Guns are the Problem, but the Answer lies elsewhere

  It’s guns, people, it’s guns. This statement gets defensive, hostile responses every time I post something like it on social media.  Positive responses outnumber the negative ones so it’s hard to understand how deadly shooting after deadly shooting hasn’t wounded the Second Amendment crowd in any way. I hear cable news talking heads arguing that we just need to pepper the hostile naysayers with more facts, but facts don’t touch them. There’s something deeply emotional to their consistent reactions.

Since the 1980s there’s been a constant media drumbeat celebrating the mythical cowboy mentality, conjuring fear of imminent, violent criminal attacks, the virtue of violent revenge as justice, and the essential untrustworthiness of others.  The NRA gets a lot of the blame.  Movies, t.v. shows, and video games should get more.  Some state legislatures have added their own fuel through stand your ground laws that legalize, encourage, and suggest justification for shooting first and asking questions later.  It has added up to an effective marketing program promoting gun ownership as a necessity for survival.

The rise of far right anti-democratic politics has contributed to a mindset that distrusts republican government, federalism, elections, and anything that can be labeled liberal making democracy itself an enemy. There is real anxiety among too many that only the well armed in every way will be able to defend themselves and survive the imaginary, self destructive and improbable apocalypse bound to occur.  Then there is the sheer romance of owning weapons; even more romantic if they’re of military grade.  Part juvenile fantasy, part true appreciation for a well made thing, and part for some sense of power and superiority one can feel when carrying a gun.

It adds up to a deeply rooted emotion that fears almost any form of regulation, fears exacerbated by propaganda about “them” coming to take away your guns.

Is that true of all the roughly 180 million Americans who own a gun?  No.  Certainly not.  I’ve owned guns in the past.  Every farmer, rancher or hunter I know owns guns.  Like many my age, I grew up when owning a gun was taken for granted, no one paid any special attention. Guns were simply tools needed for work or sport, like tractors or golf clubs.  Emotional pride in owning them was a function of workmanship or sporting marksmanship. Teaching gun safety was the only  role of the NRA.  That same attitude prevails among many gun owners today.  But not all.

There are somewhere around 390 million people living in The U.S, including infants, children, and the elderly.  Current estimates from the Washington Post are that there are around 490 million weapons in civilian hands.  Give that some thought.  Less than half of the population owns almost half a billion weapons.  Don’t take any of these numbers as hard fact.  They’re only roughly right if one is generous about what roughly means.  But the perspective is spot on.  A significant number of people are heavily armed.  Each new media explosion of news about a  threatening domestic or international event is met with a surge in gun sales, not so much to new gun owners, but to existing gun owners convinced the need for ever more protections.  Protections against what?

My guess is it’s a tangled mess of emotionally charged motives tied to core social values that have been sold as critical to the continued existence of a civilized America.  It isn’t hard to conjure up such threats as looming catastrophes.  Remember Maslow’s 1954 hierarchy of needs: first physical needs such as shelter, clothing, food, water, etc. Then the need to feel safe, secure in one’s daily life followed by a need to belong and to have an adequate degree of self esteem.  Maslow said that once a basic need was satisfied, one would work to achieve the next level, but if what they had achieved was threatened, or taken away, they would revert quickly to defense of lower levels of satisfaction with increasing determination to protect it..

In a troubled world where big decisions affecting ordinary people appear to be entirely in the hands of a powerful elite, it’s easy to convince a large portion of the population that their self esteem has been taken from them, perhaps even given to someone else.  It’s easy for them to be convinced that they no longer belong to a class of respected people, and that others who used to be thought inferior are now superior.  It’s easy to convince them that their safety is at risk at every corner, in every dark shadow, even in their own homes.  It’s easy to convince them that unless they are willing to fight, they will lose it all. Every successful dictator, king, emperor, strong man, and gang boss knows how to play the game.  There are a hundred variations of the old movie line, “It’s nice life you have here, shame if anything would happen to it.”

It’s a big part of the reason that arming up has become an obsession. I’m guessing the same dynamic helps explain why more people think its OK to shoot first and ask questions later, or shoot to avenge a minor traffic or property infraction.  It may also help explain why too many younger people think there is little wrong with resolving disputes with drive by shootings. Authoritarian provocateurs  increase the pressure by asserting “they” are going to take away your guns, that teachers need to be armed, police stationed at every school entrance, and the like, and that any move to regulate guns is a threat to fundamental rights.

