Between the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the domestic terrorist attack at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the shooting at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC, it’s been a terrible few weeks for gun violence in America. These high-profile shootings have stirred up earnest conversation about why Americans have so many guns and why we so often use them to shoot one another. Parents at the park and neighbors on street corners are searching for answers, even if politicians have decided that nothing can be done about gun control in an election year. After the violence of this summer, the blood cries out from the ground, demanding something from us all.
Given this, I was genuinely dumbfounded by the announcement in our local paper this morning that a Tea Party PAC in Western North Carolina has planned a “Machine Gun Social” to raise money for its candidates. According to the announcement, those who attend this fundraiser in Brevard on September 29th will be able to fire an Uzi for $25, an M-16 for $35, or an AK-47 for $50. In utter shock, I picked up the phone and called friends who live in Brevard. “Have you heard about this?” I exclaimed. They had not, but I assure you, I’m not making this up.
I grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country with men who kept guns behind the seats of their trucks. I still eat deer every Thanksgiving, shot in the woods behind my parents’ home. None of this scares me. I understand the sentiments of the “right to bear arms” folks, and I respect the suspicion of government regulation that drives their popularity in these parts. But I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone could support a Machine Gun Social.
Because assault weapons do what they claim to do. And while mass shootings may grab our collective attention in seasons like this, guns reek havoc in under resourced neighborhoods everyday. Here in Durham, roughly thirty people a year are murdered and dozens of others are injured by guns. Over the past ten years, some of these have been young men I’ve known and worked with. I recoil at the idea of a Machine Gun Social because I lament the violence that has scarred their lives.
What are we to do? Thankfully, I ran into my friend Marcia Owen, just this week. Twenty years ago, when Marcia was working with an AIDS ministry in a housing project here in Durham, she got to know some mothers and heard stories about how they put their babies to bed in the bathtub for fear that they might be hit by stray bullets. Marcia’s the sort of woman who gets stuff done, so she went to work to change gun laws. She even made some progress. But, as she tells it, she realized that her soul needed something more. She needed to do something immeasurable.
Marcia started hosting vigils for victims of gun violence, gathering with their families and community members at the site of murders. She immersed herself in the lives of victims, and their suffering broke her heart open. But it was one particular vigil that changed everything for her. In Living Without Enemies, a wonderful book co-authored with Marcia, theologian Sam Wells tells the story:
Mourners were standing there, and it was dark—it was in the wintertime. The neighbors were all gathered at the vigil, talking about the great things James had done for them. He was a good man who gave of himself for others, they all said.
Then Marcia spotted two young men walking down the street. She left the group, approached them and said, “Come and join us.” And they said, “What are you doing?” Marcia told them, and they joined the group—much to her surprise. At the end of the closing prayer, one of the young men said, “This is good. This is good, what you’re doing. Keep doing it—this is a good thing. Thank you.” Then they walked away. And the woman next to Marcia said, “They’re just coming home from prison. They just got left off at the courthouse, and they’re walking home.”
About six weeks later, Marcia learned from a friend that the city’s most recent homicide was the young man at the vigil who had affirmed and encouraged them. He hadn’t said, “You crazy people, what are you doing in my neighborhood?” He’d understood that they were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do. And that discovery brought Marcia to her knees. It broke her heart open, and she realized that it isn’t about victims—it was about all of us.
What Marcia learned by being present to those who suffer gun violence in our town is the essential lesson for our nation as we mourn the recent outbreak of mass shootings. It really is about all of us–and not just when it happens on our side of town. We cannot end the cycle of violence that threatens to consume us simply by changing laws, improving mental health services, getting tough on crime, or improving early detection systems. We can only end it, as Marcia says, by doing something immeasurable.
Which is to say, we witness to the possibility of something better than the violence we see around us when we acknowledge that Jesus interrupts our broken world not with a “solution,” but with the power of suffering love. He does something immeasurable. And, because he does, we can too.
That’s the gospel my friend Marcia is proclaiming with her whole life. On a day when a Machine Gun Social is reported without irony as legitimate news, it’s the only gospel that gives me hope.