Gun Violence and Young People
As of December 15, there have been 331 mass shootings and 54,100 incidents on gun violence in the United States in 2018. According to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, “[t]here have been at least 89 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2018.” So far this year, 66 people have been killed on school properties from gun violence. Many more have been injured, and even more have been traumatized, bearing the physical and emotional scars of such events for the rest of their lives.
But 2018 also marked a shift in the seemingly deadlocked conversation about how to respond to the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S.—particularly to school shootings. Young people themselves have risen up and taken to the streets, the voting booths, and the media to demand change in culture and policy and to fight for their lives. Is the Church listening? In this issue of Engage, scholars, activists, pastors, and survivors respond to these young people and invite readers to join the conversation.
The politically charged “gun debate” is frequently framed in American public life as one of “self-protection” versus “gun control.” However, in relating the question to youth culture, we confront a unique situation wherein young people, because of ineligibility with respect to citizens’ rights, are excluded from political and many forms of social membership. Thus, they cannot make claims as rights-bearing individuals in the (legal) debate about guns. Young people have valuable perspectives, but they are ultimately recipients of our political decisions on these matters.
In taking account of youth culture, it is important to know that for many, especially those who live at the intersectionality of identity (race, class, etc.), the processes of socialization can be harsh and exclusionary.1 Before and alongside the presence of guns in youth culture, which do indeed increase incidents of lethal violence, one must also speak of the lethal violence of categorically divisive structural barriers and social norms. Barriers like racism and classism wither the souls of black, brown, red, yellow, and some white folk.
Gun violence is real enough, but so are structures such as standardized tests, which function in ways similar to the Immigration Act of 1917 when Congress implemented unrealistic literacy tests to methodically limit immigration. This Act effectively created an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” denying admission to most Asians and Pacific Islanders. Such tests, along with other structural barriers, such as job discrimination and religious traditionalism, impart experiences of violence to many young people, who feel as though they have been labeled and denied access to social membership—placed in their very own “barred zone.”
We might also note that in any given youth culture, lethal and non-lethal violence often play a role in “rites of passage,” often symbolizing character traits such as courage or the ability to take risks. 2 All youth with guns are, after all, young people attempting to become meaningful selves. We therefore might also rightly expect that young people use guns for a range of reasons including protection, self-expression, and peer pressure.3 In fact, the themes prominent in the “adult” gun debate are not too dissimilar from these, ranging from the desire for self-protection and self-actualization to a question over who is in control of whom.
It is also important to note that (youth) gun violence occurs in both rural and urban areas, debunking the stereotype that rural areas are immune to gun violence—a stereotype that acts as a barrier to mental health practice and to wholistic psychospiritual healing for traumatized parties. If “urban” neighborhoods are more prone to violence, one is better instructed to take the term as a geopolitical-economic signifier rather than a cultural or biogenetic one.
What truly unites all parties in the gun debate (including the author) is a concern cum fetishization for security. At the personal level, the concern for security makes us aggressive, controlling, and self-interested. As collectives, the search for security delivers us over to idols of race, class, gang, creed, or nation. All this to say that any conversation on youth and gun violence is one that implicates all of us as fundamentally insecure and thus easily given over to false gods of security. Yet the claims of these false gods fail when we observe the destruction they produce in forms such as gun violence.
Unlike the living God, the false gods of security can never grant life. By contrast, God’s loving power “stirs up one from the north…tramples on rulers [and idols] as on mortar, as the potter treads clay” (Isa 41:25-26), even as he calls us in love to “be saved..[for] Only in the Lord…are righteousness and strength” (Isa 45:22-25). We are reminded: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isa 41:9-11). In God, we have assurance of alternative possibilities beyond the impasse of gun violence and security. God frees us from malicious doctrines of omnipotence and the lust for domination; frees us for meaningful, respectful relationships with others. This enables us to act responsibly to end gun violence, not only because of the grief and loss caused by gun violence but also because of its idolatry.
This same call to end gun violence, in part through permits and licensure procedures, is also the call to end structural violence that young people experience on a daily basis. It is a call for ceasefire on the intercultural violence produced by our false allegiances and the fictional-then-real borders between us. Gun violence calls for lament, decrying its devastation and destruction. Lament allows people “to move to a pain or pains that could be named and then addressed. Lament is, in a word, formful…[c]ommunal lament [is] a corporate experience of calling for healing [and] makes suffering bearable and manageable in the community… [L]ament helps us move to a responsible faith.”4
Other approaches involve taking aim at geo-economic and structural barriers that create conditions for (gun) violence and/or initiating high school and community programs to direct young people away from destructive and lethal forms of violence toward more constructive outlets for their aggression. One such example comes from a coalition of researchers, community leaders, criminal justice agencies, and clergy from Boston, Massachusetts, who teamed up to reduce youth gun violence through Operation Ceasefire. This dynamic combination of sanctions (e.g., stricter enforcement of parole and probation regulations), incentives for prevention (e.g., job training and substance abuse treatment), and services (bodily and mental health) for youth saw a two-thirds drop in homicides after its launch in 1996. In these ways, we discard our collective security blanket and move beyond the debate and toward beloved community.
1. See, for example, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum.
2. Indeed, lethal and non-lethal violence play a role in youth culture similar to that of 17th century Holland youth culture. In both places, youth pulled a whole range of pranks at any given time—stealing chickens, soiling clothes on wash lines, dismantling piles of firewood, dumping human excrement in vegetable gardens.
