Sad. Mad. Bad?

Sad. Mad. Bad?
A Sermon by
Rev. Peter J. Luton
East Shore Unitarian Church
Bellevue, Washington
The horrific deaths in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado sent us into
spasms of grief and fear. No one—no one—thought it okay. And no one really knew
what to do about it except grieve and be angry. I was very sad. I so easily imagined
myself as a parent or sibling of one of the kids or movie goers, a victim of crazy killing.
And then from out of my sadness arose anger. I was really pissed that anyone
could and would do what James Holmes in Colorado and Adam Lanza in Connecticut
did—coldly, wantonly kill and maim other people. I am mad that they had the means to
do such violence, and I am mad that they had the capacity and opportunity to follow
through on their unimaginable plans. I have to admit that I was just as glad that Lanza
ended his madness and shot himself and that the country would not be stuck in the tar pit
of a legal system trying to figure out what to do, as we are with Holmes. They were mad
enough to kill. I suppose in my own way, I, too was mad enough to condone death.
A few days after the Newtown shooting, in our check-in at the Board meeting, I
shared my sadness and madness. Others around the table were also unhinged, unnerved,
profoundly touched by the tragedy of it all. Wendy Gilberd said something that
penetrated my miasma. She reflected that all his life Adam had struggled with some form
of Asperser’s syndrome and all his life he was treated like and felt like an outsider. He
didn’t “fit in.” Wendy thought about how everyday as a special education teacher she
works with kids just like Adam. She was terribly sad for what had happened. And she
was terribly sad and concerned for all the kids like Adam with whom she works. Will
they, too, be forever the odd boy or girl out? Will they be labeled as dangerous because
they find it hard to fit in?
Something is wrong in our society, seriously wrong. We are killing and maiming
one another with guns. We have cooked up a cultural stew of fear and violence that has
grown so distorted that the only answers we can imagine are equally detached from
reality. The NRA’s solution to the problem of gun violence is more guns—the more guns
on the street, the safer we’ll be because no one in his or her right mind would pull a gun
if they thought someone else would pull a gun. Schools across the country are arming
their teachers, arming volunteer hall monitors. Hey, why not arm the kids?
And the Gun Control community’s answer is, as the song says, take away the
guns—which I am inclined to do, but I know it isn’t the answer either. Tens of millions
of guns are owned legally and used appropriately by tens of millions of Americans. And
even though this morning’s paper reported that over the past 40 years the percentage of
households owning guns is dropping, the number of guns in circulation has grown by a
March 10, 2013
Page 2
far greater magnitude. Another interesting factoid working against a universal ban on
guns…nearly twice as many Americans own guns as vote. So what do we do?
Frankly, I don’t know.
Joe Bageant is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. He wrote Deer Hunting with
Jesus, which is a vivid and lovingly critical analysis of the culture and worldview of rural
people in the mountains of Virginia where he grew up. And though he has left behind the
opinions and values of his upbringing, Bageant understands how life is for people who
live there and whose lives are pretty much lambasted and caricaturized by more
prosperous urban and coastal dwellers. In one chapter he looks at the role and meaning
of guns in society. He makes a pretty compelling argument that most, if not all, of the
gun control legislation that has been passed in the previous 60 years has been ineffective
and primarily designed to make us feel better without addressing the deeper issues of gun
violence. He also makes the case that people really do use their rifles to hunt and their
handguns for personal protection.
He is no fan of the NRA, which he sees as the lobby arm for arms manufacturers,
but he fully understands the almost sacred role that guns play in the lives of many rural
Americans. He understands why most urban gun owners do so for personal protection.
Bageant observes that “people believe what they want to believe, even people
who pride themselves on being more educated, rational and objective than some yahoo
nail banger dressed up like a Confederate at Fort Shenandoah.” And that’s true because I
don’t want to believe a GAO and Justice Department report that documents how effective
owning a firearm is when it comes to personal security. The report says: “Citizens use
guns to protect themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year—or
about 6,850 times a day.” You can question the numbers. They are incredible in both
meanings of the word.
Nor can I dismiss the fact that in the vast majority of domestic violence incidents
that result in death, women are murdered by men with hand guns…angry, often drunk
men. What about the, 2,517 people who have been killed with a gun since the Newtown
massacre? What about the 11 incidents of gun violence in the Puget Sound area in just
the past seven days? Do none of these lives matter? Are we to do nothing?
After Newtown, some gun rights advocates pointed out that less than two percent
of the homicides in America are committed with long-barrel rifles or semi-automatic
rifles with large capacity magazines. They argue that the actual number of mass
shootings and their death toll are miniscule compared to the 97,820 people annually
killed by guns. And therefore, they argue, it is little more than a feel-good gesture to ban
assault rifles and large capacity magazines. Still I ask, though the statistics may be
accurate, do they mean we should do nothing?
We can’t shrug our shoulders and act as if it’s not our problem. Tomorrow the
Washington State legislature will vote on HB1588 mandating universal background
checks for all gun purchases. Our Peace Team and Advocacy Team have literature and
information on HB1588 and other gun control bills being considered at the state and
federal levels available in the entry court after the service. I don’t think for a minute that
HB1588 will stop the violence, but I believe it will help. It deserves our support.
Page 3
Geoffrey Canada has created a comprehensive program for young men and
women in New York City designed to empower them to choose something better than
street life. Canada helps young people develop self-control and self-confidence through
the martial arts, to succeed in school through tutoring, to stay on the right side of the law
through job training, mentoring and sports. He wrote Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun in which he
talks about the reality of violence and the 5,000 young people killed every year by guns
and ways to turn around that waste.
