Saturday, January 29, 2011

Imagination and Gun Violence Prevention

Over the past couple weeks I have been researching the gun industry in preparation for a workshop I will be doing in March on faith-based approaches to gun violence prevention. Through my research I keep bumping up against two realities in the ongoing debate between advocates of gun rights and advocates of gun control. First, I am deeply impressed with the ability of gun rights advocates to frame issue in terms that resonate deeply with a significant percentage of the American people. All one needs to do is go the website of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and click on one of their many videos and you will hear a heartfelt appeal for protecting the rights of individuals to have and use guns that taps into the American values of freedom, patriotism, individualism, and family. Whether one agrees with the NRA not, one has to be impressed with how they present and package their message.

Second, I have been equally impressed with the number of studies from such places as Harvard University, John Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of California-Davis that have put forth compelling evidence that the proliferation of firearms in American society leads to an increasing number of deaths by those firearms. One thing that is startling to most casual observers is that the number of suicides by guns significantly outstrips the number of homicides by guns, and that the presence of a gun in a home is significantly more likely to be used against the gun owner’s friends and loved ones than an outside intruder. So there is compelling and overwhelming evidence that one way to reduce the number of gun-related deaths is to reduce the availability of gun is our society.

These two realities have brought me face to face with the dilemma for those of us who would like to limit the presence of guns in our society, and thereby reduce the number of gun-related injuries and death: the argument will not be one by more facts, figures, and logical arguments because the other side is not convinced by research, but by something much deeper in their psyche. While the society as a whole is divided over how much gun control is the right amount, generally speaking those who advocate for gun rights are far more motivated and passionate than those who think the laws might have to change. Because of the recent shootings in Tucson, the debate has heated up again, but if the pattern of the past repeats itself, pretty soon gun violence will go back to being a non-issue for most Americans, especially those who say there ought to be tighter restrictions. We who are working to change the laws need a mechanism to convince folks that this is an issue worth fighting for, because the other side is primed and ready to respond.

While logic and research are vitally important if we are to make wise decisions as a society, they will not win the day; we need to appeal to the cultural values that move and drive folks. Moreover our objective should not be so much to change the minds of the true believers on the gun rights side, but rather to motivate those who think the laws ought to change to put the issue on their front burner rather than the back burner. The key is to appeal to people’s sense of imagination and to tap into values that run deep in their spirits. In his book, The Hopeful Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann (referring to philosopher Paul Ricouer) says “people are changed not by ethical urging, but by a transformed imagination” (p. 24). What Brueggemann and Ricouer say to those of us in the gun violence prevention movement is that we have to go deeper than facts and logic and tap into the deep recesses of what makes people human.

This is why I think the faith community, in particular the Christian community, is vital to the efforts to reduce the number of guns on our streets and in our homes because as people of faith we deal in symbols and the deep things of the spirit. We tap into the deep recesses of the human soul by singing songs, telling stories, and saying prayers. We share food and life together in a way that shapes and forms who we are as people. Stuart Murray,speaking about the Anabaptist Christian tradition of which I am a part says our churches need to “nurture unconventional reflexes and free our imaginations to explore creative possibilities” in dealing with issues of violence and conflict (Naked Anabaptist, p.132).

When I think of the history of the Civil Rights movement, I see this capacity to “nurture unconventional reflexes” and “free people’s imaginations” at work. How else would people walk in to fire hoses, refrain from resorting to violence and walk hundreds of miles for the dream of equality? What Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders did was touch something deep in the soul of many people, black and white, so much so that they were willing to go up against the huge wall of Jim Crow segregation. Ultimately what won the day was something that resonated deeply with most Americans. That’s why the “I Have A Dream Speech” can still stir us 48 years after it was first spoken.

As I continue to explore this issue, I am encouraged that there are many people of deep faith, who likewise have taken on the gun violence issue in creative ways. I will share just one. Recently, I talked with a young woman, a victim of gun violence herself, who is organizing a campaign to go into urban communities, and telling her story and calling people to look at other ways of dealing with issues of violence and to put away the guns. She plans to start in the community where she grew up in and then go to other places. She hopes to mobilize young people and local organizations to work together to reduce the violence in their communities. I have no doubt she will be successful in her work because she can speak to the fears, doubts and hopelessness that often lead people to succumb to a life of violence. She is driven by her experience and by her faith in God that a different way of life is possible.

My hope is to come across many more folks like this woman, who can speak to the deep parts of people’s lives, whose imaginations have been set free by their faith in God, and who have been nurtured to respond in way counter to the culture of fear and violence that has so deeply gripped us as a nation and a people. My hope is that the efforts of which I am a part can draw on the creativity of people in such a way that something is touched in them, and compels them to take a stand for gun violence prevention. I know that is what grabbed me. I knew all the arguments and some of the relevant facts, but it was man’s story about the death of his brother that got me moving. I have no doubt that we can turn the tide of this debate, but I now realize more studies and compelling logic will not by themselves move folks to action. We need to find ways to tap into people’s  imagination and move them in the place within that lies beyond words.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Remembering and Learning From the Ugliness of Our Past

Each January we are invited to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This weekend many folks will be engaged in service projects, special worship services and cultural events. This year I will be participating on the “Conversation of Kings: From Dream to Sacrifice Toward a More Perfect Union” sponsored by the New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE) in Philadelphia being held at Girard College (9 am) and South Philadelphia High School (1 pm). If you are around, come join us.