3. In their quest to assert their voices, young people today may also lack the knowledge of other methods such as those displayed during the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi or at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
4. Emilie Townes, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death, 23.
Dr. Asante Todd is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. His research is in the area of public theology with a focus on U.S. religion and politics. Todd holds the earned doctorate from Vanderbilt University upon successfully defending a dissertation on the question of sovereignty in Western political thought. When he isn’t teaching courses, he currently spends most of his time working on his book Race and American Exceptionalism. Todd also holds a Master of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin.
Spiritual Response to a School Shooting
Growing up in Colorado, gun violence was an unfortunately common topic due to events such as Columbine and the Aurora Theater Shooting. These events sparked many political discussions about gun control, public security, etc. Many people reacted to these events through advocating for laws, restrictions, programs, awareness, and more. I constantly waivered on these positions and opinions, trying to personally discern the solution; however, my junior year, a shooting took place at my high school, which changed everything for me. Through the event itself, and through the healing process, I came to believe the solution to the issue of gun violence lies much deeper than policies, regulations, and programs. Instead of responding to this topic politically, I want to share the ways in which my community and I responded to this event spiritually.
I was sitting in my trigonometry class on Friday, December 13, 2013, when all of a sudden, our class’ chatter broke into silence from the sound of three gun shots fired a few hallways over. A senior male at my high school had come into our school armed, with intent to kill several specific targets, and unleash general destruction on our high school. The three shots we heard were aimed at a senior girl, who was attempting to stop him. She suffered severe trauma and passed away after being in a coma for eight days. When the shooter was unsuccessful in finding his primary target, he threw Molotov cocktails, set our library ablaze, and then committed suicide. This was the darkest, most traumatizing event I have witnessed, but I believe that God was present, working, and good through it all.
The Kingdom of God
First, I must talk about the display of the kingdom of God during the shooting and in the months thereafter. During the shooting, I felt the Presence of God and the presence of heaven surrounding us in the classroom. This Presence gave me so much peace, even amidst the chaos, confusion, and fear. This peace took away my fear of death and gave me the ability to pray that which Paul prayed in Philippians 1:23-30. Not only did the Spirit give me comfort, peace, and even excitement about death, but it also gave me the strength to pray, and to ask to stay in order to help others, to be there for my family, and to bring those around me closer to the Lord. The Spirit also gave me the strength and courage to sit huddled over two other girls in my class, shielding them from whatever may come our way; for I was confident in my eternal destination, but I was unsure about theirs. By the power of the Spirit, I crouched over them, and I prayed with them.
The second way in which I saw the kingdom of God was through the ways people put others before themselves. When the SWAT team knocked our door down and helped us to escape, one of the guys standing close to the door stopped and let all of us girls run out of the classroom first. As we ran across the street and away from the school, I saw one of the most popular guys stop, comfort, and help one of the least popular guys in our school. Social hierarchies were gone, and selfish or self-protecting desires were eradicated. In the weeks and months following, I saw this manner of love continue. If someone broke down crying in the hallway, it did not matter if you knew them or not, you stopped and comforted them. It reminded me of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12; if one part of our school body was suffering, we were all suffering. We became highly aware of the importance of each member of the body, and we cared for the wellbeing of each member as well.
God is Still Good
Another spiritual lesson I gleaned from this experience is the truth that God is still good in, through, and despite of events such as school shootings. Full disclosure: it was not easy to learn or believe this truth at many points throughout the healing process. There were countless times where the ugliness and darkness seemed too overwhelming for God to be a good God. In those times, I would cling to the message of Ecclesiastes 3:11—even though it may not seem like it, God promises that he will make everything beautiful someday; it might not be during this lifetime, but he is good and he promises to do it.
Our community also responded in ways that reflected God’s goodness. On the night of the shooting, my youth group held a worship night where we all gathered, sang, embraced, and cried out to the Lord. Our community put together prayer vigils where hundreds of us would gather in parks and lift up prayers for healing for our fallen classmate, healing in people’s hearts, and healing in our world. I watched as strangers became friends, and friends became family. I watched schoolmates step into leadership roles and serve the families of the lost, and our community in general, despite their own pain and suffering. They put others before themselves. It was in these ways that I saw God’s goodness, love, and comfort so evidently in our community.
Finally, one of the most astounding ways in which I saw God through the response of our community was through their grace and forgiveness. I will never forget sitting in a stadium with thousands of people, hearing the parents of the girl who passed away say they forgave the shooter, and that they wanted each and every one of us to do the same. This was the memorial service for their eighteen-year-old daughter, who was killed. They could have easily and justifiably spoken words of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Instead, they had compassion for the shooter and his family, and they offered grace. I then watched our community respond with grace and forgiveness as well. To this day, this is one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
If your community is going through a similar event, I want to encourage you that God is good, and that, over time, he will bring healing, reconciliation, strength, and clarity. Even if it feels impossible to see any beam of light, any shred of goodness, or any sign of hope, I encourage you to continually search for it. Do not give up, and trust that the Lord is present, and is actively working to bring restoration. Lean on God the Father and lean on your surrounding community.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Elly Jack is from Denver, Colorado and is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Theology & Ministry at Lipscomb University. Because of her experience with gun violence, she has a passion of bringing together her story, her faith, and theological training in order to support and encourage those who have experienced similar traumas.
