Instead of Rifles: Reflections on American Violence

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video here.]

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”[1]

the Cornel West Theory, circa 2009The band is the Cornel West Theory from Washington, DC. The piece, from their 2009 album “Second Rome” is called “Rifles.” The speaker of these particular words—the poet—is the Rev. Yvonne Gilmore.[2] On this Sunday one day before the nation celebrates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.; on this Sunday one day before the nation inaugurates President Barack Hussein Obama to a second term; on this Sunday just over a month after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that left 28 people dead including 20 first graders; on this Sunday after a week in which the debate over gun control in our state and our nation has been feverish and fierce; on this Sunday at the beginning of a new year, following a year in which Hartford witnessed 22 homicides, 17 of which involved guns; on this 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, following a year in which the United States witnessed more than 10,000 gun-related homicides (depending on how one counts) and more than 30,000 gun-related deaths—the majority of them being suicides;[3] on this Sunday I find these words from Rev. Gilmore to be both a deeply pastoral and powerfully prophetic response to violence, one that speaks to us about what is necessary for the work of repair, healing, justice in a grieving nation.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” I don’t pretend to understand every reference in this piece. But I understand it enough to know it addresses those urban youth who are caught up in these seemingly endless, intractable cycles of drug and gang violence, repeated from city to city across the nation, this “bullet play,” as Rev. Gilmore calls it, “this petty crime on the front lines.” The other poet in the piece, Tim Hicks, offers a litany of violence-laced images and makes veiled and not-so-veiled references to the troubling experience of young, urban black and brown-skinned men within the United States criminal justice system, a system we know is fundamentally flawed; a system that, after decades of America’s war on drugs, has resulted in the mass incarceration of young black and brown-skinned men and, increasingly, women; a system that Ohio State University law professor and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander, among others, calls the New Jim Crow[4]—Jim Crow being the popular name for the Michelle Alexanderpost-Civil War, post-Reconstruction system of both legal and illegal methods of keeping black and other peoples of color from participating fully in American society—the broken and racist system the Civil Rights movement sought to overcome; the system Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS sought to correct once and for all; the system the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, the NAACP and so many others (including the Unitarian Universalist Association) sought to dismantle forever; the system the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom riders, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail sought to end forever; the system the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to abolish forever.

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

That was the old Jim Crow and somehow, in 2013—the fiftieth anniversary year of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,”—here it is again, the new Jim Crow.

New Jim Crow

The poet says: “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” This piece addresses urban violence. It does not address the more rare phenomenon of mass shootings, like the Newtown tragedy, like the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, like the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—shootings which typically seem to disturb and galvanize the nation much more than the endless reports of tragic gang-related homicides in cities. This piece, “Rifles,” does not address what we might call suburban gun violence, but Rev. Gilmore’s wish still applies. And let us make no mistake: the two phenomena—urban and suburban gun violence—are intimately related.

Down the hill from Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12-14-12

Shafiq AbdussaburShafiq Abdussabur is a New Haven, CT police officer and the current Chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. He named this intimate relationship between urban and suburban violence this past Tuesday on WNPR’s “Where We Live.” He was talking about the differences between urban and suburban violence—differences in the profiles of the shooters, differences in how they come by their weapons, differences in what kind of weapons education and training they typically have, and differences in the factors that lead to violence. But then he said this: At the end of the day there’s still people killing people with guns, [whether] legally possessed [or] illegally possessed…. And the key here is this: It’s our young people…. We’re missing something with our young people in both suburban America and urban America.”[5]

I agree. We’re missing something with our young people. That’s the essence of what I’m calling the intimate relationship between Fallingurban and suburban violence. There are tears in the social fabric—cracks, clefts, rifts, gaps, holes, fractures, fissures, ruptures. They are many, they are increasing and they cannot be narrowed down to one factor or one simple solution. They are social, economic, educational, psychological and spiritual. They emerge out of poverty, broken families, lack of resources, boredom, bullying, sexism, violence in the media, violence in video games, failing schools, warped national priorities, hyper-militarism, political polarization and on and on. Not every child falls into these tears in the social fabric. Thankfully most don’t. But those who do become stressed, numb, frightened, angry, isolated, alienated, stunted in their moral development, stunted in their ability to discern right from wrong, and they can become—not always, but sometimes—violent.

In urban areas in particular the appeal of gangs—safety, camaraderie, intimacy, money, power, even purpose—is overwhelming for young people who’ve become alienated. But what a set-up: As a society we fail them. We drive them away. We drive them into dangerous, violent situations. If they aren’t killed, eventually we arrest and imprison them. It’s the new Jim Crow.

the New Jim Crow

In the suburbs alienation plays out differently. The presence of more wealth, more employment, better access to health care, more effective schools, fewer illegal weapons, less demand on social service providers, more overall privilege keeps most gang activity at bay, and we who live in suburbs report a greater feeling of safety relative to our urban neighbors. Except the Newtown shooting and others like it tells us something different, tells us there are young people falling into those tears in the social fabric, falling off the radar screen. The potential for explosive violence haunts suburban—and we should add rural—America as well.

Aurora, CO

Another important layer to this conversation: most of the violence young people act out once they’ve fallen into these tears in the social fabric is towards themselves. This has understandably not been named prominently in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but I think it’s important to say that the shooter, as outwardly violent as he was that morning, was also suicidal, was also expecting to commit violence toward himself. “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”

Obama & Biden

This past Wednesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden, responding to the Newtown shooting, launched the most comprehensive and aggressive gun control effort since the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition to demanding that Congress pass a new assault weapons ban, institute background checks for all gun sales, ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 bullets; and toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t legally own them, they also announced 23 executive actions dealing with a range of issues including a call for a new national dialogue on mental illness.[6] Here’s what I feel about it: Bravo. Bravo Barack and Joe. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your reasonableness and your sanity. Thank you for proposals that seek to reduce both suburban and urban gun violence while actually not infringing on the right of law-abiding American citizens to keep and bear arms. Thank you.