Pelting the public with facts isn’t going to change a thing.  The answer has to be in the form of a persuasive argument that core physical needs and social values will be strengthened, expanded, and made more secure when guns are properly regulated.  It can’t be an argument to make people feel regulation will make life safer and more fee, it has to be the real, tactile thing. It’s a tricky process. Propaganda, advertising and marketing gurus have fine tuned the art of convincing the public of benefits or threats having little substance.  It’s the old advertising platitude, sell the sizzle not the steak. Using the same skills to sell a truth filled message without deception is not something normally done. Equally difficult is overcoming the powerful win/lose, transactional zero sum ethos promoted by the myth of rugged individualism. It’s an ethos that can’t conceive how the good things in life can be shared more equitably without “them that has” losing to undeserving others.  The gun lobby and gun manufacturers have to be taken head on as the agents of death and civil disorder they are: agents that truly threaten the very values they claim to defend.

Difficult as it may be, it’s the only way to create a significant shift in the public arena to force legislators into action.  Will it change hard core gun advocates? No.  But it has the best chance to change enough minds to make a difference, and enough is enough.

Israel, the Ancient Near East & a Church in Error

From only studying the Bible, we can be led to believe that Israelites and their kings were the most important and feared of all nations in the Ancient Near East. Also from the Bible, the future of the entire world would appear to pivot on the words of kings and prophets.  God does act through ‘his’ people chosen to prepare the entire earth and all its creatures for salvation.  But it’s also a misleading perspective failing to grasp the highly improbable enormity of its truth.

The history of the Ancient Near East is the story of the rise and fall of empires competing for mastery of the entire region. Sumerian and Acadians fought over control about the time Abraham left the powerful city of Ur, journeying to the land of the Canaanites.  Hittites and Assyrians battled as the era of Judges ended and Israel began to form. Assyrians and Babylonians did the same as the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.  Judah struggled on until Babylon won it all, deporting Judean elites to Babylon. There they remained until the Persians conquered everything and Cyrus authorized Jerusalem’s temple to be rebuilt.  Alexander the Great rolled over the Persians and his successors imposed Greek culture on the entire region.  It inspired the Maccabean revolt and with the help of the Romans, gave Judea and Galilee a measure of independence. We know how that turned out.

Throughout the two thousand years between Abraham and Jesus, the great empires paid as little attention as necessary to Israelites, their puny kingdoms, and their weird worship of an unnamed, invisible god.  Israelites were to them a trouble making irritation whose only value was its convenience as a strategically important trade route. Frequent rebellions were easily put down. The self-styled chosen people were pests who, truth be told, were ferocious warriors who needed to be subdued with massive force, distracting from larger, more powerful enemies but it had to be done.

Ancient empires rose and fell, not one of them exists today, but the people of God, God’s prophets and the Word of God remained.  They stumbled, sinned, fell, were exiled yet rose to rebuild and carry on.  Scattered to the ends of empire, they became the seed bed that would yield the good news of God in Christ Jesus for the whole of humanity.  The prologue to John’s gospel proclaims that Jesus, the incarnate Christ, is a light that the darkness could not extinguish. From Abraham to Jesus, the people of God were the collective light that the darkness could not extinguish no matter how faintly it burned in the worst of times. A smoldering wick, the beacon they had so long cared for burst into the flame of eternal light in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that embraced the whole of humanity.

Descendants of ancient Israelites are still here, still small in number, still bearing the holy story.  Through them Christians have received the light of Christ as theirs to carry in all places for the healing of the nations.  Our having gone down many blind alleys and violated God’s most sacred commandments, the light ofChrist remains ours to carry, the light that darkness cannot extinguish.  The body of Christ is not the conquering church triumphant.  It is the faithful servant bearing God’s good news without prejudice or discrimination, respecting the dignity of every human being no matter their belief or condition in life.

A portion of the church in America has gone down one of the blind alleys that turns against the way of God to embrace the way of empire. Christian nationalism with its affection for authoritarian government, easy relationship with White supremacy, and extreme right wing politics has rejected the way of godly love. Confronted by demons of their own creation, they will get the same response others got recorded in Acts 19. The demon said “Paul I know and Jesus I know, but who are you?”

A tiny people of a sliver of land on the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean bore the flickering light that neither empire nor darkness could extinguish.  It can’t be extinguished now even as parts of the church err badly.