In Plain Sight: The Slow and Steady Massacre Killing the Future of Black and Brown Youth
In the nation’s capital, at the corner of Randle Place and Alabama Avenue Southeast, two elementary schools sit across the street from one another. A few blocks away, a traditional public middle and high school also occupy land. Yet another high school sits just to the west. Many of the students converge at this particular corner store and bus stop to purchase their afterschool snacks, pick up siblings from neighboring schools, and meet up with friends.
On May 16, 2018, a barrage of gunfire interrupted this scene of urban American childhood when bullets fired from a moving car struck young flesh, scattering children ages 4-18 in search of shelter. Before the gunfire subsided, multiple bullets pierced the lean body of 15-year-old Jaylyn Wheeler, killing him almost instantly. Months earlier, on a cold Sunday afternoon, bullets landed in the body of a 14-year-old Steven Slaughter, who walked to the corner store for a snack, killing him.
Over the course of summer 2018 and the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, at least five girls under the age of 11 were shot when school was out of session. One of the five girls killed that summer was ten year-old Makiyah Wilson, who died in her mother’s arms.
The current conversation on gun violence concentrates on mass shootings. These events overwhelmingly occur in predominantly white schools, and in almost all cases, involve a white male teenaged shooter, who takes his own life. However, the gun violence that kills students of color remains mostly unacknowledged—out of the mainstream narrative and out of many people’s minds. This gun violence is the steady and slow massacre of teens of color. It is less of a national issue and more of a national disgrace, best addressed with better personal behavior and more law enforcement oversight.
From the time a student enters a typical large-city middle school to the time they graduate high school, they have often walked through innumerable metal detectors and have been greeted by armed security guards, reinforced by city police officers. This was the norm for me as a middle and high school student in the District of Columbia Public School System, and twenty years later, it remains the norm for students in this and other cities.
For students of color living in communities riddled with gun violence, school has become a heavily guarded, frequently-policed,safe space. It’s in the passage to and from school and in the breaks during school, where gun violence meets students of color—when programs and community centers are not easily accessible. Thisis when the easy accessibility of guns in America threatens and shapes their lives.
It’s important that the national conversation about gun violence expands beyond mass school shootings, mental health, and assault weapons. The truth of the matter is that if assault weapons were banned in the United States, it would do little to solve the issues of everyday gun violence. For communities of color riddled with gun violence, the violence itself is a symptom of historic and systemic issues that have been battering these communities since slavery.
In their contribution to the book, Crime and Inequality, Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson state: “Violence in cities and race are linked in manifold ways, including the structural factors that also isolate a disproportionate share of black Americans in poor neighborhoods with low-performing schools and high rates of incarceration and unemployment.” When Sampson and Wilson examined the connection between race and violence in major cities, they found that whereas most poor whites did not live in impoverished neighborhoods, the vast majority of poor blacks did—a trend, they observed, that had only gotten worse over time.1
If people of faith seek to deal with the issue of gun violence, for communities of color, this begins with addressing issues of un- and underemployment, the lack of equitable school systems that serve their communities, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, helping to destigmatize mental health and trauma treatment, and all other issues associated with gun violence. Micah 6:8 says: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In love of God, one has to operate with mercy and embrace justice beyond their own self-interest.
The students behind the March 2018 March for Our Lives rally exhibit this kind of mercy by acknowledging their peers in Chicago, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and New York—all major cities where teens of color have been screaming, “ENOUGH is ENOUGH!” for years without a national spotlight. In acknowledging the everyday gun violence faced by their peers and the systemic issues associated with “urban gun violence,” these young people give voice and attention to issues every bit as critical and tragic as the mass shooting which changed their lives.
This moment in our national history, when the issue of gun violence has taken center stage, is the time for faith traditions to examine their sacred texts in relationship to justice and mercy, to seek the welfare of the oppressed, and to listen harder to the voices most often left out by inviting them to any conversation about the toll of gun violence. Those seated at the table must be as willing to fret about and work to prevent the loss of young life on an urban street corner and an suburban/rural high school. This demands a commitment to dismantle the systems, habits, and practices which cause everyday gun violence.
“Thoughts and prayers” should not be a slogan or cliché response to the tragedy of gun violence in our nation. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer expresses this best: “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
Our prayers are the beginning of our call to action to end all forms of gun violence robbing our children of their childhoods and robbing the world of their brilliance.
1. Sampson Robert J. and Wilson, William Julius. “Towards a theory of race, crime, and urban inequality.” Crime and Inequality. John Hagan and Ruth Peterson, eds. (Stanford University Press: 1995). 37-54.
Ryane B. Nickens, M.Div., is the Founder and President of The TraRon Center in Washington, DC. She is the author of From the Gutters to a Mansion: My Journey to My Heavenly Father. Nickens is a member of the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she plans to seek ordination.
How to Help Teens Affected by Gun Violence
After the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 17-year-old student Paige Curry told reporters, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”
This is the world in which today’s teenagers live. School shootings—and gun violence in general—have become so commonplace that some teens are no longersurprised when it happens in their community. Sadly, many wonder when it will be “their turn.”
Paige went on to add, “I wasn’t surprised. I was just scared.” Gun violence has a significant emotional and spiritual impact on teenagers, and it’s important that youth workers understand how to help.
As a former youth-minister-turned-disaster-researcher, I have seen over and over again the significant and sometimes long-lasting spiritual and emotional trauma these events cause. Our research at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute has also shown the significance of faith and spiritual meaning-making to recover from this kind of trauma. As a youth worker, you will be a primary person that teens come to with their questions, doubts, fears, and hopes.
