Via Hand and Heart: Part II
December 14th, 2012. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut. It has been three years — such horror. If there were ever evidence that we are following a misguided path regarding access to guns in our nation, Newtown is the evidence.
Twenty-seven murdered. Children, teachers, a principal — all sacrificed to our nation’s inability to think or act rationally to protect the innocents.
In the early autumn of 2013, ten months after the tragedy, I was invited to preach in a congregation in downstate Illinois. During the sermon on the text of “reaping and sowing,” I spoke of our inability to address the gun violence in our culture. At that point, ten months after the Sandy Hook murders, Congress was still unable to offer even the slightest form of intelligent response of healing or hope for an alternative approach.
Following the worship service a well-spoken gentleman approached. He didn’t appear angry but he did begin by saying he wanted to disagree with the sermon. “Okay,” I said, “Please share; I am eager to learn.” At this point he said that I should not have mentioned guns — “talk about violence, if you must, but when you make it ‘gun violence’ you make it political. People can also hurt others with a knife.” He went on “if more people were armed the innocent could be protected from the crazies.”
I was speechless, frightened really. I didn’t want to have an argument right there in the fellowship hall. A long pause followed. I prayed. He was obviously a sincere, intelligent man — one who had the courage to speak of his disagreement. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached out and took his hand, still not knowing what to say. Then, these words came, “How long have you worshiped fire arms? Is it possible that you may have substituted trust in guns for trust in God?” To my surprise he squeezed my hand and instead of taking up the argument he said, “I’ll have to think about that” and dropped his head.
Later I found out that this man was active in state politics… If he changed his perspective on the gun lobby his work would be in jeopardy. He too was frightened.
The scripture lessons at Christmas tell the story of the birth of Jesus, yes. There is more. This story continues as it moves toward the story of the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ family becoming refugees to avoid his murder. Herod sends out word that all the male infants should be killed. I am reminded of the cover of the New York Post the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Congress continues to give more protection to gun owners than to the innocent ones who face the terror of sick, troubled and misguided folks who find it easier to own a gun than have a license to drive a car. We are not helpless… even in the face of difficult odds against change. Let me suggest that you look to the work of the Brady Center at Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In Part I of this reflection I spoke of the movie Witness and the scene where the grandfather Eli is speaking with young Samuel about the gun he has found. He says to the child “What we take into our hands we take into our hearts.” This is one of two scenes I will always remember.
When the movie first came out in 1985, I was teaching an urban studies class for future pastors in Chicago. One afternoon the class went to see the movie and then came back to discuss it together. There were about twenty students in the class, approximately half of them were from the Mennonite or Brethren traditions. The other students were a mix of Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed and Methodist.
The discussion turned to the second unforgettable scene for me from the movie. It is near the end of the film. Gunmen come to the Amish farm to track down and kill Detective Book and members of the Lapp family who witnessed a murder in Philadelphia. What ensues is dramatic, haunting and amazing all rolled into one. I won’t spoil you by giving you the ending of the movie, but I want to share the reactions from my class to one scene in particular. The grandfather is facing an approaching gunman. He looks into another room where Samuel can see him as he motions. Grandfather Lapp’s hand is out at his side, clenched and moving slightly up and down. The boy understands and runs to perform the unspoken task.
In the debriefing of the movie Witness with that class in 1985, I asked how many thought the grandfather was signaling for Samuel to go ring the bell to gather the neighbors. All of the Mennonite and Brethren students raised their hands. I asked how many thought the signal was to go get the gun… almost all of the rest of us thought it was signal to get the gun.
The difference in what was seen by the two groups continues to haunt. One group had grown up knowing the power of community when faced with danger; others of us had learned to prefer force and power.