A sermon on gun violence

Breathe Peace: Disrupt Death; Celebrate Life

Addressing Gun Violence

A meditation for Beloved Community

8 April 2018

John 20:20-27

But Thomas (who was called the twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

Framing Thoughts on our Theme

The title for our Easter Series has evolved a bit… it started with something catchy like this, “What does it mean to be people of non-violence in today’s violence obsessed world?” We liked that theme, but early on in our conversations we recognized a couple of shortcomings with this possible framing, Which Vern described well in his newsletter article on Thursday night.

One of the potential shortcomings is that the term non-violence is a highly limited term. I’ve always thought that this term failed to find its force for two reasons. 1) It clearly states what it’s adherents are against, violence, killing, getting rid of people, which is extremely helpful but it fails to say what it’s adherents are actually for. It fails to name what we actually want to see come to life on the face of the earth. 2) Another weakness in this term is that it’s simply not creative enough. In calling ourselves adherents to the philosophy and principles of non-violence, we are actually allowing violence to win. We are allowing violence to define and determine us. We are basing the definition of our own way upon an assumed baseline understanding of violence, and that is ultimately allowing violence to have the final word.

We must recall that in our myth, unlike others from its time period, violence was not the first thing. The Enuma Elish is a prominent Babylonian myth that preceded our Hebrew story, and in the Enuma Elish, creation is an act of violence. In the story, the goddess, Tiamat, is murdered and dismembered, and from her corpse the world is formed. In this myth, Walter Wink says, “The origin of evil precedes the order of things… evil is prior to good. Violence is inherent within the godhead. Evil is an ineradicable constituent of ultimate reality, and possesses ontological priority over good.”

In our Hebrew origin story, peace is the first thing, it precedes violence. A good God creates a good creation. “God saw everything that God had made,” the text says, “and indeed it was very good.” If goodness is ontologically prior to evil, if peace precedes violence, why would we allow our way of inhabiting the earth to be named, defined, and determined by violence? It suggests something of a lack of creativity, a reluctance to see that another way, a way free of violence and destruction is possible.

Another framing note for understanding the theme to note is that we’re not talking about an “alternative” to violence. We’re not talking about creating an “alternative community” that is opposing the mainstream by doing it’s own thing over here where no one is watching. Again, the “alternative” framing lacks creativity. The “alternative” frame suggests that that which deviates from God’s dream is actually prior and would determine the shape of our lives. We are not suggesting an alternative to violence, we are re-locating ourselves within a much deeper story, the story of the very origins of the universe.

This is the energy of Easter, of course. The resurrection is not simply an alternative to death, but a return to that which precedes death — a return to the first thing: a good God in relationship with a good created order.

The resurrection marks a return towards, relocation within, and ultimately the fulfillment of a much deeper story about the way things really are. The resurrection is not simply an alternative to death, but the manifestation of the really real origins of the universe. When Jesus greets the three Marys in the garden, the Mary’s hear his greeting as if those old words from Genesis are echoing off canyon walls, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good!” What is really real. What is deep, and original, and true is revealed. Resurrection is not the alternative to death. Resurrection is the ultimate manifestation of life.

And so the theme title for this series has evolved a bit — Breathe Peace: Disrupt Death; Celebrate Life. There are a few orienting scriptural echoes that guide this theme:

  • In Genesis 2 God forms humankind from the dust of the earth, and breaths into his body the breath of life.
  • In Ezekiel 37, God leads the prophet into a valley of dry bones and asks him, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Oh God, you know.” Then God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones saying, “God will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Ezekiel prophesied as God commanded, and breath came into the bones, and they lived and stood on their feet, and God said to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say they are dried up, their hope is lost, they are cut off completely. But I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
  • In Revelation 22, the prophet writes, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Additional guidance comes from Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement’s desire, “to create a new society within the shell of the old society; a society where it is easier for people to be good.”

This teaching from the Catholic Worker carries Easter energy. It acknowledges that one way of moving about in the world is failing us, and another deeper, truer, more authentic way is possible. Like Genesis 2 and Ezekiel 37 it wants to breathe life, goodness, justice, joy, and peace into dust and bones of the “old society.” Like Revelation 22, it wants to see a whole and healed world “where it is easier to be good.”

