Hello readers. I am sorry it has been so long since my last post. I really hoped to write something at least once a week now that I am on summer vacation, but somehow–I am still not entirely sure how–I irritated my sciatic nerve, and was in so much pain for a couple weeks, and sleepy due to a muscle relaxer an urgent care doctor prescribed, and the increased use of ibuprofen he recommended, that I didn’t feel like writing. I feel so much better now. I am almost back to my normal activity level although if I bend over too long or trip over something, I can feel the nerve throb a little. Mornings are also still a little humbling to the point that I find myself singing a line from a Garth Brooks song, “I’m much too young to feel this damn old” as the nerve is so stiff from sleeping all night, and possibly being a little dehydrated (which the doctor said causes muscles to contract) that I am limping for the first couple hours until the muscles have absorbed some ibuprofen and had time to wake up. But the doctor said given how large this nerve is, it takes a good month for such an injury to heal, and Thursday will be the one month mark.
In other news, I earned an 84% on my human dignity research paper, not the greatest grade, but not the worst either. But as I mentioned, this paper was personal for me, so the score doesn’t really matter to me. I am still waiting on the feedback, and once I receive the feedback, I still plan to share my essay here, but in the meantime, recent events have inspired me to contemplate another issue that I also think is relevant to the topic of human dignity. I wish I could have published this in a more timely fashion, as the Uvalde tragedy has already receded from the news cycle. But as I have discussed before, I like to put a lot of thought into my posts. I like to give my writing my best–as in, not making myself write when I am not feeling great unless I have to meet a school deadline–and especially regarding this subject, I wanted to make sure my post wasn’t a collection of partisan talking points, but a balanced and thoughtful commentary.
The personal conviction I defend in my research paper is unashamedly pro-life. But unfortunately, recent events have compelled me to re-iterate a position that I have mentioned frequently in this blog, which is that politics and true Christianity cannot mix. In other words, it has been disheartening to witness the same politicians who pass strict abortion laws to protect unborn children do nothing to protect children from being murdered at school because they are so beholden to the gun lobby. As numerous blog posts on Red Letter Christians have pointed out over the years, an authentic pro-life conviction would oppose not just abortion but unrestricted access to guns, (especially assault rifles which were originally intended only for battlefield settings), racist policies which have subjected many people of color to contaminated air and water, even cuts to medicaid and other social welfare programs that millions of children depend on for food, shelter and healthcare. A few years ago, an adamantly pro-life relative raised the argument that we might get to heaven and lament to God that we never found a cure for cancer, and God might say, “I created the person who would have found the cure, but you aborted them.” As hyperbolic and sensationalized as this argument is, it does have an element of truth. We will never know the potentially wonderful contributions aborted children might have brought to the world. But we will also never know what black children in Flint, Michigan could have achieved if their brains hadn’t been damaged from lead poisoning, or what poor children across all races could have achieved if they had access to proper nutrition, healthcare, housing and quality education. And we will never know what the children of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook (and so many other schools I cannot even remember them all), and now Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, could have achieved if they had not been murdered by disturbed individuals with no business holding guns, but who all purchased their guns legally.
