The Role of Faith in Addressing Gun Violence: A Change of Perspective

The Initial Victory

In 2009, on a bitterly cold January afternoon, I joined eleven others in a civil disobedience action against a gun shop in Philadelphia. At the time this gun shop was reputed to be the fifth largest seller of illegal guns in the United States through a process called “straw purchasing.” Straw purchasers are individuals (often friends, spouses and family members) who legally purchase guns on behalf of others who have criminal records and, therefore, are unable to buy the guns themselves. The straw purchasers earn a fee for their services, and then the buyer turns and sells the guns illegally on the streets. The vast majority of street crimes where guns are used involve guns purchased in this manner. Straw purchasing is a lucrative business for gun manufacturers, gun shops and the illegal street vendors. When these guns are secured by police, their “ownership” is traced back to the straw purchaser, who is coached to simply say “I lost the gun” or “It was stolen,” and there are no legal repercussions for their complicity.

The purpose of our action was to call attention to this practice, and to convince the gun shop owner to sign and abide by a pledge that had been developed by an organization called Mayors Against Illegal Guns in concert with Walmart, the largest retailer of guns in the country at the time. Members of our group had met with the gun shop owner several times asking him to sign the pledge, but he refused. In three waves of five, then three, then four people we sat down in and in front of his store refusing to leave until he signed the pledge. For our efforts, we were eventually arrested and held in the city jail for anywhere from 12 to 26 hours.

The philosophy and strategy we were employing assumed that the way to stop the gun violence plaguing our and other communities was to cut off the supply of guns, thereby reducing the number of serious injuries and deaths from street crime. This approach had worked in some states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California that had developed an elaborate background check system, thereby making it difficult to walk into a gun store and ten minutes later walk out with a bag full of guns, as is the case in Pennsylvania and most other states. Polls repeatedly then and now show that most of the public support greater restrictions on gun purchasing, but the political and monetary power of the gun lobby, plus the historic Supreme Court Case District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago has made it nearly impossible to achieve any meaningful reform in gun legislation at the federal level. The vast majority of laws regulating firearms are passed at the state level, meaning that the battle to change gun laws must be conducted in over 50 jurisdictions to achieve any meaningful change.

In May 2009 all twelve of us who were arrested participated in a highly a publicized trial in which we were acquitted. Our action and trial apparently caught the attention of federal authorities and the gun shop was shut down due to illegal business practices. To this day the gun shop has not been reopened. Those of us involved were elated — it was a victory. But in the subsequent years attempts to convince other gun shop owners to join our movement have proven to be fruitless, and even the city’s attempt to pass laws for its jurisdiction have been overruled by the state legislature which has sole authority to pass gun-related legislation.

Faith and Doubt

For me, as well as for all of the other participants in the action and all those who joined in our support, this action was a witness of faith. Several of those in our group were clergy, and all of us were active members in Jewish and/or Christian communities of faith. As I was being driven to the site where our action was to occur, I was meditating on the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (NRSV).  I was literally going to put my body on the ground in front of the entrance to the gun shop as a witness to my commitment to justice and truth. I believed my action was fulfilling God’s call to put my faith on the line by putting my body in front of that door. For me it was a transformative spiritual event, and for months following the action, I was praised and heralded for my action.

From this initial experience, those of us who were directly involved, plus several others involved in various means of support, decided to form an organization to raise funds, promote awareness and continue the effort to convince gun shops to sign the Mayors Against Illegal Guns pledge. In the first few months I had a sense of euphoria that we could in fact change the laws around the sale and use of guns. But as the months went by, it became clear that we were not likely to easily replicate our initial success. The pro-gun advocates began showing up at our rallies, and we soon realized that their forces were well organized and financed. Plus, despite our efforts to shut down a major source of illegal guns, gun-related deaths and injuries continue to occur on a regular basis. It became clear that simply reducing the number of illegal guns available on the street was an insufficient response.

As time has passed, I have come to doubt the efficacy of our action, even if the faith impulse behind it was authentic and well-meaning. Gun violence in major cities continues to soar, lives are lost or ruined, communities are traumatized, the illegal gun trade prospers, and state laws, if they change, tend to move in a less-regulated rather than more-regulated direction. Seeking to save lives by changing laws not only has been fruitless, but I have come to realize that it is only treating a symptom of a much deeper series of problems infecting our communities. While many preachers may preach that we are called to faithfulness and not effectiveness, if there is a way the church and Christian activists are to be faithful and more effective, that’s what we must do. In this essay I would like to describe my transformation of thought and offer what I think the church’s role must be in addressing this pandemic of violence plaguing all of our communities—urban, suburban, and rural.