To Whom are You Responsible? For Whom are You Responsible? There is a Difference.

‘Responsible to’ and ‘Responsible for’ sound alike enough to be confused, even treated as equals, but they are quite different.  People want to be responsible but they create unnecessary stress for themselves and sometimes irritation for others, when they mix up the two. Each of us is responsible for being a person of integrity and trustworthiness, and for respecting the dignity of every human being.  We are to speak and act in ways that promote justice and equity for all.  We are also responsible for the consequences of our words and deeds.

We are not responsible for how others attend to their responsibilities to themselves and society.  There are exceptions of course.  Parents are responsible for the well being of their children and for others in their care who cannot fend for themselves. Exceptions can even extend to professional duties.  Physicians and nurses in hospitals are responsible for the well being of those in their care to to extent they are unable to care for themselves. Even exceptions have limitations. A patient can be compliant or not.  Teachers have many responsibilities for children in their care, but not for the behavior of each child, and so on.

The complex, fuzzy boundary between ‘responsible to’ and responsible for’ leads many to wrongly assume personal responsibility for what others do. It leads to paternalism that assumes others are inferior and for whom superiors need to be responsible. Frustrating personal failure results when the other refuses to cooperate or becomes a dependent drone.  Either way, it absolves the other of making any serious effort to be responsible for him or her self.  Good intentions feed the worst kinds of paternalistic prejudices when entire classes of people are labeled as inferior and dependent  

It can create the worst kind of self righteous do-goodism. The commandment to do unto others as you would have done unto you slides wrongly into ‘Do unto others as you think they need to have done unto them because you know better what’s good for ‘them.’However well intended, it ignores the godly standards made clear by the prophets and sealed by Jesus Christ of human dignity, social and economic justice.

So, how can people be motivated to be responsible for themselves?  It can’t be done.  No one can motivate another. All one can do is provide the resources and conditions by which others find their own motivation.  For those in authority it means providing quality material, the best possible tools, and removing obstacles that stand in the way of success.  Society has the responsibility to see that its rules create avenues and remove obstacles to social and economic justice with no structural discrimination.  Not everyone finds their motivation in the same way, nor through any predetermined standards others expect of them. Life is full of differences and contradictions.  Let it go.

Each of us is responsible to God, others and society, to be the best agents we can be for the good of all.  Each of us is responsible for our own words and deeds and their consequences.  None of us is responsible for the words, deeds, or worthiness of others. Scripture commends us to carry our own burdens and help others carry theirs. Each carries their own burden, and each has help from others to do it.  It’s an ideal seldom met but always worth striving for. It’s a tough lesson to learn.  Far too many  drive themselves into states of guilt ridden anxiety because they have taken on burdens not theirs to carry,

To Quibble or Not: a new online game

In a recent online conversation, the question was asked: “With all the other things going on in the world, why are you quibbling about XYZ?” It doesn’t really matter what XYZ was, the question about quibbling needed to be addressed.  

True there are issues of tremendous importance facing the nation and the world.  Attending to any one of them would no doubt raise a storm over why all the others were being ignored.  Everyone’s highest priority cannot be the highest priority for everyone else.  Most of us have two or three highest priorities and other pressing issues are monitored in the background, if at all.   Perhaps you are among those who have been angrily harangued by someone furious that you don’t share their highest issue priority. It doesn’t matter what the subject of conversation is, someone will complain that with all the other things going on in the world, why are people quibbling over XYZ?

Not every subject of genuine conversation has to deal with pressing global issues.  Academic scholarship and scientific research on arcane, obscure, and impractical matters may seem an irresponsible avoidance of what is truly important, but they may be probing creation’s deepest secrets and meaning helping to determine the future of humanity and creation itself. 

Equally true, humans need and enjoy small talk about matters personal, local, entertaining, and unrelated to pressing global issues.  It’s an essential way to maintain emotional equilibrium and mental well being. Conversation about things seemingly trivial is not an avoidance of the great social, economic and political questions of the day.  It’s a way to keep issues in perspective, creating boundaries that separate a person from personal accountability for the outcome of national or global issues over which they might have strong opinions, some influence, but no control.  Even those in highest office need time away to rest, reflect, and take a break.  It’s why presidents go to Camp David, spend weekends at the beach, or have a hobby.