As I have mentioned before, my parents did not believe in any kind of censorship. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted–I even read The Da Vinci Code in eighth grade–and I was never sent out of the room when a television show was prefaced with “viewer discretion is advised.” For the most part, I look back on this and recognize it as a beautiful privilege that I still thank my parents for, as I feel this exposure to the real world, and this intellectual freedom has made me more open-minded and prepared for the world than some of my sheltered, Christian peers. But I have light-heartedly told my parents that the one thing I might do differently is not let my children watch shows like America’s Most Wanted. The host of that show John Walsh, made it his life mission to help law enforcement track down dangerous criminals after his six-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered. To that end, the show would recount the crimes of dangerous fugitives, sometimes in graphic detail, even reenactments, give viewers pictures of the suspect and information on where and when he was last seen, and invite them to call an anonymous tip line if they have any information that might help police. The reenactments of crimes, especially when the victims were children were disturbing. Sure, I couldn’t see what was going on, but in college, I had a friend who said she found old-fashioned movies that didn’t depict murder in graphic detail but left the details up to the imagination scarier and thus more entertaining than modern movies. I don’t think I mentioned my experience watching America’s Most Wanted, but perhaps a similar principle applies, the difference of course being that I wouldn’t call my experience entertaining because the reenactments depicted real crimes. Most nights, I wasn’t afraid to go to bed after this show which aired at 9:00 every Saturday night because the crimes were often domestic violence, or retribution for a bad drug deal, horrible situations of course, but situations my child mind didn’t worry about because the monsters who committed these crimes would have no interest in coming for me. But every now and then, the show would feature criminals who kidnapped children or broke into people’s homes and murdered them just for the thrill of it. Knowing that there were people capable of such senseless evil in the world was terrifying, especially when John Walsh said, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be in my closet? In the basement waiting for the family to go to sleep? My parents assured me that these crimes are extremely rare, and that coupled with the fact that our house is difficult to find even for bus drivers and repairmen given that we live i a somewhat secluded suburb, and the fact that a criminal would have a very difficult time kidnapping me since I was always holding onto the arm of a parent or older sibling when I left the house, all of whom were physically fit and would be able to protect me, meant I was usually able to put things into perspective and fall asleep quickly.
I was nine years old and in third grade when Columbine happened. I think my siblings were disturbed by it because instead of watching cartoons or Jeopardy as they usually did after school, I came in from the bus to hear the television tuned to the news. They must have heard about it at school, since two of my siblings were in high school, and my brother was in seventh grade and starting to think about high school. But I was able to cope by dismissing it as something that happens in the big scary high school. I didn’t have to think about high school for five years. Almost all of my peers were naturally respectful and kind, and much of the curriculum at Burleigh was devoted to life skills, including treating one another with respect. There were a couple bullies in the before school daycare I had to attend two days a week who did not apply these lessons, but they were the garden variety kind that stole toys from me and excluded me from games. I never feared being a victim of violence, even from them. It never even crossed my mind that a gunman from the outside could enter an elementary school. In my mind, Burleigh Elementary School was a fortress, a warm, safe brick building surrounded by a tall fence and filled with vigilant staff who took safety very seriously. Once in first or second grade, I heard a story on the news about a crime committed on Burleigh Road, but my parents explained that Burleigh Road is a long road, and the location of the crime was nowhere near Burleigh Elementary School. We had monthly fire drills, with each teacher meticulously counting to make sure we all made it out of the building, and we had an annual tornado drill. One day due to unusually fierce wind a few months before Columbine, the assistant principal announced that recess would be indoors out of an abundance of caution due to power lines located relatively close to the playground. When I was in elementary school, the idea of an active shooter drill was not even a concept in my imagination. In my child mind, and even in my young adult mind, elementary schools were sacrosanct, even for serial killers, and in the infinitesimally unlikely event that a gunman did take interest in Burleigh Elementary School, they could never penetrate the fortress. This innocence and sense of safety was of course shattered by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I couldn’t find the words to blog about it then, but as I watched the news coverage of that horrific event, I found myself imagining myself as a first or second grader coming home from school, hearing of this event and being terrified to go back to school the following Monday because if such evil could take place at that elementary school, it could happen at Burleigh Elementary School. It was interesting listening to the advice of a child psychologist on how parents should respond if their elementary school-age children become aware of the Sandy Hook tragedy. The expert advised saying something to the effect of, “One very bad guy got into that elementary school, but police got him. You are safe.” This may have placated me enough to return to Burleigh Elementary School the following Monday morning, but I still think my innocence, my impression of Burleigh Elementary School as a sacrosanct, impenetrable fortress would have been shattered. Looking back on my childhood from an adult perspective, I realize with a cold chill that as safety-conscious as the staff at Burleigh Elementary School was, I think they had the same sense of innocence and invincibility that I felt. The idea of a gunman barging into an elementary school was just as unimaginable to the adults.