A Change of Perspective

My change of perspective actually began while I waited for my release from the city jail. Of those of us who were arrested in the civil disobedience action, ten were white and two were Black. Most of the white folks, including me, lived outside the city; the two Black folks lived in the city. Initially, I was put in a cell with my fellow protestors. However, for reasons that were never made clear to me, all of my co-defendants were released after about 12 hours, but I had another 13 hours by myself. I was then moved to cells with other people who had been arrested that same evening, so I was able to learn the variety of offenses that had landed us all in the same place. When all my co-conspirators were released, I was the only white person being held in the jail; the rest were Black or Latino. Most of them had been arrested for offenses such as disorderly conduct, fights, or possession of illegal substances. Almost all were poor. And we were in a jail located in a mostly gentrified, white neighborhood with a Whole Foods store literally around the corner from the jail. This disparity was striking to me. A few years later I would read Michelle Alexander’s ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, and come to see that this disparity was not by accident but was the result of law enforcement’s systematic discriminatory and overly violent practices against Black and Brown bodies.1

The jail itself was a stark and dehumanizing place, where guards responded in anger whenever someone had a question or made a request. Its very nature said, “You don’t matter. You are scum. Your life has no value.” In a blog written about a month after I was released, I wrote, “I have never been in a place so devoid of hope and meaning as that jail cell.” I picked this up after only a little over a day; I can’t imagine what years of incarceration could do to a person’s sense of self and their very soul. The criminal justice system’s whole purpose is to put people who commit crime out of the public space to be forgotten and rejected by the larger society. It is no wonder that recidivism rates are so high for those who are released from prison when the overarching message is that those who are incarcerated are worthless and of no value to the rest of society. I left the jail aware that the violence we were trying to interrupt had much deeper roots than whether one could get a gun; it had to do with the life experience and the perspective of the person holding the gun.

Challenges to the Gun Violence Prevention

Eventually, I left the gun violence prevention organization I had helped to found. I realized as important as it was to get illegal guns off the street, we were only treating a symptom of a much deeper set of problems. First, the pro-gun lobby actually used the violence in our urban neighborhoods to justify the “need” for individuals to protect themselves and their families from those who would threaten them. Second, the ongoing incidences of police violence against persons of color, particularly Black and Brown people, contributes to a feeling of threat from those charged to protect and to serve. Third, the violence experienced in many under-resourced urban neighborhoods from these and other sources is an outgrowth and expression of the dehumanization and hopelessness of so many who live in those neighborhoods. In order to address the problem of urban violence, we needed to get close to the people who experience the trauma, loss and pain created by gun violence. Let me discuss each of these issues in turn.

In order to address the problem of urban violence, we needed to get close to the people who experience the trauma, loss and pain created by gun violence.

Gun Sales and the Culture of Violence

Gun sales have never been higher than they are today. In March 2021, CNN reported that “Americans bought guns in record numbers in 2020.”2 It is estimated that 13.9 million guns were sold that year, a 65% increase over the previous years. The biggest jump in background checks occurred in March (when the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic), June and July (when the marches occurred in response to the death of George Floyd), and December. That rise in gun sales has continued into 2021. The National Sport Shooting Foundation predicts that 2021 will see more sales than the 21 million guns sold in 2020.3

The rise is gun sales is largely attributed to “nationwide anxiety due to the pandemic as well as social unrest following the murder of George Floyd.”4 This trend follows a pattern that has been seen after previous times of unrest, such as the marches that followed the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and Michael Brown in 2015 and the clash between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017. However, the issue is not only the sale of guns but the increased laxity of regulations for where and when individuals can carry guns. Several states have “open and carry laws” that do not restrict people having legally purchased guns on their person at all times. States that do have laws that impose limits on carrying guns in public have faced challenges in courts–if overturned, it would threaten any laws or policies that restrict the presence of firearms in stores, malls, sporting events, concerts and the like.

