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Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers\' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Pro-Gun Gun Control

Another mass shooting at a school. And another. And another.

American society is caught in a cycle of gun violence. Last year guns were used to kill almost 40,000 Americans. The leading cause was suicide which is responsible for a whopping 60% of all gun deaths. Accidental shootings kill about as many people as self-defense killings. Gang shootings, robberies, and intentional murder also add significant numbers. And then we have mass school shootings. So far this year 36 students and staff have been killed.

Although the number of deaths is small compared with the other categories of gun violence, school shootings particularly affect us. These are children and youth mowed down in the midst of their innocence.

With school shootings on the rise, lots of proposals have been made to help prevent these tragedies: better intervention and mental healthcare for troubled youth, redesigned schools with fewer entrances, more armed security–including some teachers, and shifting our violence-oriented entertainment culture.

And, of course, better gun control.

This last one is quite controversial among those who see themselves as strong supporters of the second amendment. Any further gun control, in their opinion, is a slippery slope toward undermining our fundamental right to keep and bear arms. They fear that those who support more gun control are using this as a pretext for abolishing the right to own guns. Thus, whenever a Democrat is elected president, gun sales go through the roof because of an irrational fear that somehow the president will be able to stop the sale of guns. (And, ironically, when someone like Trump becomes president, gun sales fall so steeply that it jeopardizes some gun companies.)

Since this fear is so deep-seated, it seems to me that reasonable gun control at the national level is going to have to come from those who are strong advocates of the second amendment. No one else has a chance of being trusted.

Can we convince pro-gun senators and representatives to support a serious study of whether certain measures would likely reduce gun violence in America without undermining the right to keep and bear arms? Specifically, I’d like to see a non-partisan study that looks at the likely effects of the following:

  • universal background checks
  • universal gun registry
  • restricting gun ownership for those under a restraining order or undergoing therapy or medication for violent tendencies
  • mandatory gun locks or “smart guns”
  • outlawing bump stocks
  • restricting assault-type rifles
  • raising the age for ownership of certain types of weapons
  • limited-capacity gun magazines
  • outlawing armor-piercing bullets

I do not know whether all of the suggestions above would be useful or not. They may have minimal or no effect, or unintended negative effects. Gun proponents are correct when they point out that less guns does not necessarily lower violence. For instance, knife attacks may well become more common. But that’s exactly why we need to study gun violence more seriously and fairly, without ideology, and find solutions that will protect the right to keep and bear arms while at the same time lowering the rate of suicide, accidental killing, easy access by criminals and youth, and mass shootings.

Proponents of the second amendment oftentimes have no problem placing safeguards and restrictions on the fifteenth and nineteenth amendments (the right to vote). It seems to me, to be consistent, if you you support requiring identification and comprehensive record-keeping to vote, you should not be opposed to requiring identification and comprehensive record-keeping for owning a gun. That’s an argument I’d like to hear a pro-gun proponent make.

Finding our way to a healthier and less violent society will not happen by following the extremists on either side of the gun debate. The solution, at least on the national level, is probably in the hands of second amendment advocates in Congress who have the courage to see the need for reasonable gun control. And the more it is based on honest research, the better the result will be.

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Superheroes

Over the weekend I watched the new blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War. Although I enjoyed it, I am puzzled by–and a bit concerned about–the massive and continuous popularity of superhero movies.

Part of their obvious appeal is their fantastical action and mythic themes. Superhero movies allow us to escape to an imaginative reality filled with awesome good guys and bad guys who battle each other in clever and eye-popping ways. The fate of the universe (or at least the earth) usually hangs in the balance. Why don’t we get tired of this repeated formula? It is the primordial story of the hero–a story each of us internalizes during the process of maturation, helping us cope with and find direction in the adult world. Superhero movies are the modern fairy tales.

I suppose their current popularity also has something to do with the war on terrorism and our age of anxiety. Americans live, by and large, a very stable and prosperous life. But all of that is constantly threatened by forces we cannot see: terrorism, corruption, recessions, hackers, supposed conspiracies, endless foreign wars, and dysfunctional governments (including our own). Superheroes hold out the promise that our prosperous, stable American way of life can be protected and restored (the locus of the ultimate battle is usually in America).

And that is what most troubles me about most of the superhero movies. The implicit message is that America always stands for the good guys, and our salvation is dependent on advanced technology from an endless store of wealth (e.g. Iron Man, Black Panther), superior strength (e.g. Thor, Hulk), and superhuman abilities. But are we always the good guys in this world? And will superior abilities and resources save us?