And so our theme for this Easter season – “Breathe Peace: Disrupt Death; Celebrate Life.” Let us breathe peace into the dust and bones of this old society. Let us disrupt, disturb, embarrass the system of death. Let us laugh, sing, dance, and celebrate the way of life.

Thomas, the Doubter

In John 20, Jesus walks through a wall, and all his friends are amazed. It’s a funny detail that John feels the need to include. It’s like, “Hey, the guy was dead and now he’s alive and you need to make him look special by showing that he can walk through walls… you might be missing the point.”

Jesus’ friends are gathered together for fear of their lives because the Roman Empire has just put their leader to death. Which is to say that the Roman Empire has just done what empire does… Kill dreams, control futures, dampen a budding sense of hope about the direction of the world. Jesus’ friends are gathered together for fear of their lives, when he walks through a wall and says, “Peace be with you,” and they are amazed, and encouraged, and begin to imagine that this story might not be over. They begin to imagine that it might still be possible to create a new society from the dust and bones of the old one.

But Thomas misses it, he was probably out paying his taxes to the empire, or being searched by the military police, or checking to see what criminals were being crucified that day, or what time the gladiator event would start at the coliseum just down the street. When Thomas returns he finds his friends to seem strangely more hopeful and they tell him what happened while he was away, but he doesn’t believe them. He probably wants to believe them, but why would he? Why would he possibly believe that this tragic story would have a comedic end?

“Unless I see and touch the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side,” Thomas says, “I can not believe you.”

Thomas has been pejoratively named “The Doubter” for this and perhaps rightly so. Maybe a better name for Thomas would simply be “The Realist,” why would he have any reason to believe in the resurrection? Why would he have any reason to believe in something deeper and truer than the system of death?

Thomas is a doubter, sure, and if that’s the case then I probably am too.

In the historical moment of Donald Trump’s America, the Parkland shooting, the killing of Stephon Clark, the housing and displacement crisis taking place in America’s major cities, the refugee crisis, endless stories of sexual assault, a warming planet, the ongoing trial of Robert Ray and countless more young black people like him, the ever present possibility of nuclear war… and… and… and… and… I find myself, at times, feeling less than convinced that this American tragedy might make a turn towards comedy, and we might find ourselves joining hands on both sides of a river, and singing, dancing, and laughing at the end of the story.

So I hear you, Thomas, as you argue with your friends, “You say the sign of a new kind of society came to you while I was out here being pummeled by the empire’s system of death? I wish I could believe you, but I just haven’t seen that another way is possible.”

In a world that seems so determined by violence: guns, death penalty, systemic racism, sexual assault, environmental degradation, economic inequality, and war… why would we believe that a good God and a good created order were ontologically prior? Why would we believe that peace would be first and last?

Conveniently, Jesus does that thing where he enters a room with a locked door again, but Thomas couldn’t care less that he walks through walls. He’s alive. He has done a new thing. Thomas rushes to Jesus, grabs his hands, feels his scars, and puts his own hand into Jesus’ side.

Forsythia is in bloom, the crocus and tulips are alive. It’s amazing.

I don’t know exactly what Thomas, the doubter, believes in this moment. I don’t think he’s got the apostles creed all figured out, recited by memory here. I don’t think he’s settled all of the great theological controversies of the last 2,000 years, but it doesn’t matter. He’s literally putting his fingers between the ribs where a spear pierced Jesus’ side. He can’t see the whole picture of what this means, and that doesn’t really matter either. In this moment, he embodies the belief that something deeper, truer, more authentic than a system of death and destruction is possible.

For a moment, the hope growing within him is breathing life into dusty old bones. He has no idea what’s going to come out of it, he can’t really even imagine what could… but with both feet on the ground, and one hand right between the ribs of the resurrection, he’s breathing the breath of life. In and out.

Somehow, friends, I sense that this is our call. Feet on the ground, with empire all around, haplessly, hopefully breathing the breath we’ve got into dust and bones.