I recognize some will disagree with my claim that the administration’s proposals do not infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. One could argue that if Congress puts an assault weapons ban back into place, then the government is technically infringing on the right to bear arms. My only response is that I’m still waiting to hear a rational argument for the right to bear an assault weapon. I’m trying to remain open. But the arguments I tend to hear sound like the following: It’s my right. I should be able to have any gun I want. It’s the American way. It’s none of your business. These are not convincing arguments, and because assault weapons are being used in mass shootings more and more, I feel strongly that it is my business. It’s everyone’s business. I support gun ownership. I understand hunting and target practice and self-defense. I do not see a rational argument for owning assault weapons, and therefore I do not feel the Administration’s proposals threaten the right to bear arms.

Obama with children

I also took note of the President’s comments about children: “This is our first task as a society,” he said, “keeping our children safe.  This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change.”[7]  I am convinced President Obama believes these words about as deeply as anything else he believes. But he can believe this and still be missing something about our children. I think it’s one thing to protect children from gun violence. It’s another thing to keep children from falling through the tears in the social fabric. He can take this moment to push through the most aggressive gun control measures in a generation and actually succeed in reducing gun violence and still be missing something about our children. And we can choose, individually and as a congregation, to get involved in this post-Newtown effort to control guns in a sane and reasonable way—I personally expect to be involved—and we can still be missing something about our children. We can pass all the laws we possibly can to control guns and young people will still be falling into these ever-widening tears in the social fabric, and some of them will find ways to act out violently towards themselves, others, or both. It is time in this nation for a change of heart in relation to children and young people that is bigger and more lasting than anything our political process can ever hope to achieve. It’s time for a national change of heart in relation to children and young people that requires more than legislation.

Don't Shoot

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles,” enough to carry you through your times of fear and anger, enough to carry you out of alienation and isolation, enough to carry you past the impulse to commit a violent act. I only know one way to make a child love themself enough to carry themself with their head held high, with pride in their heart, with a positive sense of potential and possibility, with trust in their own future: Love them first. Love them—all of them—unconditionally, with everything we’ve got. I’m not talking about parents loving their own children, although that is certainly part of it. I’m talking about all of us—society—resolving to love every child unconditionally and doing everything and anything we can—with that love at the center—to repair these tears in the social fabric into which too many children are falling.

Love our kids

Some might say this sounds naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible. Fine. But I prefer to let Dr. King’s words speak to us on this question. I prefer to let Dr. King speak to us across the decades about how we are missing something about our children, about the way too many children become alienated and prone to violence, about the way too many children become caught up in the new Jim Crow. He said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits…. I still believe that one day [humanity] will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.”[8] It may be naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible to think we can mend the tears in our social fabric. But I also think it’s foolish–utterly foolish–to keep doing what we’re doing and think things will get better on their own.

Hoodies

It’s time for an all-encompassing national change of heart. Imagine a society in which young black and brown-skinned men, walking down the street, perhaps wearing their hoodies, perhaps being loud and boisterous, instill in the hearts of passersby not a feeling of fear, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which children and young people of a variety of races, from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages, all in one school system—like Manchester, like Hartford—instill in the hearts of all taxpayers not a feeling of resentment and anger but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children and young people instill in the hearts of others not the urge to bully, bash, exclude or correct them, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which a child or young person who seems isolated and alienated, moody and withdrawn, perhaps suffering from mental illness, who seems to resist all interventions by parents, school social workers and medical professionals instills in the hearts of still other adults who see the situation unfolding not a desire to turn away, ignore the child, give up on the child, forsake the child, say to themselves ‘this is not my problem,’ but rather a recognition: this is my child too and I will err on the side of reaching out, offering support, being a presence in this child’s life, being an adult they can trust and count on. These children falling though the tears in the social fabric are our children too.

Love our kids

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” Friends, in the wake of the Newtown shooting and aware of longstanding and seemingly intractable violence in urban neighborhoods, yes, let’s be involved in efforts to control guns. Let’s be involved in efforts to destigmatize mental illness, to prevent the criminalization of mental illness, and to establish real mental health parity in federal and state law. Let’s be involved in efforts to enhance school climate and school safety. Let’s do all of this. But’s let’s be honest: what’s missing in this nation is profound and unconditional love for all children. The proof is that too many fall into the cracks and gaps and tears. I challenge all of us to discern in the coming weeks and months, as the debate over gun control rages, how we can fill our lives with love for children and young people who are falling—to recognize they are our children too—to help them love themselves enough to carry them instead of rifles, and thereby bring healing, repair and justice to a grieving nation.

love

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Watch the video of “Rifles” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm8SnaH24W0

[2] Rev. Gilmore is pastor of New Song Community Church in Columbus, OH: http://www.newsong4newlife.com/

[3] I’ve drawn these numbers from this December 19, 2012 article at Bloomberg News: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/american-gun-deaths-to-exceed-traffic-fatalities-by-2015.html. I also suggest the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/features/ViolentDeathsAmerica/) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at (http://www.bradycampaign.org/) as good sources for data on gun violence.

[4] Information on Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , is at http://www.newjimcrow.com/.

[5] Listen to the entire “Where We Live” roundtable on gun violence at http://cptv.vo.llnwd.net/o2/ypmwebcontent/Catie/Where%20We%20Live%2001-15-2013.mp3

[7] The full text to the remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/01/16/transcript-obama-remarks-on-gun-violence/

 

[8] The text to King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html.  The video of the speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1853.