Setting the Table for Nonviolence

By October 6, 2015Uncategorized

By Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson

“We the people of the United States” are armed and dangerous. It turns out that we are really well armed. NPR reported recently that there are enough guns in circulation for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. to have their very own. Many cite the Second Amendment right to “bear arms” in the U.S. Constitution as justification for this stockpile of weapons. And that stockpile doesn’t just sit there, locked securely away from harm’s reach. On average, 31 people are murdered with guns every day in the U.S.; as of this writing, there have been 994 mass shootings (four or more people shot in one incident) since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy toward the end of 2014 (roughly 1 per day), accounting for 1,260 deaths.

Requiring universal background checks before purchasing a gun would help to stem this deadly tide. So would closing loopholes in current policies that leave so much of the gun industry entirely unregulated. And some are now pushing to close a constitutional loophole by revising the language of the Second Amendment. To move these and other strategies forward, gun safety activist Cliff Schecter outlines five steps each of us can take right now to make a difference.

That said, “pulling policy levers,” as Will Wilkinson puts it, will not solve the underlying problem that manifests in nearly every shot fired. After all, as he notes, the NRA is not an external force corrupting an otherwise sensible democratic process; the NRA is embedded in the process itself, a symptom of a deeper and mostly undiagnosed disease in American society. To suppose that Congress or the courts can save us is to suppose that legislation and judicial decisions can change hearts and minds; they can’t.

This matters, because the violence of American culture is not solely the result of being awash in firearms. We live in a society disposed toward aggression as a default posture and violence as the assumed solution to nearly every problem. Violence as a way of life sinks into our collective bones and muscles, shaping international relations, political debates, and reality television shows just as it flavors our figures of speech, our road rage, our gloating and demeaning, our video games.  Americans lash out daily with hostility and violence and only occasionally while pointing a gun.

What then, if anything, can save us? Nothing less than building communities of deep solidarity and relentless compassion. To do that, we need sustained spiritual practice, the kind of practice that makes friends from strangers and neighbors from enemies.

As an Episcopal priest and Christian theologian, I turn often to the image of table fellowship for this work, a table of shared vulnerability and revolutionary intimacy, a table where we can learn not the skills of revenge and retribution but the textured art of reconciling love. To be sure, the institutional church has too often had trouble putting its own symbols into effective practice. But that, too, is part of the point. The Table continues to stand in Christian traditions as a place where the most unlikely gather to do the oddly unreasonable: take our countless moments of betrayal and violence and transform them with tenderness and care.

Many other religious traditions and spiritual paths offer similar practices for what clearly now qualifies as an urgent goal – to cross lines, dismantle fences, lay down our arms, and gather at the Table. Legislation will not do this for us and judges cannot order it. We must work together to build communities of transformative healing, for ourselves and for the world.

I remember listening to Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas many years ago explain why he was a pacifist. It was not, he said, because he is a “peaceful person” but instead so prone to hostility, aggression, and violence. Nonviolence, in other words, begins at home, in our own hearts and minds, and especially in making ourselves vulnerable and accountable to others in our efforts for peace and justice.

Yes, we need to pull some significant policy levers to address our epidemic of gun violence, and we have some arduous community organizing ahead of us to pull those levers effectively. Yet this great work relies on and returns often to my own need for transformation in the company of others, where I can soften my violence-prone heart with the practice of peace.

In the wake of Roseburg, Charleston, Newtown, Sandy Hook, and far too many others, I will continue to gather with my Christian faith community at the Table. As I do, I take these words with me from the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; so that we may see the fruits of your Spirit stirring among us when all nations and races live in harmony and peace.


Jay Emerson is the Academic Director of the Ignite Institute.


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