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 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 post-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.

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.

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.

Shafiq 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 urban 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.


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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

“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.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Watch the video of “Rifles” at

[2] Rev. Gilmore is pastor of New Song Community Church in Columbus, OH:

[3] I’ve drawn these numbers from this December 19, 2012 article at Bloomberg News: I also suggest the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention ( and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at ( 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

[5] Listen to the entire “Where We Live” roundtable on gun violence at

[7] The full text to the remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are at


[8] The text to King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is at  The video of the speech is at

As If I Did Not Work At All

Video here.

“Because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.”[1]  Words from Donald Hall, a modern American poet born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut—my hometown. When I finally decided to use this reading this morning and to use these words—as if I did not work at all—as a title for this sermon, I did so because they sum up for me what it means, or at least what I believe it feels like, to have a vocation. Vocation is our ministry theme for January, and this morning I want to explore this notion of working—often working very hard—and simultaneously feeling as if I did not work at all. Vocation, in short, is work to which we feel somehow called, work we are passionate about, work that gives us a sense purpose and meaning, work that meshes seamlessly with our gifts, talents and aspirations, work we love.

However, on this weekend when our nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life work—whose vocation—was to provide a ministry of leadership to American movements for civil rights and economic justice, I think it would be an egregious oversight to come into any pulpit in the United States and preach a sermon entitled “As If I Did Not Work At All” without acknowledging that by most estimates there are 13 million people who literally aren’t working at all due to the long-term impact of the 2008 recession. And of course there are likely millions more who are currently able to work but have left the labor force altogether, frustrated, disheartened, demoralized. It feels somewhat awkward to speak about vocation when there are so many people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find meaningful work at this time.

Having said that, the fact that so many people are out of work is also not a reason to avoid speaking about this theme.  In fact, in the midst of such high rates of unemployment it may be useful and even inspirational to talk about vocation. I suspect we’ve all heard stories over the past few years about people who lost jobs in the recession and used the ensuing period of unemployment as an opportunity to reinvent themselves: to start a new business, to go back to school, to get involved in civic organizations, to run for office, to care for aging parents. The list of ways we can reinvent ourselves is long. We have such stories in our congregation. When Sam Adlerstein lost his job he decided to start his own consulting business. He says, “I had always struggled with Finance as my vocation, not that I couldn’t do it well.  Rather, it was never a passion.  In fact, when I became a Certified Public Accountant, I didn’t even realize that I could connect work with my natural talents and passions.  That realization, better late than never, has now made a huge difference in my life.”

Priscilla Dutton lost a long-time job and decided to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. When I asked if I could mention her in this sermon she said “of course you can and I wish I could attend, but my new vocation is now my life and I’m loving it. I believe very strongly that I wouldn’t be so successful so quickly if I hadn’t followed my passion.” I remember walking into the UUS:E kitchen last spring to find Priscilla in the midst of baking some amazing dessert for our Annual Appeal kick-off dinner. She was covered head to toe with flour. She looked like a ghost. I thought, this person has found her calling. Sometimes losing a job opens a pathway to one’s vocation.

But let’s also remember that one’s job—what one does to earn a living—and one’s vocation—how one pursues one’s passion—are not necessarily the same thing. In fact they’re often quite distinct. We don’t always earn a living through our vocation. Many of you have retired from careers and no longer earn a living through a job, but you still pursue a vocation—like writing, crafts, photography, tutoring, mentoring, social justice organizing and advocacy. And there are others of you who don’t work outside the home earning an income, yet you still pursue a vocation through artistic endeavors, activism and volunteering—including congregational leadership. Here’s another reading from Donald Hall that helps clarify this distinction between a job and a vocation. (Note in this passage he’s using the word work in the way I am using the word vocation.) He writes:

There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work. Reading proof is a chore; checking facts is a chore. When I edit for a magazine or a publisher, I do a job. When I taught school, the classroom fit none of these categories. I enjoyed teaching James Joyce and Thomas Wyatt too much to call it a job. The classroom was a lark because I got to show off, to read poems aloud, to help the young, and to praise authors or books that I loved. But teaching was not entirely larkish: Correcting piles of papers is tedious, even discouraging, because it tends to correct one’s sanguine notions about having altered the young minds arranged in the classroom’s rows. Reading papers was a chore—and after every ten papers, I might tell myself that I could take a break and read a Flannery O’Conner short story. But when I completed the whole pile, then I could reward myself with a real break: When I finished reading and correcting and grading and commenting on seventy-five essay-questions about a ben Jonson or a Tom Clark poem, then—as a reward—I could get to work.[2]

His job and his vocation, in this case, are not the same thing.

But let me step back further and try to name the relationship between vocation and our spiritual lives. I’m currently reading Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief to my boys. This book came out in 2005, the first in the wildly bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Without going into too much detail, we’re at the point in the story where Percy’s identity as the son of Poseidon has been revealed (sorry, should’ve said “spoiler alert”). He has just learned the news of the theft of Zeus’ lightning bolt, that the pending war between the gods will destroy life on the planet as we know it and, even though he is only twelve years old, that Percy is the one who will need do something about it. His wise councilor, the centaur Chiron, says, Wait—don’t just go running off. First you must visit the oracle.[3] And the oracle, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, is a divine voice that gives hints about one’s future and the wisdom of one’s decisions. Percy has begun to feel called to go on a quest to recover Zeus’ lightning bolt. The oracle is there to say whether or not his call is genuine. This is the ancient origin of vocation, this hearing of divine voices, this receiving of a divine call to engage in some sacred work, some spiritual task, some holy mission. We see this in a variety of forms in Native American spirituality, in indigenous African spirituality and in ancient Near Eastern religions.