This is where most superhero movies and the Christian faith collide. The subversive Christian message is that we are all bad guys and we cannot save ourselves–no matter how rich or clever or strong we are. The wholeness and well-being of the human race and our planet depend on our recognizing our own selfish tendencies and therefore relying on humility and the “soft power” of self-giving love. We do not believe in ourselves; we believe in that which is greater than us and is eternal: the source of all grace.

For Christians, the power that transforms and heals is embodied in one who was nonviolent, gentle, and inclusive. Enemies are not destroyed; they are valued, engaged, forgiven, transformed, and reconciled. Evil is defeated by being absorbed on a cross in an act of divine love. As soon as we congratulate ourselves on our superior goodness or ability, we slide into becoming the enemy–and then it is we that need to be rescued.

The superhero movies are not totally bereft of these themes. At their best, these movies reveal the foibles and weaknesses of their superheroes, gently poking fun at them. Avengers: Infinity War is particularly adept at seeing the flaws and humor in some of its beloved protagonists. It also features a more complex villain who is motivated not simply by power hunger but also by a well-meaning but horribly misdirected desire to solve the problem of environmental degradation. The superhero movies are most satisfying when the superhero comes to terms with his or her own foibles and limitations, and the solution to the hopeless situation comes through selflessness.

Overall, I think superhero movies are probably a positive influence on our culture. But they could be better. They could be more honest about where destructive forces come from: not an alien monster or madman from another galaxy, but from our own selfish and discriminatory systems and personalities that produce poverty and injustice and tribal fear. And instead of glamorizing wealth and warfare, they could find hope in simplicity and creativity.

The blockbuster movie itself is part of the problem. Because of its humongous budget and mass appeal, it squeezes out of production more thoughtful, riskier movies that would help us see ourselves more honestly and find solutions that don’t involve pummeling a fantasy monster.

Less Beef, Please

We humans have been having a devastating impact on the environment ever since we invented stone points and spears. This advanced technology wiped out the Woolly Mammoth and a wide range of other large animals. Today our presence on this planet is rapidly accelerating the extinction of other animals. The northern white rhino is down to one male and a few females. Its extinction is considered certain.

Today animals are going extinct not because of spears (or even rifles), but primarily because of habitat loss and climate change. Again, our advanced technology is to blame. We are clearing 80,000 acres of rain forest per day in order to harvest wood for furniture and to produce more agricultural and grazing land; and we are burning huge amounts of fossil fuels which pump 100 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day, creating a “greenhouse effect.”

The only viable answer to this problem is a global answer: commitments by governments and businesses to “go green” as quickly as is economically feasible. But we also, as individuals, must be willing to move toward a more green lifestyle.

Although there are any number of ways we could move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, the simplest is to change our diet. Many people, for the sake of the environment (and to be kinder to animals), have become vegetarians or vegans, but it’s the rest of us meat-eaters who need to get a grip on how much meat we’re eating.

Several years ago I realized that I sometimes was eating meat three times a day: bacon at breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch, and a casserole containing ground beef for supper. When I realized what was happening, I made a decision to eat meat no more than once a day. For certain designated times of the year (for instance, usually during Lent), I  decided not to eat meat at all.

That was a step in the right direction, but now it is time for me to reduce my meat consumption again. Instead of eating meat once a day, how about just four times a week? Not only is this more environmentally responsible, it’s also better for my health.

Not all meat is equal. Pound for pound, the one that uses the most resources and energy is usually beef. Each pound of beef, on average, represents 27 pounds of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. That’s more than twice as much as pork, and more than four times as much as chicken. Because of climate change and drought, water is in desperate need in many places. Beef, unfortunately, is a huge consumer of water: 1847 gallons on average per pound. Pork uses 718 gallons, and chicken 518 gallons per pound.

So the other simple choice meat-eaters can make is to eat a lot less beef and instead eat pork, chicken, turkey or–better yet–fish. The average American eats 67 pounds of beef a year, or 1.3 pounds a week. Could we cut that in half? That would mean aiming for one or no more than two servings of beef per week.

The good news is that the average American is eating a third less beef today than in the mid-seventies. The bad news is that our total meat consumption per person is about the same as then–and now there are 50% more of us! So we have a lot of work to do: educating each other and making personal commitments toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

For me it boils down to  one simple moral principle: love my neighbor as myself. That includes neighbors not yet born who will have to contend with the planet we leave them.

