My life with guns–I once shot a rifle

We’ve all been thinking and talking and some of us have been writing a great deal about guns in the past few months. This week, with signs that various gun-control bills will be debated in congress, guns are even more in the news. Since Newtown, I have been thinking about guns, reflecting on my own experience with them, and my own attitudes about them.

Others have written eloquently about the cultural divide between gun owners and non gun owners, about the relationship between guns and masculinity, about the culture of fear that seems to lie behind much of the demand for high-powered weapons. As I’ve read, listened, and reflected over the past months, I came to realize how very different things are today than in the world I was raised.

I grew up in small-town middle America.  I grew up among farmers and hunters, although no one in my immediate family was either. I have shot a gun exactly one time. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I know I was younger than thirteen. We were visiting my grandmother on the farm and for some reason, my uncle took a couple of my sisters and I out behind the barn. He had his rifle, put up a bulls-eye target on a fence and showed us how to shoot. I aimed and fired and missed everything because of my poor eyesight. That was it.

Like most rural dwellers, my uncle had a rifle (and a shotgun, if memory serves me correctly). He used it to kill pests around the farm and after he died, my aunts kept the rifle and told stories over the years about going after groundhogs that took up residence around the house. There were hunters among my classmates at school; the first day of deer season meant a few more absences than usual, but even they were relatively few. By and large, at that time, in that community, guns were a tool used for controlling pests. They weren’t regarded as protection and even those of us who didn’t own them had internalized basic rules about gun safety–they weren’t to be played with; they were meant to be kept under lock and key.

Fifteen years or so after that target shooting, I was visiting my in-laws in South Georgia. I remember getting in a pick-up truck with someone as they moved a pistol from the cluttered seat so I could sit down. It was the first time I had seen a handgun in any other context than being carried by a law enforcement officer. I was struck then by the nonchalant attitude toward having a handgun in one’s vehicle. I was also deeply affected by the thought that such weapons might have been commonplace. We would later joke that when we moved to the South from Boston, we were moving to a much more violent culture.

That same uncle who showed me how to shoot a rifle had been a conscientious objector during World War II. He also told me one of the most famous stories in American Mennonite history–the Hochstetler massacre. During the so-called French and Indian War, a raiding party attacked the Hochstetler homestead but the father, Jacob, refused to allow his sons to shoot at the attackers. Eventually, several family members were killed and others taken captive. Jacob, the father escaped on his own and two of his sons were released after several years of captivity.

This week, we’ve heard stories about the horrors created by the ubiquity of guns. A four-year old boy killed his uncle’s wife last weekend as the uncle, a sheriff’s deputy, was showing his weapons collection to a relative. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide using a weapon he purchased illegally over the internet.

There is a great deal of cultural commentary about the ubiquity of guns in American society, about the pervasive violence in our culture, about our tolerance for horrific events like the two I just cited. There are also deep fissures that divide us on this as on so many other issues. It seems to me that a society willing to tolerate regular occurrences such as the accidental killing last weekend, a society willing to suffer mass shootings like Newtown, is a society that is deeply dysfunctional. If we can’t take rational steps to balance the safety of our populace with the freedoms we enjoy, we will continue to hear stories like those I mentioned. Most of us don’t even realize the human cost of easy access to weapons. In Utah, for example, 89% of the gun deaths in 2011 were suicides. In fact, there were more gun deaths by suicide than traffic fatalities in Utah that year.

Bishop Edward Konieczny of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma wrote this week about his own experiences with gun violence and his evolving attitude toward the ubiquity of guns. A former police officer who has a concealed carry permit, Bishop Konieczny has this to say:

By acknowledging the complex part that guns and gun violence have played in my own life, I have come to understand that it is possible, and reasonable even, to be both inured to and incapacitated by violence.

This happens to us as individuals, and it can happen to us as a society. We get used to living with something because we cannot bear the raw emotions we would have to confront to change it.

Adam Gopnik writes:

And so the real argument about guns, and about assault weapons in particular, is becoming not primarily an argument about public safety or public health but an argument about cultural symbols. It has to do, really, with the illusions that guns provide, particularly the illusion of power.

It will be interesting to see how the debate in Congress proceeds.

Priests, Pulpits, Politics, and the Easter Message

At some point during the height of the political turmoil in Wisconsin during 2011 and 2012, a parishioner told me after the early service one Sunday, “I’m so glad you don’t preach political sermons.” After the 10:00 service that day, another parishioner enthused, “That was a wonderful political sermon.” The two people heard the very same sermon (I almost always preach from a manuscript) but they heard it very differently

I was reminded of that day when I heard of the hullabaloo over the Rev. Luis Leon’s Easter sermon at St. John’s, Lafayette Square. In the presence of President Obama and his family, the Washington Post reports that Leon said the following:

Quoting from John 20:1-18, Leon said in the same way Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold onto him, it is time for conservatives to stop holding on to what he considers outdated stances on race, gender equality, homosexuals and immigrants.

