Our schools and churches and movie theaters are places we should expect to be safe. In these places we worship, we learn and we are entertained. But in recent years all these places -- along with shopping malls and restaurants and public parks -- have in moments of terror become killing fields as people with often-great mental instability who have access to weapons meant for battlefields open fire on innocent crowds causing mass deaths.
Another such incident occurred this week, of course, in Colorado at a movie theatre. We do not as of yet know the motives of the person responsible (was he mentally ill or were there political motives of some sort?). What we do know is that in many funerals the words of Psalm 23 will be read as families and friends mourn lives that should never have been lost. We share in their grief from afar and ask for them and for ourselves that the Lord guide us even through the darkest valleys. Bravely we recite the words that we "fear no evil" because God is with us but God knows our hearts and understands that there was reason for fear and terror last week in Colorado and in nearly every community across the United States as we face the reality of gun violence.
Church leaders and others have long called for stronger restrictions on guns that are designed not for hunting but for war -- like the weapons used by the Colorado shooter, one of which had been previously outlawed by the Assault Weapons Ban that was allowed to expire during the presidency of George W. Bush -- yet the editorial board of The Oregonian made it clear this weekend that any calls for new restrictions "from those with political and religious axes to grind" were not to be heard this week. Instead they called for "patience" and further reflection on the issue. And while I suspect the motive of their editorial was to prevent an inflamed and partisan debate over the issue of gun control -- a good motive -- their call for patience in a nation, state and city where gun violence has become the norm was ill-advised. We do need a debate over how to reduce gun violence and the position long advocated by the National Council of Churches -- a body to which we belong -- has been to call for measures that reduce the availability of guns for purposes other than sporting. James Holmes used an AR-15 rifle, a civilian semi-automatic version of the military M-16, which would have been illegal for him to obtain had the Assualt Weapons Ban been in place. You don't need an AR-15 rifle for duck hunting. You only use it to kill humans and the NRA and their allies have made sure that it and other weapons like it are easy to obtain, often without background checks because of a loop-hole in the much heralded Brady Law which requires such checks at gun stores but not at gun shows.
The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution in 2010 re-affirming the church's long standing view on gun control, while acknowledging that not all Christians are of the same mind of this difficult issue that has pitted concepts of personal freedom against public safety.
The resolution noted, in part:
It is difficult to imagine that the One whose own Passion models the redemptive power of non-violence would look favorably on the violence of contemporary U.S. society. Present-day violence is made far worse than it otherwise would be by the prevalence of weapons on our streets.
...(many Christians believe it) idolatry to trust in guns to make us secure, since that usually leads to mutual escalation while distracting us from the One whose love alone gives us security.
In other words, do we look for our protection from God or from guns?
The question might seem too simplistic but our Christian faith does indeed call on us to build up the Kingdom of God, a place without violence. Can we reach for that ideal while still owning guns ourselves or supporting organizations like the NRA that argues the world will only be safer when everyone carries a weapon?
The United Methodist Church and the United Church of Church, both churches are member communions of the National Council of Churches, call for gun control -- along with much needed advances in our nation's mental health care system, programs for women fleeing domestic violence, and efforts to protect children who are so often the victims of violence. Gun control alone will not solve America's problem with violence but it can and has in the past made a substantial difference. Because of the Brady Law passed in 1994 it is estimated that more than 300 people a day with mental health problems or prior criminal records are unable to pass background checks to purchase weapons.
As the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church state: "In the name of Christ, who came so that persons might know abundant life, we call upon the church to affirm its faith through vigorous efforts to curb and eliminate gun violence."
Colorado was not the only place to experience gun violence last week. There was gun violence here in Portland at least five days last week. We face a record number of murders in our community this year, many of them related to both guns and domestic violence.
It was not that long ago that Oregon's Thurston High School became the site of one of the nation's largest school shootings. But we quickly forget these things.
As your minister, I ask you not to be patient when we know from the Brady Center and crime statisitcs that roughly 100,000 people in the United States are either wounded are killed by gun violence each year.
Gun violence is contrary to the will of God, and thus we are called to do what we can to change the reality of our circumstances so that moviegoers and school children no longer have to be afraid of living in a violent world. We must join with the National Council of Churches and other people of faith, including the inter-faith community, to press our government to make this nation stronger for us all in ways that preserve individual freedoms but also protect the common good.
When Jesus suffered and died on the cross it was with the hope that humanity would one day understand that violence -- whether inflected by governments, individuals or other social institutions -- would fall to the wayside as humanity learned to live in peace. It is still an open question whether or not humanity will ever fully accept the peaceful path Jesus offered as an alternative to the injustice of his time and ours. And now we face another question: will the lives of those who died last week be lives lost in vain with no meaning or purpose to their deaths or will we as a people turn this time of horror into a moment to do good, to love justice and to walk humbly with our God?