When asked why they should have the right to bear arms at all times and places, gun owners usually cite certain basic American rights and values. In 2011 I conducted a study of the National Rifle Association (NRA) website analyzing the rationale for the promotion of gun use. The website cites values such as freedom and patriotism, an antipathy to government regulations, family values and self-defense.5 In his book Making A Killing, author Tom Diaz argues that guns are “tribal totems embodying a complex of values that includes manliness (defined in warrior terms), individual liberty (as against the state), self-reliance (as against everyone else), and the administration of peremptory justice by ad hoc personal means (shooting ‘bad’ people).”6 And while the gun rights community includes women and people of color, gun culture is overwhelmingly a culture affirming and celebrating white manhood. Given the rise of white nationalist militia groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three-Percenters, and the Proud Boys, and the attempted takeover of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, these are troubling trends.

Mass racially-based shootings in a Charleston, South Carolina church, in an Orlando, Florida night club, in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, and in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, just to name a few, have caused Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to declare “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist groups” are the greatest domestic threat facing U.S. citizens.7 Unfortunately, as transparently troubling as these trends are, they don’t seem to be abating, which makes my second concern about urban gun violence all the more urgent.

Many residents of low-income urban communities of color welcome the police and rely on their presence in times of conflict. At the same time, these residents know that any time one of them could also become a victim of police violence as so many before them have been.

The Effect of Police Violence

The police, whose job it is to “protect and serve,” are often perceived more as a threat than a source of help and security for many urban communities of color. In 2020 the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashad Robinson, Walter Wallace Jr, and several other persons of color evoked intense rage and calls for defunding the police. A recent report by the New York Times found that in “250 of 400 seemingly avoidable deaths” police killed unarmed victims of color in routine traffic stops. In some cases shots were fired at cars that sought to flee, but most were simply in their cars parked when they were killed.8 Ibram Kendi, writing for The Atlantic, says, “Black and brown people are told in endless ways by fraternal orders of police and their powerful enablers, ‘Comply and survive.’ … but compliance will not save us.”9

Kendi attributes the roots of this practice to the history of violence against Black people going back to the eras of slavery, Jim Crow and lynching, and lays the blame not on individual officers but on the system of policing itself. He writes:

[T]he question is not how many good or bad cops exist today. The questions we should be asking are: What are police officers empowered to do to me by policies and practices? Why are they given military training, weaponry, and near-total impunity? Have racist narratives trained them to fear my dark body? …The question is whether the institution of American policing is good.10

To be clear there are many residents of low-income urban communities of color who welcome the police and rely on their presence in times of conflict. This was evidenced in the 2021 elections. When offered the opportunity, voters in Minneapolis, MN, soundly rejected a proposal to reconstitute the Police Department to an Office of Public Safety.11 However, at the same time, these residents know that any time one of them could also become a victim of police violence as so many before them have been.

A Culture of Violence

As we consider the problem of gun violence in many urban communities, we must situate the issue in the context of a national culture that is increasingly equipped to use a Second Amendment gun rights agenda, often wielded by overtly racist white nationalist groups and law enforcement institutions deemed hostile to some residents and suspect at best to other residents of urban communities.

Adding to this overarching national culture of violence is the ongoing deprivation and trauma experienced in many urban communities. Underfunded schools, lack of access to health care, inadequate housing, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and underemployment and the like create an atmosphere of fear, hopelessness and ongoing trauma. Additionally, a significant exacerbation of pre-existing mental health conditions among young people has contributed to the dramatic rise in gun violence that has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.12 Zach Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, CA, says that this matrix of deprivations is the ground in which the seeds of what is deemed “crime” are planted. However, he states, “In America we are unsafe at work, at school, even inside our own homes and always none of those harms count as ‘crime.’”13 Danielle Sered, founder of Common Justice, adds, “Most violence is not just a matter of individual pathology–it is created. Poverty drives violence. Inequity drives violence. Lack of opportunity drives violence. Shame and isolation drive violence. And … violence drives violence.”14

Adding to an overarching national culture of violence is the ongoing deprivation and trauma experienced in many urban communities. Underfunded schools, lack of access to health care, inadequate housing, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and underemployment and the like create an atmosphere of fear, hopelessness and ongoing trauma.

Analyzing the issue of gun violence through the lens of social deprivations, trauma and mental health provides a much different diagnosis of the issue than simply the presence of illegal guns, sale of drugs, and turf wars between rival gangs. These factors are symptoms of deeper issues that lead the violence currently being experienced. Moreover, simply taking away guns and locking up perpetrators does not actually reduce violence, according to Danielle Sered; it actually increases the likelihood of increasing violence. Separating parents from children, removing a family member and possible wage earner increases deprivation that feeds the drive to strike out violently.15 What is needed is another approach.

