John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | January

Unarmed and Dangerous

Above: “Arrest of Jesus” - Duccio di Buoninsegna, d.1319  Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not assault me.  (Mt.26:55)

“Arrest of Jesus” – Duccio di Buoninsegna, d.1319. Jesus said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not assault me.” (Mt.26:55)

 

UNARMED and DANGEROUS:

A Gospel of Non-violence in a Violent World

 [This is the fourth commentary in a series that can be found in the Archvies, in response to the heated debate on gun violence. A pdf version of this commentary to print/read is here.]

 

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”   NRA spokesperson, Wayne LaPierre

“But I tell you: don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.”    Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew

 

Swearin’ and Cursin’

We recently observed our annual national holiday in commemoration of Martin Luther King, a civil rights leader and gospel preacher, who was also the prophetic voice of non-violence in our age.

This year, the holiday coincided with the Inauguration, including the swearing in ceremony of the President and Vice-President in our nation’s capital; a city where a memorial now stands with a larger than life size statue of a slain leader who was neither a politician, statesman, nor military hero.

At the inauguration ceremony, the VP was first sworn into office, using the Biden family Bible that looked to be the size of the New York City phonebook in its sheer heft. Then it came time for the Chief Justice to administer the oath of office once more to the President, the “leader of the free world,” and commander-in-chief of both our armed forces and armed conflicts around the world.

The President had chosen not one, but two, stacked Bibles on which to take the oath. The bottom one once belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and the other was Martin Luther King’s “travelling” Bible.

The symbolism on this day of dual observances, and with this particular president, was none too subtle; given his mixed racial background. One Bible had once been read by a president who lost his life to a lone gunman in his efforts to free a people from bondage; the other by a descendant of freed slaves, who died from a gunman’s bullet; while trying to emancipate a nation from its lingering, discriminatory injustices, and providing an alternative dream and vision of what we, as a people, might still become.

The sixteenth president of the United States had once presided over a horrific civil war; general consensus being it was a necessary means to a just end. The slain preacher from a segregated South had employed a very different tactic of non-violent resistance to defeat the forces of injustice and inequality, refusing to return evil with evil.  And for their trouble, both were cursed by at least one man, armed with a gun. A bullet in the head violently ended both their lives; just as victory for their greater cause was in their grasp.

I could not help but wonder about that ceremonial act of swearing one’s oath, one’s allegiance, one’s heart and soul, with one’s hand placed on a stack of Bibles. Do the promises sworn bear any resemblance to any of the words imprinted on those many pages bound between the front and back covers of that thick book? If so, which passages?  For surely just as many similar stories such as that of Abraham or Martin — waging war or refusing to raise one’s hand in retaliatory anger — can be found in that compendium of books we call the Bible.

I could not help but wonder about that ceremonial act of swearing one’s oath… on a stack of Bibles. Do the promises sworn bear any resemblance to any of the words imprinted on those many pages … of that thick book? If so, which passages?

But in the end, for those of us who would even consider the disarming and dangerous words of a Galilean sage named Jesus, what does it mean – even require – if we were to claim we would heed, accept and follow as his disciples?

 

How the West Was Won

My long-departed paternal grandmother was once the proud president of the North Star Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was in every sense the typical family matriarch; at once stern and loving, opinionated and adoring, with a sense of propriety that was second to none.

She was also a staunch churchwoman. Her most impressive accomplishment as far as I was concerned as a boy growing up in the fifties was the fact she had once taught Sunday school lessons in the city of Minneapolis to Jimmy Arness; who grew up to play the role of Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, the most popular TV western series of all time.  As far as I was concerned, watching the latest episode every Saturday night throughout my childhood was as much a religious observance as anything that followed Sunday mornings.

The stories of Marshall Dillon, his sidekicks Chester, then Festus, along with Doc and Miss Kitty the saloon “hostess” might have varied slightly each week. But the intro always began the same way, like any good liturgy. A towering Marshall Dillon would step out into the middle of Dodge City’s dusty and deserted main street.  The lone figure of someone ready to challenge the law and order of the town would appear at the other end of the street in a standoff. The bad guy would draw his gun first, and two shots would ring out. Then, following a brief pause, Matt would slide his six-shooter back into its holster as the smoke cleared. That’s how the wild West was won. And for a boy growing up in the fifties, it was wildly entertaining.