It may seem difficult to know what to say or do when your teens are struggling with something this big. The following are seven steps youth ministry workers can take to help affected teens cope with the psychological and spiritual impact of gun violence.
- Listen to spiritual concerns. Providing spiritual support to your teen after a traumatic event can be as simple as remaining open to questions, thoughts, or feelings they might share about faith—and understanding that it is common, especially those directly impacted by violence, to experience spiritual struggles, including doubts about the nature of God.
- Be honest about what you don’t know. Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers to spiritual questions or struggles your teen might be having. It’s better to admit that you don’t know than to respond thoughtlessly. It’s perfectly fine to tell your teen that you’ll think about their question, or pray about it, and then to consult with another pastor, church leader, or counselor first before answering any question you aren’t prepared to answer on your own.
- Share spiritual encouragement. Consider sharing encouraging stories through songs, Scripture, or prayers with your teen. Discuss the proactive and redemptive things that also sometimes occur during or following traumatic events. The Old Testament stories of God’s care for Joseph, for Moses, and for the children of Abraham are all examples of encouraging spiritual stories. Also, don’t be afraid to tell present-day experiences or examples—from your own life or that you’ve witnessed—to provide assurance.
- Maintain spiritual routines. It’s also important to maintain spiritual routines or practices in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Re-establish your spiritual routines like worship and youth group as soon as possible. The goal is to help your teen find some normalcy in their spiritual lives after such an abnormal event.
- Foster spiritual expression. Look for ways to encourage your teen to express their spiritual thoughts and feelings about the incident. Teens may benefit from journaling about spiritual challenges arising from the event. You might also ask them if there might be someone they trust, that when they are ready, that they’d feel comfortable sharing their story. Artistic outlets like art or writing a song can also be helpful strategies to encourage.
- Refer for additional spiritual support. If you’ve tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your teen continues to exhibit spiritual struggles that worsen over time or interfere with daily behavior, talk to a trusted mental health or healthcare professional.
- Encourage them toward prayer and action. As Christians, we know that prayer is powerful and should be our first response to difficult things. Pray with and for your teens, and encourage them to bring their fears, anxieties and hopes to God. I also believe that the words of 1 John 3:18 —“Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”—provide a helpful framework for how we can respond to gun violence with both prayers and action. I am a founding signer of the Prayers & Action petition, which calls on Christians to do exactly this. It may be helpful to remind teens that their voices and experiences count, and that they can be part of not just proclaiming the good news but also demonstrating the hope to which we hold.
Dr. Jamie Aten is the Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press, forthcoming January 2019). In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.
Constructive Ministry in a Culture of Gun Violence
Over the past several decades, we have seen an increase in gun violence on American school campuses. Just this year, we experienced the horror of a young man wielding an AR-15 rifle and raining gunfire on students at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
In the face of horrors like this, the youth in our churches want comfort, answers, and solutions. Some want to be told that this type of shooting is an anomaly, and that it is unlikely to happen again. Others want to know where God is in the midst of such evil. Still others want to know what we could have done to stop this evil act.
As ministers, we face the prospect of ministering to our youth in the short-term and long-term. In the short-term, there are a number of things we can do.
First, we can weep with those who weep. When Jesus stood by Lazarus’ grave with Mary and Martha, he wept (John 11:28-37). We can do the same. Sit with people. Cry with people. Express sympathy. Take a moment to reflect on the horror of sin and death.
Second, we can pray as we weep. We can pray for the victims’ families, the students, and the church and community leaders involved. We can pray for Christ to return to set the world aright. Students need to be reminded that life is not meaningless chaos and that God is good, even though the world is often bad. Prayer is a heartfelt reminder of this and a powerful form of activism.
Third, we can avoid trying to score political points. Given the polarized and noxious nature of America’s public discourse, partisan citizens and leaders often try to gain popularity for their views about gun rights or gun control. Let’s resist the temptation to take cheap shots at people on the other side of the political aisle.
In the long term, it can be helpful to allow our youth to engage in constructive discussion and debate about how to make our society healthier by reducing lethal violence. In doing so, we should shape the discussion around three talking points.
- We can engage youth in a discussion about gun rights and gun control. In the aftermath of shootings such as the one in Parkland, our national debate is often carried out via social media. Generally, social media tends to reduce the debate to clichéd arguments and unfair accusations, which we all know and can recite well.But, as Liz Peek argued recently, it’s time for an honest, civil, and sustained national debate about gun rights and gun control. If rapid-fire weapons hadn’t been employed in recent shootings such as those in Las Vegas, Orlando, or Parkland, fewer people would have been killed. The ban on these weapons expired in 2004 and hasn’t been renewed.In facilitating this conversation with our youth, we can make sure to carry out this debate in its various dimensions. Legally, is a ban on rapid-fire weapons in violation of the Second Amendment? Ideologically, is such a ban a slippery slope which will eventually result in wholesale confiscation? Practically, will increased gun control reduce violence overall by making it harder for mass shooters to purchase guns, or will it increase vulnerability by making citizens defenseless?If our national response to shootings continues to be characterized by sound bite arguments and ill-willed bipartisan accusations, things will only get worse. But if we can make the transition to a sustained and civil debate about solutions, we stand a good chance of making things better.