So, I don’t believe our online conversation was quibbling over XYZ when it should have been attending to greater things.  The subject of XYZ was worthy of conversation for many reasons of its own.  It didn’t signal an unwillingness to dive into weightier matters.  It was just he subject of the days’s conversation. Tomorrow will be different. For example, I’m also part of a monthly gathering of five or six where we do talk about weightier matters.  At our last gathering we talked about local land use and economy, institutional racism and injustices, archeology, and the history of moral development.  We also talked about electric cars, old cars, funny things that happen in court, snacks, dogs, and good places to eat. 

It doesn’t mean all conversations are of equal value.  Some are ignorantly inane.  Some are gossipy sharing of someone else’s personal life that should not be shared.  Some are filled with hateful prejudice and threatened violence. Some are not conversations at all, just someone pontificating to an otherwise silent group. Finally there is decent evidence that an enormous portion of the population, perhaps even a majority, are ignorant of pressing national and global issues – some by choice and some for other reasons.. Their world view doesn’t include those issues and they can’t be force fed or humiliated into paying attention. 

It’s also true that we can sometimes be guilty of straining gnats while avoiding camels pretending that the gnats are important and the camels don’t exist. Florida seems to be the current butt of jokes about it.  I suspect we are all guilty of it from time to time. 

Resurrection Eyes

Resurrection eyes.  

I meet each week with an ecumenical group for an hour of lectionary study.  The group began fifty years ago led byThe Rev. Ernie Campbell, rector of St. Paul’s in Walla Walla, WA.  Now led by The Rev. Martha Hurlburt, it meets via Zoom to include those who live far away. Who knows how long it will continue, but I digress.  Not long ago we were talking about Resurrection eyes.  No one remembered where the phrase came from, but it was familiar.  Resurrection eyes are needed to recognize the risen Christ. Without them his full identity remains veiled, an improbable delusion.

None who first met him on Easter Sunday had Resurrection eyes nor could they recognize him. Even Mary Magdalen recognized him in disbelieving belief only after he called her by name.  Her testimony to the others was received with suspicious doubt.  And why not? The only Jesus they knew was an itinerant teacher and miraculous healer they had followed for three years.  True he had an unusually close connection with God, called God his father, and said cryptic things about how his death would be the messianic moment for which they had been waiting.  There was something about rising again, but who could understand it?  The Jesus they knew got hot, tired, hungry, thirsty, dirty, and needed to relieve himself in the usual way. No signs of divinity in that.  Son of God?  Perhaps, but who could understand what that meant?

The risen Christ, revealed in the fullness of who he was, the very personification of God, had to be too much to comprehend.  But once realized, it changed the meaning of everything they had ever heard him say and do.  It also changed them.  One cannot go on as before once one has been called and transformed by the living God. 

It isn’t easy for us to grasp the enormity of what was happening to his followers, so let’s try a thought experiment.  Imagine someone you loved returned to you from the grave, not as a vision, ghost, or warm memory, but as a an embodied person – not young or old, but definitely your loved one. How would you react?  How would it affect your understanding of death and life?  What we can only imagine is close to what the disciples experienced in reality. 

Two thousand years later we are still trying to make sense out of the improbable Easter story. It is only with Resurrection eyes that one is able to recognize the risen Christ as Jesus.  Once recognized, how can he not change one’s life in the most fundamental of ways?  Well, as it turns out we are a stubborn people and quite able to resist the life changing powers of the Resurrection.  It’s hard for us to recognize anything that is beyond boundaries of three dimensions and linear time.  Well, that’s not quite true either.  We are gullible and easily bamboozled by stories of two headed aliens, secret cabals that rule the world, various oddball conspiracies, and most anything a two-bit huckster wants to sell.  At the same time, we are stiff necked about believing what God had done and physically manifested through the birth, life, teaching, death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.  Why?  Maybe it’s because to follow Jesus demands a new way of life, but to believe in spiritual snake oil demands no change of life, can be entertaining, and even reinforce our worst prejudices. Resurrection eyes are eyes open to a more complete, truthful, and eternal reality.  They are less susceptible to pitfalls of gullibility, not immune, but less susceptible.

Resurrection eyes recognize Christ Jesus, but understanding comes slowly.  For the first apostles, it took the rest of their lives. As Paul wrote even then it was understanding only seen dimly. We struggle still.  God is unlimited by any dimension of time and space.  The past, present and future of creating hinges on the Christ event and is still unfolding.  Thankfully there is no final exam that measures how much we understand.  It isn’t how much we understand, but how much we try to understand, how much we allow the Resurrection to change our lives.  It isn’t pass-fail, nor is it dedication to a particular creed or confession.  It is dependent on the faith that is known to God alone.