“It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back … for blacks to be back in the back of the bus … for women to be back in the kitchen … for immigrants to be back on their side of the border,” Leon said.
Leon said people instead should use “Easter vision” to allow them to see the world in a different, more “wonderful” way.

This aroused the ire of political conservatives who accused Fr. Leon of “politicizing” Easter.

I make the following observations. First, President Obama’s attendance at the service was a political act. It was a photo-op to demonstrate his personal piety in the context of continued claims that he’s a Muslim.

St. John’s very presence opposite the White House is also a political statement. Perhaps less meaningful now than in previous centuries, its proximity to the White House is a symbol of the close ties between the Episcopal Church and the United States government. It prides itself on the fact that over the decades many presidents have worshiped there. Any sermon preached from its pulpit to a president sitting in one of its pews is a political act. The president’s presence at services offers legitimacy to St. John’s and St. John’s offers religious legitimacy to President Obama.

I would also point out to those who criticize Fr. Leon’s “politicization” of the Easter message that he was targeting a particular religious position. In the summary provided by the Post, he did not mention the GOP, he referred to the Religious Right. Those who complain that he was being political at this point overlook the fact that he is actually debating doctrine. For what is at stake in the issues he raises are  different understandings of human nature, of Jesus Christ, indeed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From those different doctrinal positions proceed different political perspectives. Easter has always been a day when preachers have debated doctrine, offering their own perspective on the nature and meaning of resurrection and criticizing those preachers and theologians with whom they disagree.

I’ve not taken the time to listen to the podcast of the sermon but from what the Post reports, I find what Fr. Leon said rather innocuous. I would have hoped an Episcopal priest would have taken the opportunity to offer a prophetic message reminding all of those in attendance, including the president, where they have fallen short of using “Easter vision” to see the world in a new way, rather than taking potshots at others.

I’ve written before about the problematic relationship between the Episcopal Church and the US government, most recently in connection with Obama’s inauguration in January here and here. I’m glad I’m not the Rector of St. John’s Lafayette Square; I find negotiating the difficult terrain of Christianity and politics difficult enough from my vantage point on Madison’s Capitol Square.


Freedom and Faith on the Fourth

some random thoughts and links. A sampling of stories from Religion Dispatches

Commentary on the US Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign

Silk points out the bishops’ selective use of history. They began their fortnight on the feast days of Thomas More and John Fisher, both of whom were executed by Henry VIII. Neither of the two were particularly interested in preserving the religious freedom of those who disagreed with them. More, as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, oversaw the execution of many religious dissidents. John Fisher, as Bishop of London, oversaw book burnings and heresy trials. Their appeal to Becket is equally lame.

On American Civil Religion

The civil religion that’s not idolatrous is one that’s prophetic in the sense that it sees the American project as defined by a set of ideals, as opposed to being defined by a set of accomplishments. So if you imagine America as this great nation which has achieved all of these things, and you list all of the things that it’s achieved, in a way you’re already a little bit on the slippery slope toward idolatry. That always has to be held in balance with a recognition of how often and how much the US falls short of its central ideals that are part of the project.

If you asked my true religion, I would not answer anything practiced in a church, synagogue or mosque. My real religion is America, and I feel privileged that, among the world’s 7 billion people, I am one of the roughly 300 million lucky enough to be an American. This transcends mere patriotism. I believe in what this country stands for, even though I acknowledge its limits and failures. As individuals, we are no better than most(selfishness and prejudice having survived). As a society, we have often violated our loftiest ideals (starting with the acceptance of slavery in 1787). Our loud insistence of “exceptionalism” offends millions of non-Americans, who find us exceptional only in our relentless boasting.

Rhetorically, civil religion appears to be opposed to conflict and war; practically, though, it is deeply indebted to both.  For if civil religion is the appropriation of religion by politics, there is nothing more serious for politicians to do than to justify killing and dying, and nothing gets that job done better than coupling religion and war.  If we carry Hunter’s statement above to its conclusion we might note how the culture wars begat the Civil War which begat an American civil religion.

Politics, Partisanship, and Christianity

Jonathan Merritt reflects on 33 years of the organized Christian Right in an essay on The Atlantic. He asks, “What have we learned?” His response:

First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts — not just the halls of power.