On another occasion when I was in second grade–it might have been my oldest brother’s Catholic confirmation–some members of the extended family gathered at our house and my big ears caught the adults in a conversation about guns. I don’t remember the exact context, but as an adult, I think I can reasonably infer that the conversation must have been around perplexity as to why there was more gun violence even in 1998 than when they were growing up. Anyway, I remember Mom saying, “everyone owned guns where I grew up. My dad owns guns.” This shocked me to the core. Papaw, my paternal grandpa who loved little children and looked forward to rocking me to sleep when I came to visit? Papaw who had more difficulty speaking because of Parkinsons but whom my mom said was always soft-spoken, whom she had never heard raise his voice? That Papaw owned guns? Given all of the stories of gun violence in the city that I picked up on the news, I thought only bad guys owned guns. I always felt completely safe at Granny and Papaw’s house, but now I wasn’t so sure. At the time, Mom consoled me by explaining that he never used them, except to go hunting occasionally. Furthermore, there was absolutely no chance that I would find them while playing and accidentally shoot myself or be shot by a cousin because he kept them so thoroughly hidden that she did not even know where they were. He also kept the bullets completely separate from the gun.
As I got older, I would learn that Papaw was a member of the NRA, but when Mom was growing up, the NRA was unrecognizable compared to what it is today. The NRA promoted the value of gun sports like hunting, but also took gun safety very seriously, even supporting gun regulation. It wasn’t until the 1980s that conservatives re-interpreted the second amendment as granting the absolute right of almost anyone to own any type of gun, when the wording of the second amendment suggests that the Founders’ intentions when drafting this amendment were far more narrow, only granting the right to keep and bear arms to the extent necessary for a “well regulated militia.” Like most men of his World War II generation, Papaw did not register his guns because in every country the Nazis occupied, they gained control partly by obtaining gun registration records and then going door-to-door confiscating all registered guns. But although that generation fiercely defended their right to bear arms, gun safety was baked into the culture. In addition to following all gun safety procedures, especially keeping the bullets completely separate from the gun, my mom recalls that when they were playing, they would get in trouble if they pointed a toy gun, or even a stick that they were pretending to be a gun at someone. They could point toy guns in the air and pretend to shoot space aliens or imaginary bad guys, but never each other. This rule surprised me when Mom first mentioned it, but it makes sense. Habits, thoughts and attitudes start to form at an early age. Of course, even most children who point a toy gun at their friend won’t grow up to kill with a real gun, and I am sure there are people who grew up with a strict culture of gun safety whose hearts turned to evil. I am not naive. I recognize that every generation of human history has been plagued by violence. But even if strict rules for children won’t ultimately change the human heart, I can appreciate the value of engraining in children that guns are serious business. All this is to say that as I have been reflecting on yet another elementary school shooting, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that guns in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is a culture that glorifies violence, raises boys to feel ashamed if they express any emotion other than anger resulting in a lack of empathy which commonly leads to violence, and idolizes guns to the point that too many people treat real guns like toys.