Choosing a Good Death

Both of my parents were able to die the way they wanted to: at home surrounded by family. I hope this is the way I am able to die as well. Unfortunately, medical technology, combined with our own fearful choices, have made “a good death” at home less likely.

Medical technology can often keep our bodies alive even when we have lost all consciousness and control. We can be resuscitated, intubated, and ventilated. It used to be that the line between life and death was much sharper: the lungs stopped breathing, the heart stopped, and that was it. But now we can keep these prodded and pumping even if the person is no longer consciously present. Is that how we want to live? Is that how we want to die?

Or how about the often debilitating side effects of caustic drugs and chemotherapy that make life miserable and unfocused? For what? An extra month or year of additional suffering?

Compounding the dilemma is the massive cost of keeping a person alive through expensive technologies and exorbitantly priced drugs. Every dollar spent on squeezing one more miserable month out of our lives is often a dollar less that is available for someone else’s healthcare.

So why do we insist on prolonging our rapidly deteriorating and often unconscious bodies? I see two factors: misplaced faith, and fear.

By misplaced faith I mean the belief that it is somehow unfaithful and unethical not to do everything possible to prolong life. Human life is a sacred gift. So according to this line of thinking, we are obligated to do everything possible to prolong it. Not to is tantamount to murder. If we do not prolong life whenever possible, we will be slipping down the slope of euthanasia, making ourselves into God and deciding when life is worthwhile or not.

But isn’t it acting like God to hook up someone to a machine who is comatose and in a vegetative state? Isn’t artificially prolonging life, despite the misery, despite the healthcare resources being shortchanged for others, also a form of playing God? Human life is sacred, but so is death and dying. It’s all part of the God-created natural process, and it’s all essential in order to make room for a new generation. When the human body has reached its natural limits, and the person is no longer able to live meaningfully, how is it faithful to artificially prolong misery and skyrocketing costs?

Part of misplaced faith includes an insistence on waiting for a miracle, no matter what. I certainly believe in prayer and spiritual resources, and I certainly believe that medical science does not know everything. More is possible than what we know. But prolonging a person’s misery, or a brain-dead body, is not the time to wait for a miracle. This is an inappropriate insistence that God unmake nature.

I believe what really stands behind misplaced faith is fear. We cover our fear with what we think is faith. But faith means trusting in God no matter what the circumstances–including dying and death. Fear is why we pour money into treatments that have virtually no chance of helping, and are more likely to cause more pain. Fear is why we die in hospitals, bristling with tubes and beeping machines, rather than quietly at home.

To die well requires letting go of some of our fear; it requires the wisdom of acceptance. And once we accept that further treatment is not going to improve the quality of our lives, we can then receive hospice care–often at home–which maximizes our comfort and prolongs our ability to do what we want to do. Ironically, many people live longer with hospice care than they would have with all of the excruciating treatments.

When my mother learned she had lung cancer she chose not to have chemotherapy or treatments. She spent her remaining months visiting all of her children in their homes, and then returned to her own home to die in her own bed. When my father learned that his heart was failing and he was too old for another stent, he decided to go home. He sat in his favorite chair, surrounded by some of his children, and died quietly a few hours later. These good deaths were possible because both of my parents chose not to fear death. They accepted the gift they had been given–along with its natural limitations.

For myself, life is worth prolonging if it means I can continue to engage in meaningful communication with my friends and family–through talking or writing–and with reasonable comfort. But if further treatment is unlikely to accomplish that goal, then let me receive hospice care–and let me die at home. I think that would be a good death.

Those who live by the gun …

There are tragedies I can’t get out of my mind. I replay the events leading up to the disaster over and over, as if maybe this time it will turn out differently; but of course it always turns out the same. As I get older, I increasingly feel this way about the days between Palm Sunday and Friday. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. A good man, an inspiring man, a man too true for this world, is going to get chewed up by the forces of fear and politics and end up on a cross, dying in agony and crying out to an absent God.

At least one of his followers was willing to use violence to stop this tragic injustice. But Jesus rejected such a response: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” He wasn’t literally saying that every person who uses violent means will end up a victim of violence. He was speaking more broadly, enunciating a spiritual principle, that the use of violence tends to perpetuate violence rather than reduce violence. There may be instances here and there where a limited use of violence curtails further violence, but more likely it sows the seeds of resentment and revenge. Every time we use violence, even in a just cause and with just authority, we are legitimizing and perpetuating the regime of violence.

Which for many people is simply the way the world is. It cannot be otherwise.

