01/06/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

Peace Is Not an Option

The one-year anniversary of the Gabriel Giffords shooting is bittersweet. While Congresswoman Giffords' strong and spirited recovery is an inspiration and a lesson to us all, this anniversary is also a time to remember the six others who lost their lives, as well as a time to look seriously at our country's devastating capacity for violence.

For Chicagoans, this violence is often much too close to home. Last week Chicago police officer Clifton Lewis was shot to death in the Austin neighborhood where I used to pastor. Lewis, who was described by friends and family as protective and gentle, was shot to death in a senseless tragedy that leaves many Chicagoans in mourning and others fearing their own safety. Many wonder, "If a police officer can be shot, what hope is there for the rest of us?"

Their fear seems to be warranted. There were 438 homicides in 2011, and in 2010, 70 children were murdered in Chicago (almost exclusively by gunfire). These children lost their lives as innocent bystanders, as witnesses to a war they did not create. The victims' families have suffered pain that is unspeakable, and yet there still seems to be no end in sight.

People often respond to these tragedies by demanding improved gun control and swift police action. While the importance of gun control cannot be overstated, it is also important to remember that guns are only a symptom of the problem. Guns kill people, yet it is the human holding the weapon that pulls the trigger. Whether it's a gun or a weapon of mass destruction, our tools for violence are simply that -- tools. Getting guns off the street is important, but until we have better education, more job opportunities, safer neighborhoods, and community support, we will never have a peaceful city.

So how do we put an end to this violence and create peace? Let us examine the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He once famously stated, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice."

This does not mean that killers should not be punished for their actions, or that we should not hold people responsible for breaking the law. Instead, it means taking the time to examine the system itself, to question why crimes occur and to look at why our prisons are filled with young people who saw guns and gangs as their only hope.

As we all know, Dr. King, the champion of peace, was himself brought down by gunfire. Yet we also know that Dr. King would never have advocated violence or retribution in any form, as his very teachers (such as Jesus and Gandhi) also were martyred for their beliefs. These men were working not just to obliterate violence, but to treat the suffering that led to the violence and to change the system behind it.

In order to make 2012 a year of peace and safety, we would do well to heed their teachings and follow their example. Until we do so, we will only treat the symptoms of violence, rather the disease itself -- the disease of poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and fear. As Mother Theresa once said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Even more frightening it is as if we never knew. This is the first week of the New Year... let's go to work.

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