An interview with Sociologist of Religion Robert Wuthnow, who has recently published Red State Religion:

One way to think about that is that religion and politics is often described by academics and journalists as a kind of knee-jerk reaction: that people are driven by ideology so much that they lose sight of their own self-interest. What seems to be happening in Kansas (and I guess in a lot of places right now in the 2012 election) is that yes, ideology influences people but it doesn’t totally drive their politics or their religion. They are thinking locally: what’s good for us, for our family, how can we make our life better, those sorts of things. In some ways that may involve moral issues; in other ways it may involve economic issues. It may matter a lot in terms of who they vote for, or it may not matter much at all. And that’s what we see in the history of religion and politics in Kansas.

He seems to confirm what Kathy Cramer Walsh has discovered in Wisconsin:

But Walsh, a lifelong Wisconsin resident whose parents were public school teachers, says she first ran up against the public/private divide when visiting a community in northwestern Wisconsin during the spring of 2008.

She says that a group of loggers, most of whom were self-employed, believed that while schoolteachers may work hard during the year, they have cushy positions. Among the perks: great benefits, health care, summers off and an annual salary of about $50,000 a year. “Nobody in this town makes anywhere near $50,000,” says Walsh, paraphrasing comments she heard. “At the lumber mill, they’re making $20,000 and losing their fingers!”

Walsh says when she probes further, asking why people see a public employee/private employee divide and not a rich/poor divide, she gets stares of disbelief.

It seems to come down to what is tangible and what can be controlled. Private-sector workers, many of whom are struggling, perceive that a large portion of their taxes are going to pay for the salaries of public workers. A cut to public-employee wages and benefits would, at least in theory, mean lower taxes.

But these same people don’t see themselves as having any control over the salaries and benefit packages of CEOs in the private sector, says Walsh. Moreover, they don’t really see anything wrong with top executives making big bucks.

Reflecting on the Recall from a quiet Capitol Square

Well, the Solidarity Sing-a-long is back and as boisterous as ever but other than that…

I retired as a political pundit after confidently predicting in my high school newspaper in January 1976 that Jimmy Carter would received the Democratic nomination for president that year, so I have nothing to say about the recall. You’ll have to go elsewhere for commentary about winners and losers and all of that.

But as an eyewitness to the events over the last sixteenth months, I am struck by several things. First of all, a parishioner was in my office talking about the recall and other things. She had been very engaged in the process, regularly participated in the Solidarity Sing-a-long on the Capitol Steps, and earlier this week spoke to me of her deep anxiety about what might happen on Tuesday.

Today, she spoke about the justice of God, and Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil. We talked about the difference between the justice called for by God, the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the realities of the political systems in which we live. We can never succumb to the temptation to believe the political causes in which believe are somehow ushering in God’s reign. To do so, whether on the left or right, is to turn our faith into political ideology. We have seen that too often on the right, and those on the left should learn a lesson from that.

There is something deeper here, a deeper longing, a greater value that somehow got subsumed in the political process, subsumed to recall elections. And many of those most invested in the protests allowed their voice and concerns to be channeled into more narrow efforts at political gain and interest group politics.

Reasonable men and women can disagree about the power of unions (just as they can disagree about the power of corporate money in politics). What was lost over the last year and a half was the deeper sense that what was at stake was a vision of the common good, a sense that in order for difficult problems to be solved, people had to come together to talk about them. Sure, we’ve lost that on the national level; if I fault Gov. Walker for anything, it is for the tactics he and the Republicans used to divide us as a community.

We live in an era of “winner-take-all” and demonization. That is as true on the left as on the right; it is more and more true in the church as well.

The problems haven’t gone away. They’re still there, and in some respects, the problems (unemployment, for example) are deeper and more intractable than ever. But what I sense today is that there are some efforts being made to move beyond the deep divisions and the pain that has existed over the last year and a half here in Wisconsin; an attempt to reach out to rebuild community and a sense of the common good.

There is also some soul-searching going on in the progressive community, questioning whether the recall movement was the best way to focus energy and efforts. From my perspective, the recalls fed the fires of partisanship and division, and prevented Walker’s opponents from offering a compelling vision of an alternative to the vision articulated by Walker and others. There was a great deal about the importance of unions from the protesters, but I didn’t hear a word of debate or discussion about whether it was appropriate for the Teamsters and the IBEW to have their huge trucks parked on Capitol Square throughout the protests. To put it bluntly the election was fought over partisan politics and the power of unions, and not over issues of the common good.

If there is a role for communities of faith in our political discourse, it ought to be, as I’ve said repeatedly, that we provide a model where people with differing views can come together to discuss, debate, and disagree. We don’t do that particularly well, but if we can learn how to be community across the divisions that separate us, we can help to shape a vision for our larger society that allows us to come together to work for the common good, across our political, economic, and ethnic divide.