- We can engage youth in a discussion about mental health and all its dimensions. There is ample evidence that the Parkland shooter had long alarmed acquaintances and authorities in Parkland with his troubling behavior. He was described by former neighbors and classmates as cold-hearted, deeply disturbed, and emotionally unstable. In an instance of serious chemical imbalance, appropriate medication and treatment could bring stability to someone living with mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health is a repository of data related to psychiatric treatment and intervention in the cases of mental illness and can be a helpful resource. But as we facilitate a conversation on mental health with our youth, we must help our youth understand that living with mental illness doesn’t itself cause someone to commit criminal and evil acts. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that foreign terrorists are “evil” but American shooters are “ill.” It’s high time our nation recognizes the way evil takes root in the human heart, and the way America’s cultural institutions—families, churches, schools, political parties, entertainers—must work to counteract the moral decay in our nation.
- We can engage youth in a discussion about the practical ways they can make a difference locally. One example of a bipartisan solution is for youth to petition school administrators to conduct active-shooter training in local schools. During school shootings, most casualties occur during the first five minutes. If we can coach students on how to run, hide, fight, and report the shooters, we stand a better chance of reducing casualties.
These are just a few of the ways we can minister to our students. And as we minister, we should remember Jesus’ words to his disciples immediately after he’d been beaten, stabbed, and crucified: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). So, let’s remind our youth that even—especially—when it seems like the world is falling apart, Christ is present with us. Not only is he with us now, but he will be with us in the future when he returns to rid the world of tragedy once and for all.
Dr. Bruce Riley Ashford is Provost and Professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author or co-author of six books, has been featured on C-SPAN and National Public Radio, and has written for opinion pieces for a number of national outlets. He is a Senior Fellow in Public Theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (Cambridge, UK), a participant in the Dulles Colloquium of the Institute on Religion & Public Life (New York, NY), and a Research Fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (Nashville, TN).
A Mother’s Song: Remembering Psalm-Like Trauma Stories of Gun Violence
Can a child ever be prepared to encounter a shooter barreling through schoolyards and bursting into classrooms? Can children jump rope or play dodge ball freely when the threat of gang violence hangs heavy in the air? Among the many reflections featured in the stunning poetic memoir, My Name is Child of God . . . Not “Those People”: A First Person Look at Poverty, Julia K. Dinsmore captures stories that speak to the trauma of gun violence. Just as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautions how a single story can easily pigeonhole people into one-dimensional figures, Dinsmore balks at cheap representations of a complex community. Her work aligns with scientific, psychological, and theological findings that speak to the power of storytelling. She abides in the Irish expression of keening, a form of mourning articulated during funerals. Just as she sings sorrow songs for others, Dinsmore’s stories bring life to death and death to life. And yet, without being prescriptive, her stories teach us how to access our own painful histories.
Dinsmore’s sons participated in school “bullet drills” during the 1990’s when many labeled South Minneapolis as Murderapolis.1 At one point, Dinsmore seeks to reprieve her family by moving to the Isle close to Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota. As they arrive, she savors the appearance of a rainbow, its “pinstriped hues” arching “across the water.”2 Despite her exposure to gun violence, she is not blind to nature’s magnificent displays. Sadly, trauma shadows her family. When her nine-year-old son observes “that the gas station stores out in the country” do not have “bulletproof windows,” Dinsmore’s heart breaks.3 In the height of deer hunting season, they were often afraid to go outside, falling to the floor at the sound of gunshots.4 Dinsmore’s recollection of her family’s trauma aligns with the findings of Bessel Van Der Kolk, who notes, “[l]ong after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amount of stress hormones.”5 Dinsmore embraces the stressors that come with living with gun violence. She resists fashioning herself as a warrior Christian, a hardened welfare class female recipient, or an impenetrable single mother.
Still, the ability of traumatized children to creatively interact with their environment is not lost on Dinsmore. With fondness, she recalls that her sons soon exchanged their video toys at the local pawnshop for fishing poles. Abiding “under eagle’s wings” and standing under an expansive sky, they “finally exhaled.”6 These responses correspond with Kolk’s observation that exhaling activates “the parasympathetic (‘against emotions’) nervous system (PNS) which promotes self-preservative functions like digestion and wound healing.”7 Dinsmore’s sons activate a process of “wound healing” as they nurture their wellbeing while fishing. Building on Robert Maclennan’s research, her sons co-create a “pivotal momen[t]” that enables their trauma narrative to sit alongside a “hopeful story.” By doing so, they enter into a “therapeutic process” that allows for communal empowerment.8
Dinsmore embodies the sentiments expressed by womanist theologian and pastor, Renita J. Weems, who maintains that if the “[p]salms and similar writings were absent from the Bible, [her] spirit might have withered away long ago.”9 Rather than be rendered invisible, Dinsmore’s recollections invoke the beautiful-ugly paradoxes of faith that underline the psalms. To channel Howard Thurman, though “the forces, the influences that impinge upon [her] life…are not responsive to [her] will,” she insists that through her words and actions she “must take the responsibility for how, mark my word, how [she] react[s] to the forces that impinge upon [her] life.”10 Being silenced is not an option Dinsmore entertains. In defiance, she feels with abandon and invites us to feel alongside her.
In Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence—The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice, Daniel J. Siegel maintains that “[m]emory retrieval can become a modifier, meaning that in the right conditions, harnessing awareness of past events can actually free a person from their imprisoning effects when unresolved.”11 While Dinsmore acknowledges that the scourge of gun violence has yet to be resolved, she refuses to be imprisoned by her past. Howard Thurman maintains that “freedom is the process by which, standing in my place where I am, I can so act in that place as to influence, order, alter, or change the future—that time is not frozen, that life is not so fixed that it cannot respond to my own will, my own inner processes”12 As a memory keeper, Dinsmore conveys that time is not frozen, but can generate liberating insights on how to respond to gun violence.
Dinsmore also teaches us that multilayered experiences continue to flourish in the crossfires of gun violence. In one recollection, her grandfather and his neighbors gathered to stop the construction of a new freeway, 35W. This roadway initiative had the potential to decimate the spirit of their community. The officials who spearheaded the construction of this motorway system “shot” at this neighborhood with their policies. Though residents could not stop the road, many retained their spirit of advocacy. For Dinsmore, acknowledging such truths occupies a staple role in healing. To borrow one of her terms, she refuses to “swallow her words,”13 erase her emotions, or permit apathy to take root. Alongside others, she invites God to feel with her as they redress community crises.
As a modern day psalmist, Julia K. Dinsmore experiences emotional freedom with the triune Creator. Her poems remind us that the marginalized are God’s “offspring.” Together, we can follow Jesus’ example and not dismiss their stories as untrue, interrupt them when they speak, or stand by from a distance. Like the Samaritan who comes to the aid of a stranger in Luke 10:25-37, we must allow our hands to be bloodied and cleansed even when we interact with the messy lives of those who endure gun violence. We can invite God into our fears, through ambivalence and into action. And in the process of responding to this trauma, those unaffected by such violence may need to ask: From whom can we learn?14
1. Julia K. Dinsmore, My Name is Child of God . . . Not “Those People” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2007), 82.
5. Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D., The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 2.
6. Dinsmore, My Name is Child of God, 83.
7. Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score, 77.
8. Robert Maclennan, “Co-Creating Pivotal Moments: Narrative Practice and Neuroscience,” Journal of Systemic Therapies 34, no. 1 (2015).
9. Renita Weems, Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 20.
10. Howard Thurman, “America in Search of a Soul,” in A Strange Freedom: Best of Howard Thurman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 272.
11. Daniel J. Siegel, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence—The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice (New York: TeacherPerigee, 2018), 311.
12. Thurman, “America in Search of a Soul,” 271.
13. Julia K. Dinsmore, conversation with author, February 10, 2018.
14. Sponsored by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
Claudia May, Ph.D., is a storyteller, poet, educator, spiritual director, consultant, author, and specialist in Practical Theology and African American, Caribbean, and Ethnic American literature. She is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a recipient of a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation. Further details about her professional and creative profile can be accessed via her website claudiamay.org.uk.
On Becoming Nonviolent Spiritual Guardians in the Way of Jesus
I recently spent the morning with 100 high school students from the county where I live. We heard a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the personal testimonies of several retired clergy activists who directly participated in the non-violent Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. After that, in small groups made up of students from different schools, the participants shared personal stories about threats to their own or others’ human rights. Then they gathered back with peers from their own school’s human rights student group to create a vision for a project which they will complete and report back on when we meet again in the spring. Although the focus was on human rights, a number of students shared experiences with gun violence. To be sure, the coercive power of having a gun pointed at you – whether discharged or not – certainly robs one of one’s basic human rights.
A quick show of hands revealed that a number of these activist students had attended March for Our Lives events in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting last spring. While they initially felt empowered at these mass rallies, students confessed that they need guidance on next steps along their journey of non-violent resistance. Caught in the boiling cauldron of our nation’s increasingly polarized conversations concerning political, racial, ethnic, gender and sexual diversities, many students are desperately seeking new ways to creatively engage with the many intersectional unjust and violent topics of our day. Where is the voice of the Church? Where and how can congregations respond?
I propose that congregations need a renewed focus on the spiritual disciplines which are needed for a person of faith to engage actively, yet non-violently, in a lifetime pursuit of peace, justice, healing, and wholeness for all God’s children. While there are still elders like those who can speak about their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, a new generation of faith and family leaders needs to step up to mentor our children and youth for the long haul. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II is doing some of this in his leadership of the New Poor People’s Campaign. Yet, youth also need mentoring in the basic skills of nonviolent communication and conflict resolution in addition to non-violent resistance to injustice. This is where congregational faith leaders can join in.
We can—and must—provide the youth in our communities training in specific, practical, holistic disciplines through which they can experience a sense of personal mastery and strength much different from the coercive power of gun violence. There is no substitute for experiencing the power of faithfully trusting God before guns.
There are many ways to frame and teach this sort of spiritual empowerment. One way is suggested by Professor of Spiritual Formation and author Dr. Frank Rogers Jr. In his book The Way of Jesus: Compassion in Practice. He provides a leader guide for group learning of five spiritual steps required for “PULSE” taking in any difficult situation which includes: Paying attention a non-judgmental way, Understanding Empathetically, Loving with connection to the suffering of the other, Sensing the potential sacredness and healing in the moment, and Embodying new life as new gifts and qualities emerge. This process of compassionate PULSE taking of ourselves and others allows us to respond with tangible acts of healing, kindness, and care in the Way of Jesus.
“But what about gun violence?” you might ask.
To be clear, this approach, like other holistic spiritual practices recommended here, does not engage directly with the very complex dimensions of our current gun violence epidemic. It is my prayer that informed discussions about good parenting and basic gun safety practices, pastoral engagement with fear and grief following mass shootings, and activist pursuits of legislation to ban automatic weapons will be going on elsewhere in our congregations.