Healing-Centered Engagement

Cornel West has characterized the psycho-social environment in many under-resourced Black communities as nihilistic. “It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair so widespread in Black America.”16 Sociologist Shawn Ginwright, who has done extensive work organizing adolescents primarily from Black and Brown communities in the San Francisco and Oakland areas, asserts that the rebuilding of violence-ravaged communities must start by focusing on the deep trauma, the sense of powerlessness and the absence of hope that lead youth and young adults (the ones most often engaging in violence) to act out in ways destructive to themselves and their communities.17

While recognizing the importance of addressing deep needs and taking an approach that addresses the deep trauma people feel, Ginwright offers what he calls healing-centered engagement (HCE), which he describes as “strength-based, advances a collective view of healing, and recenters culture as a central feature of well-being.” Rather than seeing residents of traumatized communities merely as victims, he argues that “individuals who experience trauma are agents in restoring their own well-being.”18 It is an approach that calls for caregivers and caring individuals to come alongside those impacted by violence to help them reshape their conditions rather than merely meeting concrete material needs. The beginning of HCE, Ginwright contends, is developing empathy with youth and others who struggle. Ginwright refers to this approach as “a love ethic… that affirms basic human dignity, meaningful existence and hope.”19

The Role of Faith Communities

While Ginwright speaks as a sociologist and a youth organizer, his language and perspective reflects the sentiments of faith communities. At their best faith communities are empathetic, healing-centered and affirming of dignity, meaning and hope. Faith communities, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or the like, live out their spiritual and ethical mandates by providing support and pastoral care to those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Faith groups often hold prayer vigils to acknowledge those killed by gun violence and provide comfort to those who grieve. Faith communities are also quite active in providing food, clothing, housing assistance and other concrete items, without which families would suffer even more than they do. Members of faith communities themselves often struggle with the same fears, hopelessness, trauma and sense of isolation felt by those in the broader neighborhood, and so simply being part of a religious community is a source of great support and healing. However, all of these services, while helpful and well-intentioned, do not reach to the depth of healing that must occur to prevent the violence from happening in the first place; they are mostly for support received after a violent event has occurred.

While these sorts of ministry should by all means continue, faith communities must also adopt a more proactive approach to addressing violence. For Christians, this approach is what is called a “ministry of presence.” Guild refers to a ministry of presence as “a call to participate in the lives of others. It is more a commitment to give others a personal presence than simply to give them words.”20

The ministry of presence has its roots in God’s presence in the midst of those whose lives are recorded in Scripture. “God went beyond promising his presence. In numerous and countless ways he gave evidence that was in their midst.” 21 Moreover, again and again God affirms His presence in the people of Israel and in the church that formed after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Himself was a concrete expression of God’s presence as He healed the sick, welcomed the marginalized, freed those oppressed and challenged those who oppressed them. Following Jesus’ resurrection, God’s presence was experienced in the ongoing work of the Spirit in and through the lives of His first followers. Those followers themselves then were called to be a presence to the lives of people around them, especially those overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of the world.

As God in Christ offered his presence to his people, churches must find a way to offer not only their prayers and resources to address the needs, but their bodies to be with the people in their communities seeking deep healing-centered engagement.

In each and every age and setting, followers of Jesus have been called to be salt and light to the world both in word and deed. Churches must find a way to offer not only their prayers and resources to address the needs, but their bodies to be with the people in their communities seeking that deep healing-centered engagement Ginwright talks about. Church members can and have often participate in creating “safe corridors” for children afraid to walk to school because of potential violence. The presence of caring, friendly adults can go a long way. Other churches have set up centers where members with training in helping professions can offer their expertise to people in need. A leading example of this is the Black Doctors Consortium headed by Dr. Ala Stanford who recognized that Black communities were being underserved in the areas of COVID testing and vaccinations. With the support of her own church and networking with other faith communities, the Black Doctors Consortium set up clinics in church parking lots and basements serving the medical needs of people in local communities.22 This ministry of presence is one that can and does offer a powerful resource to the HCE approach.

Addressing Church’s Complicity

Having said that, neither too many church communities see themselves nor do their communities see them as places of healing, empathy and dignity. Recently, in my church’s community of West Philadelphia, a collection of political leaders, community activists and grief and counseling support services came together to form the West/Southwest Collaborative Response to Gun Violence. While I know that many of the individuals who formed the group are people of faith, I found it disturbing that as far as was reported, no faith communities were in that initial group. Despite their prominent place in local communities, churches and other faith communities are not called upon to offer their presence and gifts to the cause. The Collaborative has said they are open to other groups joining, so hopefully some, including my own Mennonite community, will consider joining the coalition.

