A vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton, Ohio, was organised on 4 August. Photo: Chris Reese.
05 August 2019
* By J. Michael West
Gun violence in the United States, which over the last weekend alone took three dozen lives, continues to pose stark challenges for US churches.
Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, World Council of Churches’ (WCC) acting general secretary, expressed grief at the recent mass shootings, which have caused a storm of outrage over racism and the failure of gun control in the US.
Phiri recalled that in 2019, the WCC’s Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is lifting up the theme of racial justice as it calls on churches everywhere to walk together and view their common life and journey of faith as part of the pilgrimage, and to join together with others in celebrating life and taking concrete steps toward transforming injustice and violence.
“The WCC considers any act of racism in any form as a sin that must be publicly condemned wherever it manifests itself,” said Phiri.
In 2021, the regional focus of the WCC’s Pilgrimage of Justice and peace will be North America. “We express solidarity with those affected and traumatized by violence in the US, as well as uphold churches and people of goodwill who work to promote human dignity,” added Phiri.
Three dozen people have been killed in several incidents in the last ten days in the US. In the latest killing, a gunman in Dayton, Ohio, on 4 August shot and killed nine people in a downtown entertainment district there. Almost simultaneously, drive-by shootings in a Chicago park killed five persons and wounded 42. Those incidents were preceded a day earlier by one in El Paso, Texas, in which a 21-year-old opened fire in a store and shopping centre that left 21 people dead and dozens injured. Only a week earlier, a summer festival in Gilroy, California, was interrupted by a shooting that left three dead and many injured.
What is happening, and how are churches to respond?
Church leaders, rights groups, and theologians point to a lethal confluence of factors, including widespread availability of guns, longstanding cultural issues over violence and race and xenophobia, and an escalating political rhetoric that is discriminatory and divisive. They espouse both education and advocacy.
Awash in guns
Responding to the El Paso shooting, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, said, “The shooting in El Paso is utterly horrifying. America must stop thinking prayers for the victims alone will resolve this. Two things must happen. Responsible gun laws must pass through Congress. And the President must be censured when his rhetoric crosses the line of decency and incites violence. It is not hard to connect the lines between his boorish speech and the actions of white supremacist terrorists.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, the United States is home to approximately 300 million guns and currently experiences 40,000 deaths per year due to gun violence. Two-thirds of them involve suicide, while the others are due to criminal violence, domestic violence or, in 2 percent of the cases, “mass shootings.” They are defined as any shooting incident that kills or injures more than four people. 292 mass shootings have occurred in the US thus far in 2019, including four incidents in just ten days.
Anguish over continuing violence is shared across denominational divides. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “Something remains fundamentally evil in our society when locations where people congregate to engage in the everyday activities of life can, without warning, become scenes of violence and contempt for human life. The plague that gun violence has become continues unchecked and spreads across our country. Things must change.”
Eighty Episcopal bishops in the US, who have formed Bishops against Gun Violence, are working to curtail the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. They met this spring with US lawmakers on Capitol Hill to represent a “culture of life in the face of a culture of death” and to urge common-sense gun legislation, including background checks on gun purchasers.
Legislative initiatives typically suggested include a ban on assault-style weapons, strengthening background checks on gun purchasers, licensing of guns, and “red flag” laws, which permit confiscating guns from persons deemed to be a threat to others.
Still, legislative solutions in the US are often impeded by lobby groups, who cite rights guaranteed by the US Constitution’s second amendment. Conservative pro-gun-rights groups and Republican politicians tend to blame the incidents on mental-health issues of individuals, rather than the availability of guns or right-wing ideology.
The National Council of Churches in the USA has also lobbied extensively on these issues. Said Jim Winkler, NCC president and general secretary, “There is no reason for anyone to own assault weapons which were created for use in war. There is widespread public support for requiring licenses to own guns, for a ban on assault weapons, and for background checks. The only reason elected officials refuse to take action in the face of desires of the voters is because they fear the power of the gun lobby.
“The combination of readily available weapons of mass destruction and a toxic white racist nationalist ideology is a recipe for disaster. If we cannot confront these two evils, far greater violence and social disruption awaits our nation.”
Deeper cultural issues
Religious leaders are keenly aware that deep cultural issues, rooted in centuries of racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and a history of violence, converge in mass shootings.
Postings and manifestos of several of the most recent shootings cite hatred of immigrants, African Americans or Hispanics, Jews and Muslims, and voice an intent to reclaim white supremacy.