There was also a none-too-subtle message repeated with each episode. Might makes right; particularly when combined with righteous might. Not only that, the good guy always wins. Which is, of course, a lie.

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We Love Our Guns More

[Note: A pdf version of this latest commentary to print/read is here. It follows two recent commentaries and evolving dialogue with regard to gun violence, A Christmas Requiem for Sandy Hook and In the Winter of Our Discontent.]

The author with his Christmas gift, circa 1956

The author with his Christmas gift, circa 1956

 

When I was a child, I spoke like a child. I thought like a child, and acted like a child.  I played cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers. I had a cap pistol, a Fanner Fifty with real leather holster, and a lever-action, single shot Daisy BB gun. My father never hunted, nor took me hunting; and we had no firearms in our household. That was my experience growing up.

Admittedly, it was a very different than that of others I’ve known, respected, and for whom I have genuine affection. My friend Bob grew up in an inner-city with racial tensions, where personal safety was an understandable concern, if not necessity. Jeff grew up in the rough and tumble rural West, where his most prized family heirlooms are the guns he inherited from his father.

While I can do my best to understand and appreciate those very different experiences, the pressing issue of gun violence that grips our common life remains a shared responsibility for the common good. It requires something of each of us that we would individually prefer not to concede.

As a boy, my fascination with guns did not follow me into adulthood.  As a teen growing up and registering for the military draft in 1966, the American war in Southeast Asia was a stark reality. It was also the era when the devastating firepower of the M16 (AR-15) in the hands of an Army grunt left an indelible impression on many combatants, returning vets and those of us who opposed the war.  I never carried a gun, or served in the military. Instead, I went to seminary. And, in many subsequent years of ministry I have only dealt with peripheral and potential gun violence.

I began my adult profession as a young cleric serving on the staff of a large, posh parish in an extremely safe and affluent suburban community; where it was the custom immediately following the blessing of the alms at the altar to have an armed security guard then accompany the ushers mid-service from the sanctuary to the church office across a quiet residential dead-end street. The ushers were excused from the remainder of the worship hour so they could tally the take.

Upon my arrival I voiced my surprise and objection with the church leadership, posing the possible scenario of an aged, pistol-wielding private security guard blasting away a would-be thief on the steps of the church. They reluctantly agreed it might reflect poorly on a house of prayer. But when the request was made of the wanna-be cop to serve without his sidearm he quit in protest. We do love our guns.

I went on to lead another parish for two-dozen years, where some local notoriety had preceded me. Years before my arrival the local police had confronted a transient on the church premises early one Sunday morning; and, when allegedly threatened, shot him dead. For decades afterward the larger community knew us as that church where someone was killed.

Then there was the parishioner who gave his wife a warning shot one night with a bullet hole in their bedroom wall when accused of infidelity.

Soon after another female parishioner came to me who was frightened by her spouse’s violent temper, and mentioned he kept a pistol in their bedside table.  I ordered her to retrieve it and bring it to me, which she did. I locked it up in my desk drawer of the church office, until the husband came and demanded its return.  The wife later left him, taking the children with her. My last dealing with him was officiating over his funeral a few years later when, in his despondency, he committed suicide.

I would occasionally rail about the proliferation of all the guns in our society with which we collectively seemed so enthralled; but I knew I was a minority voice among my flock. I considered it a minor triumph when one of the pillars of the parish decided he no longer wanted the handgun he owned in his house. He brought it to me, and together we destroyed it.

The lack of reasonable restrictions we have when it comes to guns is rooted in their obvious appeal; leading to their preponderance in staggering numbers in a culture that allows utter unreasonableness to pose under the guise of “protection of freedom” and individual rights.  Whatever interpretation one brings to the inherent vagueness of those twenty-seven words in the Second Amendment with regards to one’s right to bear arms, it is helpful to remember they are not carved in stone, but rather amendable. That’s why it is called an amendment.

And like it or not, it may also be helpful to acknowledge the fact the avid sportsman, the inner-city gangbanger, the illegal trafficker on the black market, the law-abiding gun owner, and the lucrative gun and ammo industry share one thing in common. They love their guns.  That’s why we will not simply legislate our way out of this one through reasonable debate, a half-baked compromise, or a better argument.

