Bringing Down Gun Violence with Holy Rage
By James Atwood
Children in the United States are twelve times more likely to die from firearms injury than children in twenty-five other industrialized nations combined. Gun murder rates in the United States per one-hundred thousand people are more than seventeen times higher than those in Australia; thirty-five times higher than in Germany; thirty-seven times higher than in Spain; and 355 times higher than in Japan.
I began working to prevent gun violence in 1975. I was motivated largely by rage over a friend’s tragic death and my country’s sanction of 30,000 deaths per year. I began in anger, but I stayed at it because of my hope in the Lamb of God who will usher in the full and final victory over violence and death. Christian faith steers us to affirm that love is stronger than hate; life is more powerful than death; peace is more compelling than violence; and God’s promises are more influential than guns. Guns can only kill. Love can bring new life; love can bring a resurrection.
Part of the reason gun violence is rampant in America is because the subject itself is seldom raised from our pulpits, discussed in officer’s meetings, debated in Sunday school, and considered at our fellowship dinners and pot-luck suppers. Yes, these are venues where words are plentiful, but the truth and action that faith requires always begins with words. Even God needed words to create the world. “Let there be light,” the Creator decreed and creation happened. Creation always happens, for good or ill, whenever words are spoken. Every war, every movement to degrade people by nation, race, ethnicity, or sex began with words.
Likewise every public measure to rescue the needy, every social advance of the human race, and every stand for justice began with words. Words are never the end of our witness, but our witness always begins with words. If gun violence declines in America, it will be because the church starts talking about it—and thinking and arguing about it—using words. When is the last time your church had in-depth conversations about gun violence and made conscious decisions to do something about it?
One of the most loving things one can do to prevent violence, or honor those who have needlessly suffered and died, is to welcome a holy rage. When violence is destroying human beings, those who love are enraged. When injustice reigns, rage is often the first step of love. Jesus was angry when worshipers were exploited in the temple. In an act of love he turned over tables and threw out the moneychangers.
William Wilberforce, member of the English Parliament, was enraged by the cruelty of the slave trade. With love in his heart he went public in his denunciation and became a major figure in the abolitionist movement. Sojourner Truth was so angry over the indignities of slavery that with insightful love she walked thousands of miles to help slaves “follow the drinking gourd” to freedom.
When Dutch Christians witnessed Nazi atrocities against Jews, they were outraged and started smuggling Jews to safety. Freedom riders were incensed “the colored” could not eat at lunch counters in five- and ten-cent stores, sit in the front of the bus, or use toilets in gas stations. Out of love for their brothers and sisters, they boarded buses and helped break the chains of segregation. People who love do not sit back and watch when terrible things are happening to neighbors or friends. Those who love welcome within a holy rage.
While we take some of the steps above and are convinced we are following God’s call, we must never demonize our Christian brothers and sisters whose views about guns are the polar opposite of our own. We must never claim we are closer to God than they for there are earnest Christians on both sides of this issue. We need to walk together into the future in order to build the America we all want for our children and grandchildren. Neither side can have what it most desires for our society without respecting and accommodating the other. But again, isn’t that how God made the world?
We must learn to speak the truth in love to those whose views are different. We must take heart because the polls tell us the vast majority of Americans are not far apart on guns and gun violence. 86 percent of all gun owners and NRA members agree that Second Amendment Rights and keeping guns from criminals and terrorists are complementary, not contradictory. What are we waiting for? Let the discussions and the healing begin!
James E. Atwood is the author of the America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose from Cascade Books. James is also Pastor Emeritus of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Arlington, Virginia, from which he retired in 1999 and presently the Chairperson of Heeding God’s Call of Greater Washington, a faith-based ecumenical movement that encourages gun shops to adopt a code of conduct that deters illegal purchasing and the trafficking of handguns.