Says the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, of this phenomenon, “As followers of Jesus, his command to love our neighbors means neighbors of every type, of every faith, not just our own. Through our baptism and in our democracy, we are called to a way of love that creates a community in which the dignity of every human being is recognized and respected, and where all can have an equal say in the governing of our civic life. The violence, intimidation and distortion of scripture associated with ‘Christian nationalism’ does not reflect the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, and so I stand with fellow leaders in the Christian community and call for a better way.”
Participants in the 2016 Solidarity Visit by member churches of the World Council of Churches to the US, sparked by police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of nine churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were schooled in the complex interplay of those cultural pathologies as they visited four sites: Washington, DC; Charleston, South Carolina; St. Louis, Missouri; and Chicago, Illinois.
Since then, the WCC has continued to probe the issues of racism and xenophobia internationally in consultations and conferences, including the world conference in September 2018 with the Vatican, as well as through analysis of the tangled relationship of religion and violence.
Religious violence—violence that is either motivated by or against religious groups—is on the rise around the world, and the US has recently witnessed attacks against two synagogues, in Pennsylvania and California.
The situation in the US is not helped, says Canon Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, of the Washington National Cathedral, by fiery rhetoric from politicians, including the US president. “When such violent, dehumanizing words come from the president of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America.”
What can churches do?
“It is our responsibility, as a mostly white church, to be actively engaged in dismantling white supremacy and creating racial equity,” says Rev. Deanna Hollas, installed last month as the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s first minister of gun violence prevention.
She says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough as a response to the violence. “The saying ‘thoughts and prayers’ has been co-opted by the gun lobby to keep the church from taking action so they can increase their profits,” Ms. Hollas told the New York Times in a recent interview.
Her work centres on congregations, where people of a variety of political persuasions meet, encouraging one-to-one conversation to nurture a cultural change about guns and to support legislation.
“When we can move beyond the rhetoric, we find that no Christian is a proponent of gun violence. Churches have been afraid to talk about gun violence because they are worried it will cause people to leave, but we are called to shine light into darkness,” she said in a recent interview.
Fundamentally, Hollas urges deeper listening. “We have lost our ability to listen to one another, to our bodies and, therefore, to God. Violence is the result of this separation. Spiritual practices can heal, repair and restore us to right relationship and thus lead us away from violence and toward peace and love.”
Congregational study and discussion are also at the centre of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s approach to the issues. The denomination recently published an online resource for congregational use, “A 60-Day Journey toward Justice in a Culture of Gun Violence.”
“With this 60-day resource we ask you to journey with us through daily observances that revolve around prayer, education, and advocacy,” the church said. “Through daily readings we lift up the many ways in which the ELCA has spoken out, through statements, social teaching and social-policy resolutions that address gun violence, violence prevention, and criminal justice. We are not alone in this work; we seek ways to work with our ecumenical and inter-religious partners, with other faith groups, and with other organizations that share our goals.”
Evangelicals, too, though often allied with conservative politics, recognize the need for political and personal change on the issues. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, responded to the El Paso carnage, which seemed specifically to target the Hispanic community there: “We urge our political leaders, Democrat and Republican, to once-and-for-all depoliticize immigration in this country and instead embrace a fact-based approach to this and to all political questions that divide us. Even more importantly, we call upon people of sincere faith in every corner of our country to recommit themselves to loving the ‘other’ and to begin to pray with all their might that God would heal our broken land.”
The role of young people
Young people also provide reasons for hope. In the US, they have been the strongest proponents of gun legislation, especially since a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, which took the lives of 17 people. Their largest successes have been at the state level. According to the Pew Research Center, 18-34-year-olds overwhelmingly support gun-control measures.
After the El Paso shooting, Relevant, a popular youth-oriented church-related magazine, opined, “The time has come, and it is overdue, when we must yield to the fact that talking about gun violence isn’t actually helping to solve the problem—that people in our communities face death at the barrel of a gun in far greater (http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states) numbers than in nations with similar cultures, customs and beliefs. ‘The conversation’ has been had, and the situation remains as dire as ever. If the Church is intent on effecting a positive change within its culture, then action must be the result.”
Another evangelical leader, Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Washington, DC-based Sojourners, writing recently in response to continued instances of gun violence, sounded a hopeful note. “I don’t believe that senseless, stupid, murderous gun violence will ultimately be accepted as normal. Rather, a new generation of parents, a new insistence for change from coming-of-age voters, and a new network of urban activists committed to making their neighborhoods safe for black and brown bodies will ultimately prevail. That must be our hope and our commitment.”
* J. Michael West is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches, based in California.