By J. Scott Jackson
Let’s chop up a gun,” Shane Claiborne said. “You might want to step back a little.”
The Simple Way community founder and activist donned a pair of work goggles and proceeded to slice through the barrel of a rifle with a buzz saw. The gesture, both symbolic and practical, riveted me — as if some kind of enchantment locked onto those materials had been broken. A liturgy followed, including a litany of lament for lives cut short by bullets and for the absurdities of America’s gun fetish; with testimonials from an Episcopal priest and a community organizer/garden builder who had lost close family members to guns. Then we sang and processed some seedlings down to a greenhouse, filing by a line of t-shirts that some of our youth had labeled with the names of individuals slain by guns in Connecticut this year.
The event took place in May at Camp Washington, a ministry of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. It featured members of Swords to Plowshares Northeast, one of many groups nationwide that dismantles and forges firearms into garden tools, works of art, and other life-affirming items. After lunch, we retired to the back yard, where Claiborne, the Rt. Rev. James E. Curry, and other helpers stoked portable forges so we could bang red-hot rings of sliced gun metal into heart-shaped trinkets. My family and I went home refreshed and inspired. The next morning, I heard the news from Buffalo, and 10 days later, from Uvalde.
I confess my reticence in writing about gun violence. After all, I have never lost a family member or close friend to guns. But as the father of a teenager, I can shudder at the unimaginable. The Newtown tragedy shook me like no other mass shooting had before, even more than Columbine or Virginia Tech: Surely, I was convinced, this was the time things would begin to change. As the typical political evasions and inertia set in, though, I became trapped in numb despair punctuated by moments of rage. As the dreadful news reports have broken, I often have reached for the off button, simply overwhelmed. That warm afternoon in the bucolic hills of western Connecticut, though, the shell of protection encasing my heart began to crack a little. To use language from the lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow, I know that, as a believer, I’m called to “live humanly” while I live, just as the Son of God does, and that means cherishing and defending all human life. For followers of Jesus, there is no “off button” to shut out our common humanity.
I believe Stringfellow’s writings speak a word to us today. In his stunning treatise-manifesto, An Ethic for Christians and Others in a Strange Land (1973), he confronts the myriad political and ideological forces conspiring to numb the American conscience; his presenting context was the U.S. government’s prosecution of the war in Southeast Asia. He notes the ways incessant media coverage can wear down and anesthetize the public, even if the coverage itself is not fake. (What might he have made of our own 24/7 social media barrage?) In a similar vein, Claiborne and other prophets are trying to cut through the fog of rhetoric and misinformation obscuring the very human tragedy of gun violence, which afflicts both perpetrator and victim. When the camera crews roll out of the site of the latest carnage, the epidemic does not wane. Claiborne reminded us that the frantically covered, horrific spectacles that are mass shootings (which, of course, rightfully deserve our attention) offer only a glimpse of a much more pervasive — and, tragically, almost quotidian — crisis.
In their book Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence , Claiborne and Michael Martin, a Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith, vividly explore the history, mythologies, contexts, and consequences of our national addiction to guns. (Martin also is the founder of RAWtools Inc., an organization that converts guns to tools and teaches nonviolent confrontation skills.) They rehearse grim statistics, such as these: the United States boasts almost five times as many licensed gun dealers as McDonald’s restaurants; roughly one half of the approximately 38,000 gun deaths annually are suicides (This figure has increased by several thousand since the book was published.); there are 400,000 crimes involving guns each year (41). “Even our own military members are more likely to die at home than they are in combat overseas,” they write (39). “Soldiers are being killed by their own guns more often than by the guns of any foreign enemy. Suicide by gun has surpassed war as the military’s leading cause of death.” Likely, the real scope of the crisis is worse even than such shocking facts reveal: Thorough research on gun violence is hard to come by, thanks to the intensive, obstructive efforts of the gun lobby.
Strikingly, the U.S. Congress recently approved several modest gun measures to help stem gun violence (though the future of such legislative measures remains uncertain after the recent Supreme Court decision.) Still, despite the necessary role of electoral politics, Claiborne and Martin remind us we cannot wait for politicians to act: finding solutions begins where the problems originate — with ourselves. As communities of faith, we can weep and pray, but as Claiborne urged us, we can also organize. What is required is not demonization of gun-owners, many of whom are open to reasonable reforms, but a society-wide metanoia, a deep conversion at the individual and community levels.
Crucially, as believers, we must recall we struggle not with flesh and blood, but with powers that are fundamentally spiritual (Eph. 6:12). Confronting the powers with the word of the gospel, entails prayer, discernment, and resistance. As Christians we follow a savior who endured hatred and violence rather than inflicting them. This spiritual battle requires not only empathy, but also our best creativity. Our praise and worship, to be authentic, must open spaces for lament and healing, and we also must also engage in acts of artistic and liturgical resistance. Stringfellow acutely perceived that the fallen powers that be are themselves entrapped as “acolytes of death,” incarnating the grim telos he named “death as social purpose.”
Such enchantment calls for nothing less than exorcism. (The baptismal liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer retains echoes of the minor exorcisms that used to accompany all baptisms. Thus, we have precedent for retrieving such ancient rites and updating them with a stronger socio-political punch.) Stringfellow himself infamously performed a public exorcism of the Nixon administration — whatever the efficacy of this intervention, one notes the president later resigned in disgrace. “This kind can come out only by prayer,” Jesus admonished his followers (Mark 9:29, NIV). As we face the gun violence crisis, liturgical acts of death-defiance and life-affirmation might take myriad forms today, from candle-lit vigils, to naming victims in public worship, to even crashing an NRA prayer breakfast. Or perhaps hammering a trowel blade out of an M-15 barrel.
Such acts, Stringfellow believed, bear witness to the transcendent power of resurrection amid a culture idolizing death. To be sure, to imagine that such gestures, moving though they might be, will ultimately “save” us would be hubris and works righteousness. Just maybe, though, they might serve as signs of the coming rule of justice that, as we profess each week, will set all things right with the return of Jesus Christ and the consummation of the reign of God on earth.
Scott Jackson is a theologian, independent scholar, and writer living in Northampton, Mass.