Breathing peace into a gun obsessed culture

We live in a culture that is obsessed with guns. According to wikipedia, there are approximately 101 guns per 100 people in the United States. This puts us at the top of the worldwide guns per capita list BY FAR. The next closest country is Serbia checking in at 58 guns per 100 people. Our neighbors to the north in Canada have approximately 30 guns per 100 people and in Mexico, the number is 15.

The gun lobby is organized, wealthy, and powerful. A 2018 study from Politifact found that the NRA has spent $203.2 mil on political activities since 1998.FOOTNOTE: Footnote $144 mil has gone towards independent campaign expenditures which means “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” Often these take the form of campaign ads, but they are carried out without coordinating with the candidates they are supporting.In 2016 alone, the NRA spent $11 mil to support Trump and another $19 mil to oppose Hillary. The Center for Responsive Politics created a report that shows the lawmakers that have benefited most from NRA spending over the past 20 years. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner is 5th on the list, coming in at $3.88 mil.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

We live in a culture that is obsessed with guns. Mass shootings have become a part of the fabric of our culture – sadly they come and go as blips on the news reel followed by politicians saying, “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Politicians are powerless on gun control, it seems, and things just continue going on as usual. Nothing changes and then it happens all over again.

The students are sick of it. Sick of adults not standing up for them, sick of hearing about “thoughts and prayers” and then allowing business to go on as usual. We’re all amazed at what they’ve done over the last couple of months. In organizing the March For Our Lives event, they have called for: universal comprehensive background checks; updates to the ATF database; funds for the CDC to research the gun violence epidemic in America; a high capacity magazine ban; and an assault weapons ban. Something that we could not do effectively to this point.

The students, have brought their voices together to say, “Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of an assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote

It’s an uphill battle in a culture that is obsessed with guns. According to Pew Social Trends, 42% of American households own a gun. Firearms are symbols of American freedom and culture, but they don’t have to be. Dare we say these dusty old bones can live?

I became a teenager in Texas. I shot and killed a deer with a .223 rifle while sitting on my dad’s lap at age 13. I learned a lot about how to take care of things, and show respect, and wield power carefully while carrying, shooting, and cleaning firearms with both of my grandfathers. I woke up early on Saturday mornings in high school to watch the sun rise over a creek or pond and shoot at ducks with my 12 gauge shotgun. I loved the different varieties of the birds that would fly in. All the different colors, quacks, and sizes. I loved the sound that their wings would make as they cupped against the wind to land.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the only thing more beautiful than a dead and bloody duck in my hands was a living duck swimming around on a pond.

Somehow someway, in a culture obsessed with guns, I became obsessed with something more interesting than gunpowder, ammo, and killing.

My 12-gauge shotgun is a garden tool, now. Mike Martin and I cut it into two pieces with a DeWalt chop saw a couple of months ago. We took the end and put it into a 2000 degree fire, and then we used 19th century blacksmithing methods to pound the gun barrel into a shovel that we can use to plant tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, tomatillos, tulips, and dahlias.

So there’s one less household in Colorado with a gun now. There’s one less household in the United States with a gun. And there is one more household with a gardening trowel. There’s one more household committed to cultivating beauty and celebrating life.

If you don’t know Mike Martin, he’s a leader in the Mountain States Mennonite Conference, and the founder and director of Raw Tools, an organization committed to breathing peace by turning swords into plowshares. Raw Tools is doing events all over the country this year where they invite people to empty their households of guns and fill them full of garden tools instead. We will have one of these events at our church during this Easter Series – hopefully on Pentecost.

If you’ve got a gun, we’ll invite you to bring it. If you’ve got a neighbor with a gun, we’ll invite you to bring them too. Will we make a dent in the 42% of American households that own a gun? Will we compete with the NRA’s $203 mil investment? Will we make a difference in a world where mass shootings come and go as blips on the news reel? Will we make an impact in a culture that is obsessed with guns?

I don’t know. I might even say that I doubt it. I doubt that we will.

But I’m holding this garden tool in my hand and it kind of feels like touching Jesus’ scars. It kind of feels like putting my fingers between his ribs. I can’t really explain it, but I feel this sense of hope rising within me.

Believe it or not, another world is possible.

Together, we can build a new society within the shell of the old.

Together, we can breathe peace.

Together, we can disrupt death, as we sing, laugh, garden, and celebrate life. Amen.

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