My focus on dealing with gun violence is personal because my hope is to save souls as well as lives. How? First, by ramping up our entire sense of heroic spiritual empowerment, beginning with how we understand the heroism of Jesus and how we can follow in the way of Jesus’ particular kind of heroism. This is a preaching as well as a faith formation challenge. The second component I am suggesting is congregational sponsorship of mid-week classes for youth which teach concrete ways to disengage from fear and anger-driven behaviors. Along with ways to disengage, these courses would ideally teach spiritually based non-violent ways of communicating, problem solving, and protecting ourselves and others from the deadening effects of our gun violence addicted culture.
A good place to start is the model of nonviolent “spiritual warriorship” in the way of Jesus as found in Ephesians 6:13-18. As a lifelong pacifist, I prefer to use the language of “spiritual guardianship” as suggested by Jim Wallis and Bryan Stevenson in their excellent book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, but the truth is, whatever language we use, “the battle is on.” Congregations are called to respond quickly and decisively to meet the needs of youth who are experiencing almost daily confrontations with violence, hatred, and injustice in media, if not in real life.
I believe proclaiming the dynamic power of Jesus so that his heroism can clearly stand with and “above” that of today’s pantheon of fictional superheroes goes hand-in-hand with taking on an urgent sense of active preparation for spiritual battle. Yes, Jesus is still our humble teaching and healing Savior who died on the cross two thousand years ago, but as the Apostle Paul and the Gospel of John tell us, our gentle Jesus was and is identified with the eternally creating Cosmic Christ— the Light and life-giving Word and Wisdom of God – which was before all things, and with whom all things were and are made by God. This “high” Christology invites us claim Jesus as our “Suprahero” (hero above all superheroes) whose non-violent, creative way of Cosmic guardianship we are called to abundantly participate in by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit! This understanding of Jesus Christ as our “Suprahero” companion is where we can find spiritual strength for today and hope for tomorrow alongside our youth because our heroic empowerment by the Holy Spirit always “makes a way when there is no way” (Isaiah 43:19).
As “Spirit filled progressives” my husband, Bruce, and I have experienced spiritual empowerment through a lively set of holistic practices which embody our own PULSE as transformational faith leaders. Foremost among them is Reiki healing touch. Next, we embrace the practices of Yoga, Aikido, Kung Fu, and Tai Chi. Realizing that these practices may seem quite foreign to some, I commend the Christian testimonies we and other pastors have written about our experiences with these practices.
Last but not least, I believe that the most important non-violent empowerment practice for both youth and children is that of breath prayer. In our house, mindful, slow breathing along with visualizing each breath as a prayerful invitation for the Holy Spirit to fill us with God’s Light and Love, is a standard “get a grip” practice which my 6 and 8-year-old grandsons enjoy. Breath prayer both soothes them and helps them listen to what Dr. Rogers would call “God’s heartbeat for the world” which resuscitates our own spirit and “revives the spirit of another deadened into brutality” (The Way of Jesus, p. 26). This is the core practice upon which all other spiritual practices for nonviolent spiritual guardianship in the way of Jesus are built.
Rev. Dr. Kate Epperly is Coordinator of the Cape Cod Fellowship of Reconciliation in Eastern Massachusetts and represents her denomination on Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. As Coordinator of Justice and Advocacy for the Family and Children’s Ministries team of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Homeland Ministries Division, Dr. Epperly is also working on a forthcoming online faith-based intergenerational gun violence prevention resource. A recently retired Congregational pastor, Dr. Epperly is actively engaged in advocating to end gun violence locally through Grandmothers Against Gun Violence and Church Women United.
The following article was initially written for publication as a Lenten meditation in ONScripture, and has also been published through the Huffington Post. We have decided to republish it with this issue because in many ways, gun violence has propelled us into an eternal Lenten season. The season of Lent is traditionally a sober time of reflection, mourning, and preparation for the coming death and resurrection of Jesus. Each shock of gun violence—a seemingly perpetual occurrence in modern America—brings us back to the deep grieving and mourning of the Lenten season. As Christians, we are always preparing for Lent. By the liturgical calendar, the season of Lent is always upon us or approaching. May this article be timely as we approach the Lenten season and as we sit in the eternal Lent brought forth by gun violence.
Luke 4:1-13: Giving Up Guns for Lent
Obviously, Jesus didn’t own a gun, never said anything directly about firearms. He couldn’t have.
Of course, that won’t solve the debates now roiling this nation about violence and the people and tools that perpetuate it. Nonetheless, the fact that Jesus has nothing to say about guns has not stopped a number of pundits from extrapolating Jesus’ ethics on gun violence. In recent days, some Christians have tried to construct a case that Jesus himself would support self-defense in the form of individually owned firearms. Others vehemently disagree. Agreement is as hard to find among Christians as it is among the nation more broadly.
What would Jesus have to say to us today about a culture we all admit is far too saturated with violence and death? How would he guide us in light of recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora?
While events like these rightly elevate our sense that something must be done, it is the truly ordinary nature of our culture’s violence that ought to convince us to lay aside politics for the sake of our neighbors. Unfortunately, our political divisions foreclose most opportunities to have a reasonable conversation about such hot-button issues, even among people of common faith. But here’s one potential route for reflection.
