What Do We Mean When We Say, ‘Guns’?
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | February 22, 2018Hi friends, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, I’ve found myself saddened, angered, and occasionally feeling lost and helpless. I imagine many of you have, as well. I wish I could say that I feel sure of how God would have us respond as a country made of laws and a diverse citizenry. I am not. I am, however, confident of how God would have Christians respond. We are people who follow the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Today, I want to write about one simple way we spread the peace of God.
The peace of God is not passive, by which I mean that God’s peace is not merely the absence of conflict. Rather, it is an active spiritual force of affection, reconciliation, and freedom from anxiety. One of the ways we spread God’s peace is through listening to each other—not simply listening to what someone else is saying, but to what they mean. When Christians listen to others, we are seeking to understand the life experience of our brother or sister; we are not merely waiting on our turn to talk.
When we listen so as to understand, we are doing something similar to what God does in Jesus. God became a human being and saw things ‘from our side,’ so to speak, through no necessity but His own grace and love. If Christians would be like God, we must do likewise. This is not to say that our neighbor’s perspective will be any more or less virtuous than our own—they might very well be entirely wrong! However, when we are willing to try and see the world with our neighbor’s eyes, we have communicated to him or her that we love them, that they are worthy of being taken seriously, and that we value their experience. We have communicated to them the affirming peace of God. This is doubly important in a time of physical and political anxiety.
What this means for us right now in the midst of our ongoing gun rights/gun control debate is that we must at the very least make sure we know what someone means when they use the word guns. An example may help here.
I didn’t grow up in a house with guns. My grandfather was a preacher, and my Dad owned a shoe store. None of us hunted, and none were soldiers or police officers. My best friend from school, however, duck hunted with his dad all the time. His name was Russell. His dad was a forester and always had a pistol in his truck when he was way out in the middle of the woods. Guns were very normal in their house.
I remember riding my bike over to Russell’s once in sixth grade or so. Russell and his dad were in the living room. The coffee table was covered in old cloths, and spread out across the top were the disassembled pieces of a shotgun. Russell’s dad looked up. “Come on in, Daniel. Russell can’t go anywhere until he’s finished cleaning his gun and putting it back together.”
I sat down and watched. It was clear that Russell was to be focused on the task at hand, and that I shouldn’t distract him. Russell’s dad gave directions, Russell asked a question every now and then. When Russell was finished, he laid the gun on the table. His dad said, “All right, now carry it over there to its case. Remember how I showed you.” Russell carried the gun, barrel pointed at the floor, and put it back in the case and locked it, then put the case on the top shelf of a closet. Just like that, the exercise was over. It was without drama, but with a very clear code of conduct.
When Russell and his dad use the word guns, this experience of family, manhood, tradition, and providing food for the table is part of the emotional reality of the word. If I want to have an honest conversation with Russell about gun rights or gun control, I’m simply not listening to him if I don’t try to understand this. To them, “gun control” connotes the disruption of family.
On the flipside, for those of us who did not grow up around guns, and for whom guns are not part of family tradition, the emotional freight of the word guns is likely composed more exclusively of the tragedies of mass shootings in recent months. This is no less valid as human experience. If folks like Russell and his dad want to have an honest conversation with those of us whose experience of guns has been primarily through stories of horrific violence, they’re simply not listening if they don’t keep this in mind. From this perspective, “gun control” connotes security.
Obviously, none of this changes the reality of what guns are, and none of this accounts for the nuances of, say, the differences between a duck hunting shotgun and an AR-15. I am not offering a solution to a problem; I am not trying to interpret American law; and I am not claiming that all perspectives on guns are equally consonant with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I am simply reminding us at St. Elizabeth that the Christian practice of real listening is an instrument of the peace of God.
This is of paramount importance in a time of heightened anxiety because it is precisely when we are afraid and angry that we are most likely to see enemies where there are none. It is precisely now, in the midst of societal fear and strife, that we need most a reminder that we are made in God’s image and that nothing can remove us from the love of God which we have in Jesus Christ. The rituals of the Church and our own selves are what we have to remind each other of that. To really listen to our neighbor’s experience, to try to understand it without judging it in advance, to really hear what they mean when they say a loaded word like guns—this affirms their belovedness in the eyes of God. To begin with this kind of compassion does not mean surrendering one’s own convictions. But it is the way of the Prince of Peace, the Incarnate One who has seen the beautiful and bloody world through our own eyes.
This is not the only way we spread the peace of God. But it is where we can start: together.