I am an Episcopalian, and confident that the church and its liturgy, following in the catholic tradition of classical Christianity, truly represents who God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are.  Init I have discovered whatever Resurrection eyes I am capable of having, and have been drawn ever lose to becoming a tru disciple.  That does not make it the one true church.  It’s simply the place where I am able to be as true a Christian as I am currently able. Through it I have come to understand the Christ even is not something that happened once a long time ago.  It is happening still,

Families & Friendships. Important? Why? In What Way?

The importance of families and friendships has been in the news a lot lately.  Of course these relationships have always been important but usually in the background as institutions taken more or less for granted. The importance factor has changed in the last few years.

Society cannot exist without families and friendships.  Without them the world would be a place of all against all brutality as envisioned by Hobbs’ cruelly barbaric, self destructive state of nature.  However, as important as they are, these relationships of themselves are morally neutral.  They can exist for good or evil or both. With that as preamble, what is going on?

I took a quick scan of what was out there and found universities overflowing with research, journal articles, and sociology departments focussed on family studies.  Public radio and television stations have picked up on it, as have entire armies of pop psychology publishers.  Why now?  What has boosted the importance of families and friendships to such prominence?

No doubt some part of the change was due to Trump and his use of right wing evangelicals to incite fears that radical left wingers were about to destroy every last aspect of American family values described as biblical. Smoldering since the 1980s under the guise of a so called moral majority, they spun a tale of the  nuclear family – husband, wife and two children – being the bedrock of American society, that no other form of family was morally acceptable, and that families were where truth, love, and The American Way were learned. Nice, but a sentimental mirage.  As C.S. Lewis noted, charity may begin at home, but so does uncharity.  If the home is where values are learned it is also where hate is carefully taught and prejudices welded into the character of children. Nevertheless, the right wingers persisted and waited for the moment when a national leader would rise to take up their cause.

The importance of families and friendships gained renewed importance among the majority of less doctrinaire Americans during the several years of COVID semi-seclusion.  It awakened them from a complacent assurance that family and friends could be treated casually, available or not or as need be.  Americans stayed home, worked from home, avoided too many social engagements, and traveled as little as possible. The most vulnerable and beloved were often kept in isolation unable to have any personal contact with their families or friends. My wife and I moved from coast to coast in 2020 traveling through vacant airports to arrive in our all but closed new city.  What we had taken for granted had been taken from us.  The passing of the pandemic unleashed determination to rebuild relationships, re-engage socially, and think more carefully about how important family and friends are to personal and community well being.

In the meantime, many Americans, especially younger ones,  substituted mobile phones and tablets in favor of face-to-face, or ear-to-ear as the necessary and sufficient means of exchanging information.  Classes, business meetings, religious services, and family reunions by Zoom became adequate substitutes for the real thing.  In fact, they became the real thing.  However much families and friends have gained in importance, the impersonal electronic interface between persons is rightfully suspected of having a pernicious effect on the collective psyche.

I suspect all of this explains why college family study majors are fully subscribed, researchers are publishing articles and books, and self-help gurus are prospering as each tries to guide the American public toward a new more vigorous appreciation of the importance of healthy relationships in families and among friends.

In like manner, it is clear that unhealthy relationships in families and among friends undermine the well being of society and individuals.  There is an increasing awareness that healthy families can take many forms.  They need not be a married mom, dad and kids. Families needn’t be related by law or blood. They do not have to be headed by a married man and woman.

The test of their value to society is not their structure but the values and virtues they teach and exemplify.  If they are where hate is carefully taught and practiced, they undermine the integrity of society.  If they are places where love and respect for the dignity of others is taught and practiced they contribute to the well being of society.

In like manner, friendships, whether casual or close, can be a resource for generating good will for each other and the common good.  Or they can be resource for conspiracies, perversion, crimes, violence, and parasitic behaviors that suck the life out of society. Before jumping on the family values bandwagon examine what values are promoted and what are damned. The same is true for friendship. It’s a choice of course. Exercise judicious caution before becoming a friend too quickly.  Give some thought to what your better values are and let them guide you. It’s always a choice, perhaps a painful one at times, but always a choice.  You are not forced to enter or stay in an abusive, corrosive, parasitic family or friendship.  Seek those where love, respect and integrity abide and abound.