What if we all gave up guns for Lent?
This last week, Christians around the world gathered to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter and the celebration of Jesus’ victory over the death. The first step on this annual pilgrimage is Ash Wednesday, when believers receive a tangible reminder of our mortality. With crosses of ash on our foreheads, we remind ourselves and the rest of the world that our bodies are frail, too easily broken, even as we look forward to God’s final victory over death.
As we begin this season of Lent, Luke 4:1-13 narrates Jesus facing a triad of famous temptations. In the passage, Jesus is impelled by the Holy Spirit to wander in the wilderness, the place of Israel’s ancient sojourn and also a place of great danger. For 40 days, Jesus fasts, depriving his body of sustenance, giving up something vital and necessary. When he is at his weakest, the devil approaches.
First, the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread, to concoct sustenance in the midst of a barren desert. Jesus is certainly capable of such deeds. In fact, later in the narrative, Jesus will feed not himself but a crowd of 5,000 (see Luke 9:12-17). Jesus responds that we do not live by bread alone. That is, in all times and in all places, we rely on God and God alone for our sustenance. Jesus’ call is to feed others, not himself.
Second, the devil evokes a panoramic display of all the kingdoms of the world, telling Jesus that their power is in the devil’s hands. If Jesus will only worship him, the devil will hand their power over to Jesus. Luke seems to believe the devil here; the devil indeed has the power of the world’s kingdoms in his hands. When Luke looks at his world, he sees a massive empire capable of massive warfare and oppression with the devil at its reigns. But this empire will not fall by the exertion of military might but the path of service and sacrifice Jesus embraces. Jesus responds to this great temptation finally to free Israel from the bonds of Roman oppression by noting that we ought only to serve God. That is, in all times and in all places, only God is worthy of our worship. Jesus’ call is to exercise power through weakness.
Last, the devil leads Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, inviting Jesus to cast himself down in a deadly fall. After all, the devil reasons, God won’t let you die, right? Ironically, of course, we know the end of the story. Jesus would later return to this city and die a martyr’s death; he would suffer the cruelty of an unjust execution. But not now. Do not tempt God, Jesus believes. That is, in all times and in all places, God’s timetable is not ours. Jesus’ call is to be faithful to the path God has laid out, even and especially because that path is littered with dangers and threats.
This powerful story is an ideal starting point for a season of Lent, following the tragedy of Newtown and the subsequent political debate our grief has inspired. Lenten practices call for us to give up something we think precious, vital, important. In the case of Jesus, he fasts from food for forty days and then turns away from the temptation to feed himself, to liberate his people from the clutches of Roman oppression, to prove to the devil that he is indeed God’s servant.
But why? Why give up something we hold precious and necessary? Precisely because in letting go what we think is indispensable, we might discover its contingency. We might discover that we have been holding on tightly to shadows of fear and anxiety, not the sure anchors of hope and faith.
What if we all as a Lenten act of devotion gave up guns and the violence they engender? What if firearms were locked away? What if violent images were replaced with visions of peace? What if the guns of war stopped their incessant racket?
But what if this also meant that the police would be unarmed, that personal retaliation was not an option, that the armies of the world would lay down their weapons, that we had to rely on God and God alone for our safety?
What if this also meant that drones would no longer patrol the skies over Afghanistan? That violence could no longer be the stuff of our entertainment and delight?
Perhaps then we’d remember that safety is a value among many others competing for our commitments. Perhaps we’d remember that violence is sometimes unavoidable but never holy. Perhaps we’d remember that death ought never be a source of joy, only a spring of lament. Perhaps we’d remember that the world is a beautiful but dangerous place and that the protection of those we love and the most vulnerable among us is a high calling, a calling that comes with an equally high cost.
When I suggest giving up guns for Lent, I’m not interested in policy or legislation so much as how we posture ourselves toward a world full of death, violence and pain. We ought not cling to guns as a sure deposit of safety. But neither should any of us imagine that policies and laws by themselves can alleviate the forces of evil that drive us toward the edge of death and despair.
A fast from guns might bring some of the clarity we need. Christians should—if we take our faith seriously—talk about such contentious issues in a graceful and substantive way. Christians should—if we take our faith seriously—argue on the basis of our most deeply held values and not via imitation of our preferred partisans. And perhaps a fast from guns and the violence that surrounds them would lead us to a place of wisdom, compassion, graceful listening and even peace.
Reprinted with permission from Odyssey Impact.
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained Baptist minister. The author of Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16 (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), the co-author of Exploring the Bible (Fortress, 2016) and In Tongues of Mortals and Angels (Lexington, 2018), and editor of Reading Theologically (Fortress, 2014), he is also a regular contributor to ONScripture.org, the Huffington Post, WorkingPreacher.org, and EntertheBible.org. For more, go to ericbarreto.com and follow him on Twitter @ericbarreto.
- What emotions and opinions do you have about gun violence? Are these emotions the same or different than the ones you have about school shootings?
- How does your faith in God inform your emotions and opinions about gun violence? If you don’t feel like it does, why not?
- Though the Bible obviously doesn’t make reference to guns, how can the Bible help us to think about gun violence today? Can you think of any specific passages that do this?
- When talking about how gun violence affects young people, we often think about school shootings. What other kinds of gun violence impact young people?
- What are your church’s policies about guns? Does the topic of gun violence get discussed at your church? Why or why not?
- After reading the articles in this issue, what are new questions or understandings do you have about gun violence?