St. Paul wrote in Galatians, “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. That vision of the body of Christ may not have been fully realized, even by Paul, but it should stand before us as a model for our religious communities, and for our civil society as well (where ethnicity, socio-economic division, religious difference need not prevent us for working toward a common good).




Witness to history: the Wisconsin Recall

I’m feeling rather Calvinist this evening, knowing the results are out of our hands and in the hands of God’s providence.

A couple of impressions from today. First, Grace was open and a few people came in to look around and to pray. One woman who spoke with me was here from Minnesota to be with family who were deeply involved in the recall. She stopped in to pray and then we talked. She shared with me some of her story, her hopes and fears for today and for the future.

I walked around the square, as I try to do on a regular basis. There weren’t a lot of people around, but there was a nervous energy. And the network news trucks were there. CNN and Fox News were both parked a block and a half a way from Grace.

Back at Grace, I sat down with the parishioner who was volunteering at the reception desk this afternoon. He’s retired from the newspaper business, a former reporter on the Wisconsin political beat. He shared with me some of the wisdom he had gained about Wisconsin over his fifty years following politics. He also told me that as a cub reporter, he had been assigned to Joe McCarthy. Without making any explicit connection between the two politicians, he pointed out that a Walker victory tonight would vault him onto the national stage, just as McCarthy had gained national attention 60 years ago.

He also mentioned to me that nearly thirty years ago, a former rector of Grace had had a regular prayer service for people who worked in the Capitol. We both wondered whether something similar might be meaningful in the context of our divided polity.

Whatever happens tonight, Grace’s doors will be open tomorrow morning, offering a place for prayer in the midst of a tumultuous world.

Give us a King! Lectionary reflections on Proper 5, Year B (June 10, 2012)

This week’s readings.

I’m not sure what divine irony (or is it the Holy Spirit?) put the Wisconsin Recall election during the week when we will read the story of Israel’s demanding that God give them a king. Our reading from the Hebrew Bible comes from I Samuel 8 and it depicts the deep ambivalence over monarchy that is at the heart of the biblical text.

On the one hand, the problems with direct divine rulership or prophetic leadership are clear. The book of Judges ends with an ominous verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges depicts a descending cycle of anarchy as the tribes of Israel fail to follow God. Samuel picks up the story. While he is portrayed as a gifted prophet, priest, military leader, and judge, his sons (just as Eli’s sons before him) do not follow in his footsteps. As Samuel ages, problems again come to the fore.

The people’s response is to demand a king, like the nations around them. Ultimately, there will be a ruler and a dynasty that is considered to have divine legitimacy and divine favor (the Davidic monarchy). Later generations will look back on David and Solomon as great and wise rulers, and their reigns as a golden age but at the same time, there will arise in conjunction with the monarchy, the institution of Hebrew prophecy that will call kings and people to justice and to obedience to Torah.

That ambivalence is present in this week’s reading. The demand for kingship is a rejection of divine kingship. Of equal importance are the implications for society of a monarchy:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

One could draw all sorts of lessons from this text for our political situation–both on the state and the national level. What strikes me, however, is the desire for someone to provide easy answers, to solve deep and lasting problems with a sword or legislation. The problems for Israel were deeper than the leadership at the top. Indeed, one could argue that the concluding verse from Judges, is not so much an indictment of political leadership as it is a comment on society as a whole: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, it may be that it was the people’s refusal to follow Torah that was at the heart of the matter.

Will a change in leadership on either the state or national level solve the deep problems that plague our society? Will change (or staying the course, for that matter) lead to greater justice and equity? Are we like the Israelites, who demanded a simple solution to complex problems?


A Season of Civility

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has issued this statement:

Wisconsin Council of Churches Calls For a
Season of Civility

Thirty six religious leaders from throughout Wisconsin called upon our state to enter into a “Season of Civility” amidst the partisan rancor of the current recall campaigns and the anticipated divisiveness of the fall election cycle.
Read the statement here
The “Call for a Season of Civility” statement draws a parallel between the religious values embodied in “the Golden Rule,” to treat others as we would like to be treated, with the idea of democracy, which is based on regard for the value of each and every individual.
In the statement, our religious leaders commit to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies and forums.
We also call upon candidates to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness in their advertising, including those of “third parties.” We invite all of our citizens to be critical consumers of media and advertising.

We now invite pastors and other local religious leaders to sign the “Call To a Season of Civility” statement.  If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, send an email with complete contact information to  We will post the list to our web site with weekly updates as signatures are added.