I'm both excited and scared to be headed to Atlanta in August to attend Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Excited because moving anywhere from Washington, D.C. -- and the Northeast in general, where I've lived my entire life -- is a welcome change. But, I also have not just a few hesitations about being a liberal Northeastern gay Episcopalian in the South at a Methodist seminary -- this despite friends assuring me that Atlanta is different than the rest of the South.
Atlanta may be different, but it's still in Georgia, where last week Governor Nathan Deal signed into law the so-called "guns everywhere" bill, officially named the Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014. As someone about to become a seminarian in the state, I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that while receiving Communion on Sunday, one of my fellow congregants might be packing heat.
Thankfully, both bishops in my denomination, the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, bishop of Atlanta, and the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase, bishop of Georgia, issued a joint statement opposing the bill.
This bill solves nothing, and it only creates the potential for more gun violence, not less, to say nothing of increasing political polarization in Georgia. Our state's current gun laws are already quite fair to gun owners, adequately protecting their rights. All the citizens of Georgia have rights as well. We have a right to keep guns out of our houses of worship and our schools,
the statement said. (So I assume the Episcopal churches I'll be frequenting will opt for a "no guns, please" sign at their entrance.)
My direct involvement in advocacy related to curbing gun violence has come in the past year-and-a-half. Following the horrific shootings at Newtown, my boss, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, entered the public debate on gun violence head-on, making headlines with a rousing sermon in which he famously quipped, "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby." Since December 2012, our work at the Cathedral has included organizing two annual Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath weekends, hosting a vigil service on the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting, marching for commonsense gun laws and working with faith-based coalitions across the country to reflect the overwhelming majority view of people of faith who are opposed to the epidemic of gun violence in America.
Now I have a confession to make. Just about a week ago I was out to dinner with one of my best friends. He wanted me to come meet his younger sister and brother-in-law. My friend had warned me many times that his family is conservative, but hey, so are a number of my family members. Quite unexpectedly, at one point near the end of the meal, the conversation turned to their respective love of guns. Comparisons on who owned what ensued, and to a degree I was comfortable with the "hunting" talk for the most part and decided to keep quiet.
But then the conversation took a turn when my friend's brother-in-law expressed his concern over efforts to limit the sale of high-capacity magazines. Rather than speak up and risk an uncomfortable confrontation with my friend's family, I excused myself quickly as we were paying the check.
The following day I apologized to my friend explaining that I felt I had missed an opportunity to express my views from my Christian standpoint. I wish I had told those at the dinner table about my co-worker whose cousin Alex Sullivan died in Aurora, or about the interviews I conducted with family members of gun violence victims, including Scarlett Lewis, the mother of Jesse, a six-year-old boy who died at Newtown or Ann Wilson, whose son Daniel and husband James died within five years of each other at the ages of 20 and 50, respectively, in Washington, D.C. Listening to the heartbreaking stories of those who have suffered such loss was a challenge and a privilege, and what was inspiring was the resilience of their faith. It made it personal for me.
Now, I don't know what my dinner table companions' reactions would have been had I entered the conversation. And I know that gun enthusiasts are not in favor of gun violence and wouldn't not share empathy toward victims. But it seems to me that people on polar opposite sides of the gun debate come to the conversation from completely different places. On the one side, Second Amendment advocates just like guns, believe in their right to have them, and oppose any legislation that would seek to limit their lawful access to them. On the other side, gun control advocates are mindful foremost of the violence illegal guns cause and rally around the notion that commonsense measures to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands are appropriate for the well being of all citizens. One of those measures -- universal background checks -- is even supported by more than 80 percent of Americans.
What's to be done? Well, for one thing, those of us who believe that gun laws save lives have to speak up and not be silent like I was at dinner the other week. Respectfully engaging in conversation around the culture of guns, listening to one another -- either about a passion for hunting, concern for the ability to defend one's home or about the stories of some of the 30,000 annual victims of gun violence and the ways we can protect gun owners' rights while also protecting innocent would-be victims, would be meaningful conversations to have.
It would seem when I move to Georgia in August that I'll be afforded more opportunities to engage with those I disagree. As a Christian, I follow one who died at the hands of extreme violence. And I'm confident of my calling to condemn violence of any kind that would cause such tremendous loss of life. If the Holy Spirit can aide us all in open conversation that would lessen the polarization of our political discourse, then come Holy Spirit, I pray: fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Amen.