We certainly see it in the Bible. The books of the Jewish prophets typically begin with the prophet hearing a divine voice calling them to engage in some sacred task or to bring some message to the people of Israel, often a warning.  No prophet enjoys being called. It upsets their lives. They resist. They refuse. But the call keeps coming. Ultimately they can’t escape it. They eventually accept it and enter into their prophetic vocation.

In its most ancient sense, then, vocation has something to do with hearing divine voices. Vocation and voice have the same etymological roots. This past week I noticed Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum, using the language of “call” to describe his campaign in South Carolina. I heard him say a number of times: “We’re called here on a mission.” I haven’t heard him say he feels called by God to run for President, but given his many pronouncements about the role one’s faith must play in public life, I’d be surprised to hear he believes a voice other than God’s is calling him. I am, of course, deeply suspicious of politicians who suggest God has called them to do anything. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, I can’t imagine a God who would take sides in an election campaign or, for that matter, a football game, which has been discussed incessantly in recent weeks in response to the overt sideline prayer-life of Denver Broncos star quarterback Tim Tebow. Nevertheless, I recognize that this ancient notion that our vocation emerges in response to a divine call is still operative for many people around the world.

Perhaps clergy speak of being called or having a calling more than anyone. I feel called to liberal religious ministry. Ministry, at this time in my life, is my vocation. I suspect it will always be my vocation in some form. I work hard at it and it’s true: on my best days I feel as if I do not work at all.  (I won’t mention my worst days—that’s another sermon . . . on imperfection, failure, managing stress and learning how to say no.) I feel called, but I never heard a divine voice—at least not one I recognized—saying “you shall become a minister.” There was no burning bush, no visit to the oracle, no prophetic dream, no flying scroll, no burning coal, no still small voice in the wake of the storm asking “what are you doing here?” There was nothing to refuse, nothing to resist. But I did—and do—feel called; and if pressed to answer what it is that calls me, the most authentic response I can give is, “I’m not sure, but I know it comes from inside.” What I am sure about is that the content of my calling has no better expression than the Unitarian Universalist principles. I feel called to engage the world in a way that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I feel called to engage the world in a way that prioritizes justice, equity and compassion in human relations, that supports spiritual growth, that encourages a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, that utilizes democratic processes, that helps to build a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and that respects, honors and serves the interdependent web of all existence. These principles speak to something deep inside me. They ground me. They center me. They guide me. And at some point about seventeen years ago it began to make sense: If I could conduct my life—not just my work life, but my whole life—in accordance with these principles, I would find my vocation.

I wasn’t hearing a divine voice, but I was certainly learning to hear and heed an inner voice. I was discovering my passions, discovering my convictions. Such discovery, for me, is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Vicki Merriam—our Director of Religious Education—and I have been discussing how to teach our UU children about vocation this month. While we want to remind them of the ancient idea of a divine voice issuing a call, it seems far more important to us to teach them about hearing and responding to their own voice. Listen to yourself. Listen to your heart. Listen to your passions. Listen to your truth. Listen to your joy. What do you hear? How might you respond? What might your path be and how might you travel it? And for children, of course, the most important question for identifying vocation, which will be the final conversation of the month for our kids, is “What do you want to be when you grow up . . . and why?”

The why is important.  Let me share with you a poem called “There is Ministry.” The author is unknown. I’m going to change the word ministry to vocation as they really are interchangeable in this case. For me this poem begins to answer the why of vocation:

“Vocation occurs in places and circumstances, / likely and unlikely: / in churches, not often enough, but sometimes; / in prisons, and hospices, and hospitals; / by cribs and cradles; / in factories, offices, and stores; / in courtrooms and cocktail lounges / and clinics and garages; / in hovels, mansions, and at bus stops / and diners; / wherever there is a meeting that summons us to our / better selves, / wherever our lostness is found, / our fragments are reunited, / our wounds begin healing, / our spines stiffen, and our muscles grow strong for the task, / there is vocation.”[4]

We often leave the why out of the conversation when we’re talking to children. And, let’s be honest, we adults often forget to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Why are we passionate about a certain activity? Why do our natural gifts and talents lead us in a certain direction? Why do we love a certain kind of work? The why is important, because the work that truly calls to us—no matter what voice we hear—the work that presents itself to us as our vocation—is work that allows us in some way to serve and celebrate life. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation, as we learn to engage in it, allows us in some way to bring joy, healing, justice and love into the world. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to move from isolation to connection, from fragmentation to wholeness, from a potentially selfish individualism to a generous and caring engagement with a wider community of people and other living things. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way to address the brokenness in society, the injustices in society, the evil in society. The work that presents itself to us as our vocation allows us in some way—in our unique way—to participate in that revolution of values Dr. King named in our opening reading this morning. Maybe not in ancient times but today, vocation, at its core, is our pathway into, in Dr. King’s words—and he said we are called into it— “a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [people.]”[5]

But we don’t just turn on that love. It doesn’t work that way. I think we first we need to hear what calls to us at the deep places in ourselves—that place inside where we encounter our truth, where our conviction resides.  That’s where we find our purpose. That’s where we discover the work we love. And once we’ve made that discovery, then with we need to do with our lives the work we love. I’m mindful of that quote about vocation from the mystic, Howard Thurman: “Ask not what you the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, that is the surest path to loving ourselves, loving life, loving others and loving the world; for me, that is the surest path to working and simultaneously feeling as if we did not work at all.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Hall, Donald, Life Work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 4.

[2] Hall, Life Work, p. 4.

[3] Riordan, Rick, The Lightning Thief (New York: Disney Hyperion Books, 2005) pp. 138-9.

[4] Unknown Author in Smith, Gary, col., “There is Ministry,” Awakened From the Forest (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[5] King, Martin Luther, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 190.