bills into the machine—please don’t reject these ragged edges—I heard the rough voice of a woman calling out from behind me, “Hey Loyola!” She was addressing a stout young man with a trim dark beard wearing a bulky Carhartt jacket who was hustling over to the machine neighboring mine. She didn’t ask for money, only recognition from someone she knew.

My mind told me to reach into my pocket and give her a business card indicating the days and hours the community I live with opens our house for showers and meals and visiting. Should I? “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” I could hear the rumbling of the approaching train. My finger pressed “Vend.” My body turned. My legs jogged up the steps. Without having consciously made a decision, I conceded to habit over responding to desire. I thought I wanted to catch that train, forgetting I wasn’t in a rush. Wants, skimming the surface of our consciousness, are far easier to capture than the desires that swim our depths. I never even saw what she looked like.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ones we overlook. The thought has followed me around, applying itself to observations and conversations and readings. It interrupted me the other night while reading Arundhati Roy’s captivating novel, The God of Small Things. She writes of an encounter between “Touchable” police, and an “Untouchable” man suspected of a crime. The suspect, Velutha, is sleeping. He is awakened by a brutal beating.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him (293).

They didn’t recognize him. And as cozy as it would be for me to read this and mourn the injustice of caste-based cruelty in India, the ability to overlook our fellow creatures is not confined to any one people or region. It is not a faraway problem. It is close at hand.

Awareness of this welled up a few nights ago as I listened to my roommate read an account of a shooting that had happened in a nearby neighborhood. Three were killed, two shot.  One victim was killed by a police officer who was himself injured. One victim was the officer. Information about why these shootings happened, who was involved, how the community is affected were absent. Details about the officer’s history with the force, about the noise and commotion on the scene, crowd out consideration of the human loss. There is no grieving. No asking why it happened, how it might have been prevented.

Why? Perhaps I am jumping to unfair conclusions, but my guess is this: the people who died were not people who mattered. We didn’t recognize them. For two of the men this is quite literally true, at the time of the report, they had not been identified.

As Christians we are called to see Christ in each other. But long before Godself was manifested in the body of Jesus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.” This is following instructions to set the oppressed free, share bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into your house, cloth the naked. It is followed by a prompting to “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” and a promise that when we do these things, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desires…” Embedded in my mind is that idea that those hungry, afflicted, naked that we are called to attend to are our own flesh, and the unabashed insight that unless instructed otherwise we will be inclined to hide ourselves from them, from our own flesh.

We have heard Jesus’ word, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Can it also be said, in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Whatever you do…you do unto yourself.”? If this is true, we are truly a masochistic culture. We are trained into the habit of self-forgetting. It is common, not only to lock the homeless out of our house, but to drive them from the parks. It is acceptable not only to keep our bread for ourselves but also to prohibit the hungry from foraging in dumpsters for food we have already thrown away. It is known that not only are the oppressed imprisoned but they are tortured and maligned. I have spent a lifetime developing habits of avoidance, averting my eyes from looks of recognition with acquaintances, not to mention the stranger on the street, and ignoring systemic issues that seem too big or too confusing to become involved. I have developed a habit of hiding myself from my own flesh. Breaking such a habit requires tremendous intentionality and practice. Fortunately, prophets continue to live and teach another way, individuals and groups; people who are ordinary, and radical.

To be continued…

This week’s guest blogger, Amy Nee, grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida.  Experiments with truth have steadily brought her North, through Kentucky, to Chicago where she is currently living and loving at the White Rose Catholic Worker.  Her musings are piling up here: amytheshow.blogspot.com.  Together, Amy and Sister Julia like to cook, pray, study non-violence, write, garden and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.