The comic Eddie Izzard has the sober one-liner: “Guns don’t kill people. But I think they help, don’t you?” Blaming the lack of stronger mental health policies where funding has been systematically slashed, or obscenely violent video games, or Hollywood blockbusters that pander to the gratuitous allure of blood and gore is – in the end — all a smokescreen that attempts to obscure the obvious. We love our guns, and what they represent.

We love the cheap, readily available and disproportionate amount of personal power guns offer in the hands of everyone and anyone who wants it, for whatever reason. If one doubts that, just consider: The anticipated uphill battle to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines that might simply pose a reloading inconvenience to the next mass shooter and merely reduce – not eliminate – the casualty count is ludicrous in and of itself.

To the usual rebuttal stricter gun controls will not stop the crazed among us from obtaining their Bushmaster, their bullet-proof vests and ammunition stockpiles, I say it is a hollow, fallacious argument. But furthermore, I don’t care. We have erred so long on the side of doing nothing, might it not be time to err instead on the side of doing something; regardless of its possible ineffectiveness?

We have erred so long on the side of doing nothing, might it not be time to err instead on the side of doing something; regardless of its possible ineffectiveness?

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In the Winter of Our Discontent: What Gift Shall I Offer?

A Reflection for Twelfth Night, The Epiphany, 2013

A pdf version to print/read can be found here.

Adoration of the Christ Child by the Three Kings - Jacques Daret, ca 1403

Adoration of the Christ Child by the Three Kings – Jacques Daret, ca 1403

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

 Opening lines from Richard III, Wm. Shakespeare, 1594

 

The opening lines in this particular Shakespeare tragedy depicts Richard – one of the Duke of York’s sons – offering fleeting praise to his own decadent brother Edward’s good fortune; Edward having wrested the king’s crown from Henry VI.  The underlying problem however has only been kicked down the proverbial road. For, left disgruntled and brooding over own sorry lot will lead soon enough to Richard’s own scheming and murderous treachery; resulting in his own brief and fleeting season of royal triumph and defeat.  So much for one king’s rise, and subsequent darkening of days.

If ever there was a winter of our own discontent, those days certainly seem to be upon us. We live in a nation where those vying to exert their political positions of power thought their New Year’s Eve party was best celebrated in the legislative chambers of Congress; fighting over who will wrest the good fortunes of our exorbitant abundance from whom, and how much.

Depending on your point of view that battle may have been won or lost in the latest bout, but the larger wrangling war is far from over. This season of our discontent covers the landscape; from Sandy Hook to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath; from battles at the borders and beyond, to inner city violence. And all the while, some of our neighbors flock to their local Walmart to stockpile more weapons and ammo.

These comments are written on the sixth day of January, and some of those neighbors of mine are wondering why we still have our holiday lights up.  The holiday gift-giving season is so, like, last year. But for you and me it’s the twelfth day of Christmastide, and this is Twelfth Night. And I’m still wondering about what gifts I might still have to offer. And I’m still hoping for a new dawning, and for the shadows to flee away.

“For behold, darkness covers the land,” says the ancient prophet (Is. 60). “Deep gloom enshrouds the people.” And an age-old alternative to a longed future still flickers in those shadows.

 But over you the Lord will rise,
and his glory will appear upon you.
Nations Will stream to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open;
by day or night they will never be shut.
Violence will no more be heard in your land,
ruin or destruction within your borders.
You will call your walls, Salvation,
and all your portals, Praise.
The sun will no more be your light by day;
by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.
The Lord will be your everlasting light,
and God will be your glory.

 

The story of the Epiphany (epi-phanos, ‘light all around) still has a babe in the manger, waiting for someone to notice, to wonder and to wander to the unlikeliest of places, beneath the newest star. The Magi – those strange characters from afar — will first ask the enthroned King where his presumed replacement might be found, and the familiar plot line to yet another variation of the same tragic tale will commence.

But Twelfth Night is about gifts, given and received. What does the one whom we might seek to truly know have to give us in this winter of our discontent?  And what will we offer in return?  What gifts shall we offer to this world, worthy of the holy alternative; the other One we might instead seek to follow?

 

What Gift Shall I Offer: A Play in Three Parts

 

What then shall I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
And if I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him,
My strength, my will, my heart.

Slight variation, In the Bleak Midwinter, English poet Christina Rosetti, 1872

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