Dear you, dear me, dear us,
I've lived in a three-hour radius nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains for my entire life. Growing up, my friends and I stayed out past dark playing in our neighborhood's lazy loops and stealing crabapples from an elderly neighbor's front yard, only breaking up the party when someone's mama whistled that it was time to come in. We spent our days wading and making mud pies in the Little Tennessee River, going downtown for "Pickin' on the Square," visiting the Biltmore House on school field trips, and drinking tea as sweet as maple syrup. A teenager couldn't hide a speeding ticket even if they tried because chances are, the cop that pulled them over went to high school with their daddy and still ran into him once a week during the rush hour at everyone's favorite restaurant. My hometown, named best small town by some outdoorsy magazine in 2016, was painted red and white to cheer on the football team every Friday night, and on Sundays, nearly all of the town's 3,940 residents could be found sitting in church pews scattered on every street corner.
I've seen community at it's very best: bridal showers and baby dedications, houses flipped for new associate pastors coming from out of town, benefits with cakewalks and raffles to raise money for the cousin that has been diagnosed with cancer, meal trains coordinated for tired new mamas or grieving widowers or the neighbor who lost their home to a fire, and I'll never forget the day I found out that our pastor's wife stopped in to my orthodontist's office to contribute a hundred dollars towards the bill for my braces.
Admittedly, I tend to romanticize, but I can assure you: I'm not overselling this. It sounds idyllic and antiquated because it really was. And it was the whole world, as far as I knew it then.
It felt like my sleepy North Carolina town was an entire world away from the Denver, Colorado suburb where two teenaged boys killed thirteen people before ending their own lives at Columbine High School.
I was sensitive and curious and eight years old, and I had certainly never heard of kids being shot at school. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was writing pieces about gun violence for the student section of my town's newspaper and having regular nightmares about it happening in our town. Because it's never your town -- until it is.
I'm 27 now, and in the years since Columbine, nearly two hundred more primary and secondary schools have experienced shootings. More than 180,000 students ranging from kindergarten to postgraduate have lived through school shootings. That figure doesn't even take into account the shootings that have occurred in churches, grocery stores, movie theaters, and concerts.
People are calling the generation that came after me "Generation Columbine."
I've lived within a three-hour radius in the corners of North Carolina, Georgia, and now, South Carolina -- and they've all felt virtually the same. But now, my eyes have opened wide enough to see the world that has always existed right outside the bubble of my own childish naivete. It has taken me this long to understand the old adage about not being able to go home again.
Suffice it to say that since my proverbial leaving home, I have been around the block enough times to realize that my thoughts about guns are not the same as the thoughts of most of the people living in these cute little towns. For that matter, neither are my thoughts on DACA, health care, LGBT+ rights, and other social justice issues, but those are stories for another day.
Today, I'm writing to you about guns. But more than that, I'm writing to you about power and fear.
I'm writing to you about us, Mother Church. Because when I was a kid, my mom was everyone's mom and my dad was everyone's dad, so that makes us family -- for better or for worse. Or, at least that's the way I learned. But it doesn't seem to be that way anymore.
A cursory glance through my social networking feeds would reveal my heartbroken responses to the latest mass shootings. Inevitably, what you will also find is the tsunami of comments from people I went to college with, former colleagues of my parents, the mom of that guy from church that I had casually dated for a couple years, a couple of leaders from my old youth group, a guy that my husband played church softball with, a few strangers, and even my own relatives -- all self-professing followers of the man called the Prince of Peace. Here is a real-life sampling of my Facebook feed:
"Guns are not the issue, the depreciation of morals and the lack of valuing life are the issues."
"Drugs have always been illegal, yet they are in plentiful supply and easy to get."
"Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
"Crazy people will always find a way around laws. If you ban guns, they will just use knives"
"Guns aren't the problem, mental illness is the problem."
"But don't you think the constitution was written by some of the most brilliant Christians of all time?"
"I just don't think this is the time to debate about guns."
"Taking away people's rights won't fix anything."
"What retard goes out to march for his rights to be taken away?"
"But what about the guns?"
What. About. The. Guns.
I've heard it said more than once that owning a gun is our God-given right, and I have to wonder if, in our nationalistic fervor, the perceived power of the gun has become a new golden calf we bow down to in worship.
We sacrifice our children to the gun god, their lifeless bodies laid prostrate on sidewalks and crouched in terror under classroom desks and the sticky floors of movie theaters and even our own church pews. We tweet our thoughts and prayers and then have the audacity to call the lives of elementary school children the price we pay for the freedoms we enjoy.
Everything has a price, or so I have been told.
When twenty kindergarten and first-grade students and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many thought that surely that would be the end of it. I will never forget seeing President Obama weep for the loss of those precious lives, and hearing that each of them had sustained at least three gunshot wounds -- with tiny Noah Pozner being shot eleven times. And in the wake of that tragedy, nearly every state passed new gun legislation -- but those laws made it easier to purchase guns, not more difficult.
Then came Charleston, where the perpetrator gunned down 9 black churchgoers during a Bible study. He was able to buy his guns because of a loophole in the background check system.
And San Bernardino, where 14 people were killed and 24 were injured by a man who was not required to pass a background check when he purchased two semi-automatic rifles from a friend.
And Orlando, where 50 people were killed by a man who was no stranger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but was able to purchase firearms because he was not on any watch lists.