Charleton Heston’s famous quote does have a grain of truth to it. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But because of our culture which has led to a nation with more guns than people, we do need to pass sensible gun control legislation because right now, guns are too accessible for people who want to kill other people, or themselves. (While this post, and the news cycle focuses on mass shootings, we should not overlook the fact that most gun deaths are suicides. According to a very compelling episode of The Bulwark I listened to recently which featured a former NRA lobbyist turned whistleblower, suicide is an impulsive decision, so experts believe many people who commit suicide with a gun may not have done so if guns were not so readily available.) I am sure Papaw would have supported a ban on assault weapons, weapons originally intended for the battlefield setting, red flag laws, background checks and a waiting period before someone can purchase a gun. Another reform I think would be valuable which gets less media attention is a requirement that all gun owners must complete an in-person gun safety course, pass a test and obtain a license. The license could be permanently revoked if it can be proven that the license holder knowingly gave a gun to someone who did not have a license and the gun was used in a crime, or that the license holder did not follow proper protocol securely storing a gun that was then stolen and used in a crime. If such a law were implemented, I recognize that it could seem inconvenient and unnecessary for people like Papaw who grew up in rural Kentucky, and learned from responsible relatives how to handle guns safely from a young age, as guns were necessary to hunt and protect livestock from predators. But as gentle and compassionate as Papaw was, he would have been heartbroken by today’s gun violence epidemic, especially the elementary school shootings, so I think he would have considered the inconvenience a small price to pay. After all, you have to go through training, pass a test and get a license to drive a motorized vehicle, which can become a deadly weapon if operated negligently. I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to implement similar requirements to own a product specifically designed to be a deadly weapon. I can understand how mandatory gun buy-back would feel threatening, even to responsible gun owners, but I think more voluntary gun buy-back initiatives (maybe with a bonus incentive for every assault rifle turned in) could potentially avert tragedy by encouraging relatives of people at risk of harming themselves or others to dispose of their guns, potentially averting many tragedies by getting at least a few guns off the streets. I personally am inspired by the work of organizations like Presbyterian Peace Fellowship who take literally the words of Isaiah 2:4 where it is prophesied that in the last days, people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” by melting down guns that people surrender and turning them into garden tools.
Laws are important in our fallen world to maintain order, and in fact, Christians have a duty to submit to all laws that do not conflict with God’s laws because “the authorities that exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). The passage and subsequent enforcement of laws are a necessary first step in restraining our violent human nature. Death by any weapon would be equally tragic for the families affected, but if we could at least ban assault weapons and get as many of them as possible off the streets via buy-back programs, forcing a potential shooter to go with a less “efficient” weapon, the death toll would not be as horrific by the time law enforcement arrived, and for survivors, the wounds would not be as grievous. But as I have discussed before, laws alone cannot change the world. Neither, by the way, would equipping more “good guys with guns.” In his book “The Spirit of the Disciplines” which I read in my spiritual formation class last year, Dallas Willard has an excellent chapter on the disciplines and power structures of this world. He opens this chapter with a quote from Leo Tolstoy which I believe is very appropriate for our time. According to Tolstoy, “men are so accustomed to establish and defend their existence by violence, by bayonets, bullets, prisons, and gallows, that it seems to them as if such an arrangement of life were not only normal, but were the only one possible. Yet it is just this arrangement and maintenance of the commonwealth by violence, that does most to hinder people from comprehending the causes of their sufferings, and consequently from being able to establish a true order.” In other words, I think if Tolstoy were alive today to weigh in on our gun violence problem, he would view ideas like arming teachers as well-intentioned perhaps, but woefully misguided and unimaginative. Rather than succumbing to hopelessness, implicitly accepting bad guys with guns as an inevitable reality that can only be mitigated by more violence from good guys with guns, Christians ought instead to be at the forefront of solutions that address the root causes of violence. For example, it almost always comes to light that the young men who commit school shootings were bullied or felt marginalized as children. Perhaps some of the time spent preparing for standardized tests could instead be devoted to discussing the importance of values like empathy, kindness, inclusion, accepting everyone as they are. Perhaps there could be classes or camps specifically for boys to reimagine masculinity, allow and encourage boys to express a full range of emotions and learn constructive ways to manage negative emotions before they fester and lead to violent outbursts of anger. Of course, such solutions would not eliminate violence completely. Sociopaths prove that empathy cannot be taught, and I am not so naive as to think we can eradicate evil in this world with empathy lessons when Jesus said that wickedness will persist until the end of the age (Matthew 24:6-13). But I believe such measures could reduce the prevalence of gun violence. But more important than the statistics, such measures could potentially rescue men who could have easily gone down a path of violence and show them a better way. This would go much further toward a vision of true peace that all Christians should long for than succumbing to a superficial peace that relies on good guys with guns.