But Jesus never accepted the world as it is; he demanded we re-make it. He gave us an idea–the kingdom of God–to inspire us and guide us.

The earliest followers of Jesus took up that challenge. For the first three hundred years of its existence, the church was broadly pacifist. Justin Martyr claimed, “We who were full of war and murder of one another … have each changed his warlike instruments–swords into plows and spears into agricultural implements.” Tatian said, “I reject military command.” Athenagoras argued that since Christians will not even look at an execution or a gladiator show, they certainly will not kill. Tertullian stated, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” Hippolytus insisted that soldiers who become Christians “must be told not to execute men; if he shall be ordered to do it, he shall not do it”; and anyone who is already a Christian who wants to become a soldier, “let him be cast out, for he has despised God.” And Origen declared, “Indeed we do not fight at [the king’s] side, even if he should command it.”

This total commitment to nonviolence shifted once Constantine made the Christian faith the favored religion of the Roman Empire. Bishops suddenly changed their positions in order to curry political favor. The theologian Augustine came up with new rules for when a Christian could justifiably go to war or kill. But even so, nonviolence continued to be the ideal which Christians were to pursue whenever possible.

Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther–theologians who developed justifications for limited use of violence–would be shocked that Christians in the United States are insisting on their right to carry lethal weapons as ordinary citizens. Luther was clear that only those acting on behalf of the government have the right to use lethal force, not ordinary citizens. He claimed that Jesus’ teachings forbid Christians, as private citizens, from carrying weapons.

Today our society is once again in the midst of a huge controversy over who can carry a gun–and what kind of gun. Our government, in its Constitution, gives every citizen the right “to bear arms.” So as a legal matter, I grant that everyone has that right and no law should unnecessarily burden a person (who is not a threat) from exercising that right.

But that’s just the legal consideration. For Christians there must be a deeper and more important consideration: Is this what Jesus would have us do? Is this how we are to live out and make possible the kingdom of God? Are we defining God’s will by what is and has been, or by what should be? As Christians we live the ideal now, we live the future now; and by doing so, we gradually transform the world.

Those Christians who live by the gun–who trust in guns for their defense–keep the old order of gun-death going. They are ignoring Jesus’ own command to his disciples. They are trying to re-write the last days of Jesus’ ministry and avoid the tragedy of the crucifixion. I sympathize. I’d like to change the story too. I’d like to violently intervene and keep Jesus from being tortured to death. But it’s the way of the cross–the way of love which will not use violence to oppose violence–which leads to resurrection and the transformation of reality. Christians who carry guns are not only denying the cross, they are undermining the resurrection.

What I Learned From Daryl Davis

Three days before the Richmond, Race & Reconciliation event, I got a call from a local reporter. She wanted to learn a bit more about how my congregation and the co-sponsoring congregation, Speaking Spirit Ministries, had decided to bring Daryl Davis to Richmond. I told her I was impressed by the documentary “Accidental Courtesy” that I had seen last year on PBS that featured his work. Her questions sounded a bit unfriendly as she probed further. “Do you consider what he is doing as reconciliation?” “Yes,” I replied, but I could tell from her tone that she did not agree with me.

Daryl Davis is a well known keyboardist who has played with some of the greatest–such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He decided he wanted to write a book about the KKK, and starting a few decades ago he began interviewing KKK leaders. The thing is, Daryl is black, and he wanted to know, “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?”

Those interviews ultimately led to many in-depth conversations in which he was able to establish trust and rapport with KKK leaders. Because he listened respectfully to them, genuinely wanting to understand their point of view, they also listened respectfully to him. And the shocking result is that a large number of KKK leaders subsequently left the Klan and gave their robes to Daryl.

Daryl’s message is fairly simple: what we don’t understand, we fear, and what we fear, we want to destroy. So the way to end the destructiveness of racism is to remove the ignorance that begins the chain of events.

I am amazed at the courage and poise Daryl brings into those conversations. He is clearly comfortable with himself, and out of his comfortableness, he can interact with ideological opponents without reactivity. In fact, he can become genuine friends with them–even when he hates what they think. What is most amazing is that those KKK leaders consider him a trusted friend, and they invite him regularly to talk.