Too often, churches are not seen as places of healing, empathy and dignity for communities beset by violence. Worse, too many Christians are seen to support the national culture of violence.

The other great challenge facing the Christian church is the fact that all too many professing Christians and their churches participate in and lend credibility to the gun-violence culture plaguing the nation. In my research on the NRA, I learned that one of the most well attended events at their annual meetings is a Christian prayer breakfast in which prominent preachers are brought to highlight evangelical Christian support for defense of the country from decadence and immorality. Ownership and use of guns is part of that mandate. As I wrote, “The right to own and use a gun is part of that defense strategy, and for some rises to the level of being a God-given right.”23 Even among Mennonite congregations, which have a long history of pacifism and peacemaking, I have found it difficult to get more than a tepid response to addressing our culture’s fascination with guns and the violence they create.

While it is important that churches find ways to show up and offer their ministry of presence with the people in their local communities ravaged by violence, there is still a long way to go to confront the way in which all too many followers of Jesus and faith communities have remained silent in the face of rising violence, or even worse, may be contributing to it, by their active or passive support.

While I and the others who participated in the civil disobedience action many years ago felt euphoric with our initial victory, I now have a more sober perspective on what followers of Jesus can and must do to address the rising tide of violence emanating from the deep hurt and hopelessness impacting so many lives. Through a ministry of presence, my compunction is that we must show up with empathy, offering our bodies, minds and skills to those who seek a vision of hope and safety in the places where they live.

Notes

1 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
2 Martin Savidge & Maria Cartaya, “Americans Bought Guns in Record Numbers in 2020 During a Year of Unrest – and the Surge is Continuing,” CNN, March 14, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/14/us/us-gun-sales-record/index.html.
3 Stephen Gandel, “Gun Sales Hit an All-Time High Amid Flurry of Mass Shootings,” CBS News, April 21, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/gun-sales-on-pace-to-hit-new-record-in-2021/.
4 Ibid.
5 Drick Boyd, David and Goliath: Faith Based Approaches to Gun Violence Prevention (Unpublished Manuscript, 2011).
6 Tom Diaz, Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America (New York: The New Press, 1999), 50.
7 Eileen Sullivan & Katie Benner, “Top Law Enforcement Officials Say the Biggest Domestic Terror Threat Comes from White Supremacists,” The New York Times, June 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/12/us/politics/domestic-terror-white-supremacists.html.
8 Kim Barker, Steve Eder, David D. Kirkpatrick & Arya Sundaram, “How Police Justify Killing Drivers: The Vehicle Was a Weapon,” The New York Times, November 6, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/06/us/police-traffic-stops-shooting.html.
9 Ibram X. Kendi, “Compliance Will Not Save Me,” The Atlantic, April 19, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/compliance-will-not-save-my-body/618637/.
10 Ibid.
11 Martin Kaste, “Minneapolis Voters Reject a Measure to Replace the City’s Police Department,” NPR, November 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/11/02/1051617581/minneapolis-police-vote.
12 Jason Laughlin, “Children’s Mental Health is a Pandemic Crisis that Needs Immediate Solutions, CHOP’s Psychiatry Chief Says,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 2021, https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/chop-children-mental-health-pandemic-behavioral-resources-20211111.html.
13 Zach Norris, We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just and Inclusive Communities (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 2020), 43.
14 Danielle Sered, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair (New York: The New Press, 2021), 4.
15 Ibid.
16 Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1994), 20.
17 Shawn Ginwright, “The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement,” Medium, May 31, 2018, https://ginwright.medium.com/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c.
18 Ibid.
19 Shawn Ginwright, “Radically Healing Black Lives: A Love Note to Justice,” New Directions for Student Leadership, Winter 2015 (148), 33-44.
20 Sonny Guild, “The Ministry of Presence: A Biblical View,” Leaven 2, no. 2 (1992): 4. https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol2/iss2/3.
21 Ibid.
22 Linda Poon & Jeffrey Green, “How Black Doctors Got Philadelphia Vaccinated,” Bloomberg, November 3, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2021-11-03/how-black-doctors-got-philadelphia-vaccinated.
23 Boyd, David and Goliath, 13.

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