And Las Vegas, where 58 people died and over 400 were shot. Instead of admitting that guns might be the problem, many people blamed a lack of security in the hotel from which the perpetrator was able to carry out the shooting -- anything to take the focus off of the almighty gun.
And Southerland Springs, where entire families were decimated by a man who yelled "die motherfuckers" as they worshiped.
And all the shootings in between that have since been forgotten by the media and the public.
Even as I write, the headlines reveal that yet another school shooting has taken place in Maryland.
But the truth is, even though they seem so tragically common today, mass shootings account for a relatively small percentage of gun-related deaths. So far in 2018, one website reports that there have been 3,157 gun related deaths.
3,157 mamas and daddies and grandparents and aunts and uncles and sons and daughters and neighbors and friends that will never go home again. It is the 81st day of the year.
This averages out to be 39 people per day being killed by gunshot wounds. Some researchers say the number has been as high as 96 people per day -- sacrificed to the gun god to pay our admission into a depraved promised land.
The price is too high. The system to dismantle the gun god is grievously broken, and we like it that way.
Americans are twenty-five times more likely to be killed by a gun than citizens of any other developed country. It is a figure that haunts me, especially in light of many of my neighbors' thoughts about immigration and people of Muslim faith.
Recently, I saw someone that I used to go to church with in my hometown share some thoughts on Dreamers. Her posts highlighted two gruesome, violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants and suggested that the individuals responsible for those crimes should be seen as fitting representatives of the entire immigrant population.
It is an all too common response to the gun control debate to claim that we as citizens should be toting military grade weapons in order to protect ourselves from Muslim and immigrant terrorists. Amy Sullivan, a Christian journalist who has spent her entire career reporting on religion and politics, heard this argument when she traveled to North Dakota to cover an event at a Bible college where a documentary was being shown that argued that evangelicals and other people who consider themselves to be pro-life should incorporate opposition to the proliferation of guns into that view. She was met with what she describes as a shocking strain of fear that she was previously not aware of in evangelical circles.
I see it, too. I wish there were words to convey the sick feeling I get when I see that yet another person who I trusted as a child to lead me and shepherd my heart towards the abundance given to us in Christ has displayed a radical lack of that abundance in their own life. It has happened too many times, and each one seems to cut deeper than the last.
You really can't go home again.
There are news outlets that will tell you to be afraid, people whose livelihoods depend on your fear. They will tell us not to get too close to each other, because they know that when you can see close up, everything changes. They’ll tell you that people who don’t look like you or worship the same way you do are out to get you, and who knows if they are lurking around the next corner waiting for an opportunity to attack?
What you're not likely to hear on the news is that the actual chances of being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion, and the chances of being killed by an illegal immigrant is, according to the CATO Institute, an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion. It is absolutely worth noting that the overwhelming majority of these attacks are carried out by white men who have been radicalized -- not by some foreign religious tradition, but by fantasies of power and xenophobia common enough to call garden variety. In addition, despite the fact that multiple marginalized groups are in favor of stronger gun control laws, an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals remain defiant in their opposition.
The survivors of Parkland are receiving death threats because they are leading the way and unashamedly standing up for what they and so many others believe.
The wall proposed by President Trump is nothing compared to the walls we've already built within our own hearts to hoard our own power and keep the other out.
We're afraid, because rather than living in abundance, Mother Church, we're continuing to rely on the advice to the snake -- believing that God is holding out on us and that there is only so much power to go around. So we hoard our guns, claiming that it is our God-given right to defend ourselves should anyone threaten to take what we feel we are entitled to.
However, our race to the perceived top has resulted in nothing less than bloodlust. "There's a chance we've become our own terrorists," a favorite poet of mine wrote.
I hardly recognize you, Mother Church. Is this who you are, who you have always been? Was I wrong to trust you all those years?
When we worship power, we're given over to the belief that anything and anyone is a potential threat to defend ourselves against.
Mother Church, when we worship power, our neighbors -- the image of a God who relinquished his own power in favor of love -- walk around with targets on their backs.
We can call it a heart issue all we want, but until we realize that the issue is with our own hearts, this will continue to be an increasingly normal part of our lives. We will live by the gun and we will die by it, too -- and we'll keep on sending thoughts and prayers and scratching our heads as if we don't know why it is happening.
Now, I am certainly not naive enough to believe that legislation alone will put an end to gun violence. I've never made such a claim. Nor have I made the claim that any solution will be perfect. A multifaceted issue can only be solved by the creation of a multifaceted solution, and that will require all of us -- young and old, men and women, black and white, democrats and republicans and every single person in between. We must come together not just on policies regarding guns, but on health care, education, poverty, reformation of the justice system, and equality. Because if we advocate for the unborn only to abandon each other on this side of the womb, can we really say we're fighting for life, Mother Church?
Perhaps none of us can go home again once our eyes are opened to the great, wide world just beyond the bubbles that house our own coddled ideals. But even though some have tried to convince me otherwise, I still believe that we can build a new home from the rubble of our past lives -- because the One who sustains all of life told us that we could. Not only that, he told us how to do it. He never leaves us alone to figure things out. We can admit that we've been wrong, and that our pride has been our downfall. We can get to know each other again, and then, we can march towards a different promised land together, where all can flourish and thrive, free of the targets on their backs.
Perhaps it won't be perfect -- the seed of brokenness still lives in us. But so does the Spirit of God, and my Bible says that the darkness has not overcome the light. The light is, of course, the only place truly worth living in until we can go back Home again.