I asked the reporter, “What do you think of Daryl Davis?” At first she didn’t want to say. I pressed: “Do you think what he is doing is reconciliation?” She answered, “No. I don’t see genuine change in the ideas of those KKK members. I don’t see restitution. I don’t see him changing the structural racism of our society.” I agreed with her that Daryl’s approach is not comprehensive. There are many aspects of racism that his conversations are not addressing. But I suggested that what he is doing is the right starting place: conversation. Until we can have mutually respectful conversation, we cannot change hearts and minds. Protests have their place, and changing laws and practices is necessary; but without transformational conversations through respectful relationships, we will not get racial healing and reconciliation.

On Saturday night, Daryl spoke a little bit about the events in Charlottesville last August that resulted in injuries and a death. He said that the real agenda of white supremacist groups is to stat a race war, and they were hoping their rally would provoke violence–which it did. From Daryl’s point of view, the counter-protesters were doing exactly what the white supremacists had wanted.

He also pointed out that white separatists and black separatists get along because, in a sense, they both want and believe the same thing–keep the races separate. Daryl, on the other hand, is committed to the continuing integration of our society.

Daryl has been accused by some members of the black community of selling out. Why is he making friends with the Klan? What good is he doing by being their friend and thereby giving Klan members legitimacy? In the documentary “Accidental Courtesy” his most difficult conversation is with Black Lives Matter leaders in Baltimore. At the end of their conversation, they refused to shake his hand and they told him to never come back to Baltimore. So it was with great relief that Daryl told us that recently those same leaders have come back to him and apologized. They now see the benefit of what he is doing, and they are working together with him.

I find it extremely odd that many of those leaving the Klan are giving their robes to Daryl. I find it even more odd that he gets invited to their events and is asked to speak. But he is clear that he disagrees with them, and he keeps the conversation going, and for that I am glad.

The Next Generation’s Faith

What kind of faith will the next generation have?

Two Sundays ago I started teaching a preparation for baptism/membership class with the youth which will meet for the next two and a half months. I’ve been teaching such a class every two years for the past twenty-two years (including my previous pastorate). The class is never the same; I redesign it each time I teach it. Sometimes I have focused on the key beliefs of the Christian faith; other times I have focused on essential stories from the Bible about encounters with God; and still other times I have explored creeds from the Bible and from church history and then had the youth write their own personal creed. This time around I am telling stories–some of them true and some of them folktales–that explore aspects of faith and discipleship, and have them discuss the various possible meanings in these stories.

I’m not interested in them simply learning doctrines (though understanding certain doctrines is important). Most of all I want them to understand themselves, their own values and purpose and meaning. What would they be willing to commit their lives to? For what might they be willing, if necessary, to lay down their lives? I hope they will see the living, pulsating heart of the Christian faith–a life of love and service and depending on the God seen through Jesus–and want that for themselves. But in the end it has to be their desire to publicly give themselves to God through Christ and become a covenant partner in the community of faith. I don’t pressure them in any way or lay out an expectation. I certainly don’t use fear as a motivation. Only joy and love.

I think I’m a pretty good teacher. I’m usually able to raise questions that engage them, facilitate some meaningful discussions, and explain some key concepts with clarity. But it seems to be getting harder, and the youth seem to be showing less interest. The last time I taught the class, no one wanted to be baptized.

What’s going on with our youth? They are, like all youth before them, in a stage of exploring some independence. There is a bit of rebellion and noncooperation going on. They are also in a much different place than I am: their social lives and entertainment and interests are often quite different from what I know.

I also think I see a shift in their philosophy of life: more cynical, more anarchic, more questioning of information or any sources of authority–especially Christian. These are youth who have grown up in the church; they have attended Sunday school all their lives. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps they have been inoculated with just enough Christian faith to be immune to the real thing. But, more likely, they are surrounded by a culture that seeks to be tolerant of all religions while taking no religion seriously.

They are also in the midst of a national battle to determine the definition of a Christian. Does being a Christian mean affirming certain cognitive beliefs, or does it mean a way of life guided by the example and Spirit of Jesus? Does it mean advocating for certain political causes and a political party’s candidate, or does it mean nurturing the community of faith as a counter-culture that addresses society’s needs at a more essential level and without the threat of force? Our youth today are too often stuck between those (often in the guise of science) who are hostile toward all religion, and those who embarrass the Christian faith through their hypocrisy, small-mindedness, and craven desire for power. In the midst of these tensions, a healthy and healing Christian faith gets sidelined.

I can’t see what’s up ahead. I don’t know if our next generation will have faith or, if they do, what that faith will look like. But I live by hope. I keep nurturing a healthy and healing community of faith; I keep sharing the essential outline of such a faith with my youth; and I hope that in the years to come the seeds planted within them will flower in ways I can’t imagine.