For me the Martin Luther King holiday is a day to remember the history of racism and to reflect on my efforts to overcome the effects of that racism in our nation and in my own personal life. For that reason I was particularly intrigued by a recent column by Leonard Pitts, Jr, “Don’t Let Others Define Us.” In this article Pitts writes of a trip he once took to Auschwitz, the Nazi prison camp where thousands of Jews were killed during World War II. During his time there, he was surprised to learn that Israeli school groups regularly visit the site to continually remind the next generations of the genocide that killed six million of their fellow Jews. Pitts wrote that he was “impressed with the way Jews have institutionalized Holocaust education.” By contrast he says that generally speaking African Americans tend to distance themselves from their past of suffering. He quotes one woman who witnessed a lynching in 1930, and who refused to talk about it with anyone and countered by saying “Why bring it up. It’s not helping anything. People don’t want to hear it.”

The point that Pitts makes is that if a people does not work hard to remember their history and allow it to shape and guide their actions in the present, others who have a vested interest in sanitizing the ugliness of their past will do it for them. I think this tendency to sanitize the ugliness of history is powerfully at work in our remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This is true not only of African Americans, but also most certainly among White Americans as well. These days people like to quote a few choice lines from the “I Have A Dream” speech without focusing on King’s advocacy for the poor, his opposition to militarism, and his continual battle with local governments to change laws that treated African Americans as less than human. We forget that the FBI spied on him and spread lies about him, and that only when the brutality of racism was dragged onto the world stage did the Federal government begin acting to change discriminatory laws and practices that had been institutionalized for centuries. We forget that King and his followers were beaten and regarded as communist subversives, and that King himself was assassinated as he was participating in a strike by underpaid garbage workers in Memphis.

We also forget that while there was virulent minority of whites who participated in violent acts of racial hatred and intimidation, and a activist minority of whites who publicly allied themselves with the Civil Rights Movement, there was a much larger percentage of whites who sat on the side and did nothing. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written while he was in jail was written to this “silent majority. While in jail King had being criticized by “white moderates” for not being patient and creating a social disturbance. They said that he should be patient and trust that prayer and time would bring about racial reconciliation. King responded at length to these charges and said that such an attitude was exactly why the racial injustices were allowed to continue. Of those who sat on the sidelines and preached patience, King wrote the following:

“I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’  than to justice, who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

What King was saying then, still resonates today, that in matters of equality and social justice, there can be no fence sitters. To step aside and to not act is to reinforce the unjust status quo.

I would hope that on this Martin Luther King, Jr. day that both African Americans and White Americans would take time to reflect on the ugliness of our racist past, not so whites can feel shame and guilt and African Americans can feel anger and disgust, but so we can learn from, and hopefully not repeat, the same actions today. When I listen to how the immigration debate is framed, or why the Dream Act has not been passed, or how my fellow citizens treat Muslim-American with disgust and suspicion, I fear we have not learned from the past. The actions, words and rationalizations for our anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes are hauntingly similar to the actions, words and rationalizations used to deny basic civil rights to African Americans 60 years ago.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. asks his fellow African-Americans to remember their past and teach it to the next generation. I would ask White Americans to do the same. Just as a doctor can not provide a healing solution without uncovering the underlying disease, so too we can never reach King’s dream of racial justice and reconciliation without continually coming to grips with the racist past that brought us to this moment, and hinder our efforts to overcome the racial brokenness that afflicts us.

*** For those in the Philadelphia area, one place one might start to come to grips with that past is the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery in the Port Richmond section of the city. This private museum was put together by the descendants of former slaves and graphically illustrates what slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism was and still is, and how history lives on in our interactions today as whites and people of color. I have taken several student groups there, and it has had a powerful effect on everyone.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Blowin in the Wind

Many people who came of age in the 1960’s remember the Bob Dylan song, “Blowin in the Wind,” which asked a series of questions that probed the ethos of that age. Today as I read of the shooting deaths of nine people in Tucson, AZ and the serious injury to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the words of the third verse of that song seemed particularly pertinent:

                How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky?
                How many ears must one man have,
                                                      before he can hear people cry?
                How many deaths will it take till he knows
                                                     that too many people have died?
                The answer my friend is blowin in the wind; 
                                                     the answer is blowin in the wind.

Not a day goes when we don’t hear of another senseless death due to proliferation of guns. Tragically and ironically, one of the people killed in the Tucson murders was U.S. District Judge John Roll, who had recently ruled against more stringent background checks on gun purchasers. The man who committed these latest murders had put up YouTube videos indicating his mental and emotional imbalance, and his disgust for politicians. Rep Giffords herself had boasted during last fall’s campaign that she packed a gun and knew how to use it. Ironically, the same model gun was used to shoot her in the head. While our government spends billions of dollars to protect us from outside terrorists, and more billions to keep out immigrants, it is the people who we pass on the street or the mall everyday who represent the greatest threat to our safety.

Not long ago, a friend of mine had a gun pulled on her at a gas station because a woman thought she my friend had cut her off. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it was yet another example of the danger we face from total strangers, or in some case neighbors, and even loved ones wielding guns in a moment of rage or at the end of their emotional rope.

Now I am sure the pro-gun lobby and the NRA are spinning their tired response that it is not guns that kill people but people who kill people. However, as this and every other senseless killing indicates, it is people with guns that kill people. Therefore we must have laws and policies that carefully and regularly monitors those have been granted the right carry a gun.  The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that allows such lax laws when it comes to the management and control of firearms. As Bob Dylan asks: How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died, and that one way to address that question is to put common sense controls and background checks on those people who desire to own and use guns, especially guns designed solely for killing people.

The answer my friends is blowin in the wind, but it need not. The answer is right there is front of us, if we pressure our legislators to require stronger background checks on all gun purchases, and that we regularly monitor those who have been granted the right to carry a handgun (whose only purpose is to shoot people), and to determine if they have a legitimate need for such a firearm.

How many tears must be shed, before we can hear people’s cries? How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people died? How many Columbines, Virginia Techs and Tucsons will it take. The answer is there…. if we only bother to listen.