Canada grew up in the Bronx. It was a rough neighborhood, and he quickly was
inducted into the codes and conduct of fighting. It was hard when he was growing up,
but, he said, few people were killed because there were so many fewer guns available.
Geoffrey earned a scholarship to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. When
he returned to New York City the summer after his freshman year, he saw a change. A
gang of boy/men, aged 13 to 20, were hanging around the corner, claiming territory.
They were hassling passers-by, intimidating, sometimes beating up young men from
other corners and adults who challenged them.
Geoffrey avoided them, crossed the street, stopped going to that grocery store.
But one day he came around the corner and there they were. He had to walk through
them. He put his head down and kept his eyes to himself. Nothing happened but he was
terrified. When he returned to Brunswick in the fall, using only his student ID to
establish identity and residency, he bought a small handgun that he could carry in his
He brought the gun with him when he went home at the holidays. He carried it in
his coat pocket and kept his hand in his pocket. Initially he avoided the gang, but then he
started to think that he shouldn’t have to cross the street or not go where he wanted to go.
He decided to not put up with the boy/man gang’s intimidation. He had a gun. The gun
would keep him safe. He apparently never considered the possibility that they also might
have guns.
So one day he decided to walk through them again, but this time he would walk
head up, straight, tall and armed. Geoffrey recalls how he felt invulnerable and very
nervous at the same time. Nothing happened. But Geoffrey realized that he was ready to
shoot and possibly kill one of these boy/men at the slightest provocation. He realized that
more than keeping him safe, the gun made him more vulnerable. He realized that the gun
had changed him, changed him in ways that he didn’t like. Geoffrey didn’t want to be
someone who was ready to kill another person for such trivial, ego-driven reasons. He
wrapped the gun in newspaper and threw it in the landfill.
I think the NRA might be right about one thing. Guns don’t kill people. People
kill people. Guns just make killing people much easier and much more efficient. People
kill people when they are fearful, when they feel dismissed, discounted and unseen by the
wider community, when they are not woven into the fabric of community.
Fear of one another and distrust of one another is a whirlpool that will suck us
down a sewer where we do not want to go. And the only thing I know that overcomes
fear is love—and I know that my solution to the problem is a disappointing piece of good
news for you because sentimental appeals to loving our neighbors is often the last trick in
Page 4
the preacher’s magic bag. So I’ve been thinking more about what love in this context
would look like.
And what I’ve discovered is that I am part of the problem. I am pealing back all
sorts of mean assumptions and prejudices in my arsenal of ego armor that mock my
words of love. When I see TV news footage of men using hand trucks to cart away cases
of ammunition, I don’t see my brothers and sisters making what to them are logical
decisions and taking prudent precautions. I see ignorant wackos. No wonder they think I
am out to take away their guns and their way of life. They are right; people like me
neither understand nor appreciate their lives and values.
I peel away a layer of racism that asks what were the two men who were shot in
their car in Seattle at 3:00 a.m., in what the police say was probably a drug deal gone bad,
doing driving around in the middle of the night? I catch myself blaming the victims for
being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I don’t hunt. I don’t know what it feels like to kill and clean the meat I eat. My
gratitude is shallow compared to a visceral gratitude for the life given in order that I
might live.
I have too often discounted the lives of too many people. My assumptions and the
blinders I am able to wear about the realities of other people’s lives, which come with the
privileges I enjoy, reinforce the very cultural and social divides and diseases that create
the powder kegs of fear and anger and despair that trigger violence against others, and
violence against one’s self. I am part of the dynamic that creates anger and separation
that cuts out some people from my world of middle class respectability, comfort and
So in thinking about how I love my neighbor and who is my neighbor, I cannot
ignore Bageant’s critique of people like me when he writes: “They seem unwilling to
consider that their fervor over gun control may be rooted in their fear of people unlike
themselves walking past them on the street of their very own cities every day.” I readily
admit that I am weirded out by open-carry advocates. I don’t like to see anyone who isn’t
a law enforcement officer walking around with a firearm strapped to their belt or thigh.
And I don’t want to walk down the street, or look out in the congregation and wonder
who has a gun on them right now. And so my fear of people unlike oneself seeps out and
poisons both soul and society.
Reduction of the availability and lethality of guns is an important and necessary
part of the solution to gun violence in our country. But, controlling guns alone does not
address the underlying problems of discrimination, alienation, poverty and cultural
conflict that fuel violence and ultimately lead to gun death. I cannot transform violence
into love by standing on the moral high ground and throwing rocks.
As dismal as the cultural and political landscape may appear, my friends, I am
hopeful. I am hopeful that our heightened awareness of gun violence that comes at the
high price of the slaughter in Aurora and Newtown, and our unwillingness to live lives
rooted in fear of one another will provoke and inspire our communities into creative
responses to gun violence and the issues that create the conditions for gun violence. I am
hopeful because we do not want to live in a violent post-apocalyptic world of guns and
Page 5
everyone an army of one. I believe we will make the slow, but inevitable, systemic
changes that will reduce violence in our community.
Just this morning, the newspaper reported credible statistics that gun ownership
by household is down and has been falling for three decades. Crime rates and homicide
rates continue to decline—even though we hear more and more about individual
tragedies. And maybe it is a good thing that we’re hearing the individual stories because
we hear them and they penetrate our conscience more deeply. Wasn’t it Stalin who noted
that a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic? Let us not forget, my
friends, that the total violence in society is dropping.
I am hopeful because we have both a reason and a moral imperative to engage in
the hard work of bringing everyone into our shared civic life, of bridging the differences
that divide, and allowing our own hearts to open and welcome the stranger.
That is how we love, opening our hearts and welcoming the stranger.
This day and every day, may we know peace. Shalom. Salaam. Namaste and