March 24, 2019 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Vigil Against Gun Violence

Genesis 4:2b, 4b-5, 8-10
Hosea 4:1-3
Luke 23:27-31
Matthew 5:1-9
Words of Outrage: Emma González

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness: Spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace. Amen. 

That’s a prayer for peace from our prayer book. And like most of the prayers in our prayer book, it echoes the language of the scriptures. And so of course it doesn’t talk about guns; it talks about swords.

There’s a lot about swords in the Bible. There’s the great passage from Isaiah, inscribed on a wall at the United Nations building: “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” There’s Jesus telling his followers that his coming would bring not peace but a sword—and then, when they fail to grasp that he’s speaking metaphorically, they try to defend him with swords when he’s being arrested and he says, “Enough! Put away your sword, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

So there’s plenty about swords in the Bible, enough to suggest that God likes it when people put down their weapons. But there’s not a lot about guns, in fact nothing at all, because of course there were no guns two and three thousand years ago when those texts were written. And so in choosing the readings for this service we included plenty of scripture, but we also had to reach outside scripture, to a modern-day prophetic voice from a young person: Emma González, speaking just over a year ago.

Exactly a year ago many of us were gathered, here and elsewhere, to stand up against gun violence in the March for Our Lives. Many people from this congregation were here in Santa Rosa at Old Courthouse Square. I was at the March in Oakland. And in the year since then, too little has changed—a little, but too little. Now gun violence is not limited to the United States, as we saw tragically a little over a week ago in Christchurch, New Zealand. But in New Zealand we are also seeing a society responding, quickly and decisively, by reassessing its own laws and its own relationship with guns, while here in the United States we remain stuck in political gridlock.

We heard Emma González point out that since the time of the Second Amendment the guns have changed but the laws have not. And it’s also true that since the time of the Bible, the weapons have changed but our hearts have not. It’s sometimes said that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And there’s some truth to that as far as it goes. We know the human heart has been capable of violence as far back as humans go. The story of Cain and Abel is about that violence as it first enters the world, and then goes on to spiral down through history in one act of retribution after another. So yes: people kill people. But it’s also true that people kill people with guns. And people with guns are capable of killing in different ways, on a different scale, than ever before.

Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about guns any more than it does about airplanes or germ theory or the Internet. So, just like with those other topics, people of faith have to make decisions in our own time about what’s right, based on principles scripture does give us, and based on the consciences and minds God has given us to follow the Spirit’s leadings in the time we do live in. When God’s children are being slaughtered, we can’t stand idly by. When there’s a chance to protect innocent life, we’re called to act.

This country has more guns per capita, and more guns period, than any other place on earth. It’s not even close. American civilians own more guns than the next 25 countries combined. Yemen, a country in the middle of a brutal civil war, has 52 guns for every hundred people. We have 120. This is the only place in the world with more guns than people. In terms of other countries as wealthy as the United States, the next highest is Canada with 34, and it goes down from there.[1] It’s fair to say this country is addicted to guns. And that addiction has consequences. We have 3.8 gun murders per 100,000 people. Canada has 0.4, Denmark less than 0.2.[2] The human heart is not that different among those countries. The availability of lethal weapons is.

Now there are lots of good reasons why an individual might choose to own a gun. Some of us here tonight own guns. The issue here is not whether a responsible, trained and screened person should be able to buy a gun. The issue is our national addiction to a kind of fantasy of power and domination, expressed in violence. The issue is a culture where Bushmaster rifles, the kind of rifle used in the Sandy Hook shootings, are advertised with the slogan, “Consider your man card reissued.” It’s a sickness of the spirit, an impoverishment of the soul. And it results in a society that is so overmilitarized that we inflict the trauma of active-shooter drills on our children, as if this were a normal thing to have to prepare for; that we tell teachers they should pack heat in the classroom, as if the only possible way we can imagine responding to violence is by unleashing more violence. I don’t want to live in a society that is armed to the teeth. I don’t want my little daughter to grow up in that society.

We’re not going to change the human heart overnight, and we’re not going to cure our society’s addiction to violence overnight. But if our goal is a little more modest, if our goal is saving lives and making people safer, there are some common-sense things we can do, if we as a society have the will—if we have the maturity to put the lives of our children and our loved ones above that fantasy of cartoonish machismo. This church, the Episcopal Church, has gone on record in favor of a lot of those common-sense things. Our General Convention has passed resolutions in favor of requiring universal background checks, permits, and safety training for anyone who purchases a firearm. And in favor of banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and devices like bump stocks that essentially convert semiautomatic weapons into automatic ones. Those measures on their own would go a long way. I’m happy to say the White House has actually taken steps to ban bump stocks, and even though on its own that’s just one thing, it shows that when national attention is focused on this issue, things can change.

It’s especially important when people on the right side of the political spectrum work on these issues—because that’s where the political will is that can change things. Some of the best values that the right historically holds dear are responsibility, duty, and honor. There’s a conservative case to be made for expecting people who want to own guns to show the responsibility that comes with the privilege. Our shameful political gridlock is based on partisanship. But this should not be a partisan issue. This is a moral issue.

Because the question is: who are we? In this congregation we believe we are children of God, infinitely precious and beloved in God’s sight, made in God’s own image. Every time a person is wounded or killed with a gun, it is God’s own image that is being assaulted and destroyed.

And so we are called to act. We are called to vote, to tell our politicians that if they want to earn our vote, that they need to support laws that will help save lives. We are called to show up, at marches like the one a year ago today, at events like this, to help build attention and support that affects public opinion over time. We are called to give, to use our resources where we can to promote real learning and advocacy. We are called to write letters to the editor, to talk with friends and neighbors, to do the hard work of winning hearts and minds. And we are called to pray. Prayer is a form of action—not the glib “thoughts and prayers” we so often hear about as a substitute for action, but prayer to a God who hears us, and hurts with us, and uses us to help bring change. We pray tonight in lament for what has happened. We pray for those who have died, for each precious person taken too soon from this earth. We pray for those who grieve. And we pray for a future where we will not have to pray those prayers of lament any more, where there will be no more of these posters, where we will not have to have services like this one.

God’s dream for this world is the Beloved Community, a world where all live in peace and all are fed and all are free of violence and fear. That vision is what gives us hope. We won’t get there by our own efforts alone, and we won’t get there in this life, not all the way. But God can use us, right now, in this life, empowering our efforts, to move this world one notch closer to the Beloved Community. A world that’s a little kinder, a little safer.

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus: for they will be called the children of God. God, make us your children. Make us peacemakers.

[1] Small Arms Survey, 2017.

[2] Nurith Aizenman, “Gun Violence: How the U.S. Compares with Other Countries,” Goats and Soda from NPR (October 6, 2017);