Category: redemptive violence

Gun legislation won’t do it; we need a twelve-step program

By Alan Bean

America has a gun problem, but gun control legislation is too weak a fix; we need a 12-step program.

Since the tragic shootings in Newtown CT, we have been buried in a welter of statistics.  Support for gun control is rising, we are told, but the polls vary as to the extent of the shift.  We are reminded that 60% of men but only 39% of women favor gun rights over gun control, and that Republicans (72%) are more likely than Democrats (32%) to place the priority on gun rights.

Those inclined to dig deeper into the figures recently compiled by the Pew Research Center will discover that support for both gun rights and gay marriage has been advancing in recent years, a sign that libertarian arguments are impacting a wide range of issues.

The Pew study also shows that whites are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to value gun rights over gun control.   Moreover, white opinion changed radically in the wake of the election of Barack Obama.  In 2007, 37% of white Americans valued gun rights over gun control; the figure is now 57%.  White opinion on the gun issue flip-flopped in the space of four years.

Americans are far more likely to own guns than anyone else on the planet.  Here in the USA, 88.8 out of 100 people own at least one gun, that’s almost one firearm per person.  In Canada, the rate is 30.8, in Germany its 30.3, and in France its 31.2.  But in most of the world, the rate of gun ownership is exceedingly low: (Mexico 15, Australia 15, Denmark 12, Israel, 7.3, England 6.2, Afghanistan 4.6, the Netherlands 3.9, Romania .7).  In North America, Americans own guns at three times the rate of Canadians and six times the rate of Mexicans.

Americans are also far more likely to use firearms to kill people.  In the United States the homicide by firearm rate is 3.2 per 100,000 per year.  In the rest of the developed world, the rate varies between 0.0 in Japan (where only 11 homicides were recorded last year) and Belgium at 0.7.  In Canada, the rate is 0.5, less than one-sixth the American rate. (more…)

Dobson and Huckabee go over to the dark side

By Alan Bean

The Sandy Hook tragedy has sparked deep reflection nationwide.  President Obama served as Pastor in Chief when he prefaced his remarks in Newtown with a quotation from 2 Corinthians 4:

. . . do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away . . . inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

The president knew he couldn’t fix what happened last Friday, and he didn’t try.  But he spoke the words of comfort that were his to speak.  That is all any of us can do.

And then there are all those other guys.

If this was just about the latest outrage from the twisted souls at Westboro Baptist Church (must they call themselves Baptists?) I would let it slide.  By now, we are agonizingly familiar with their shtick.  “God hates fags and everybody who doesn’t hate fags as much as he does.”  Yeah, we get it.  The church has decided to picket the funerals in Newtown . . . a new low, I suppose, but not by much.

But it isn’t just folks on the fringe who feel honor-bound to make nasty at such a time as this.

Governor Mike Huckabee, preacher, Fox News celebrity and perennial presidential hopeful, just opined that God declined to stay the hand of Adam Lanza because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”

Not to be outdone, James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, gave us his take on “what’s going on.”  America has been complicit in the murder of 54 million babies since Roe v. Wade, and “the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition”, “so I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”

Huckabee, Dobson et al aren’t sure exactly what pushed God’s buttons.  It might have been gay marriage.  It might have been abortion.  Or maybe it was the 1963 Supreme Court decision making school prayer was unconstitutional.  Most likely it was a combination of all three–the trifecta of evil.  But at some point God decided to punish America by ordering the slaying of twenty innocent first-graders.

Really, guys!  That’s the God you worship.  Herod the Great slaughters innocents; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ weeps for them.  Jesus doesn’t have much to say about hell except when he’s talking about those who mess with his “little ones.”

Of course, these guys aren’t saying that God was directly responsible for the death of school children.  It’s just that he could have stopped it and declined to do so.  The Creator could be charged with being an accessory after the fact, but not with murder.

That’s comforting.  God tells the lost soul with the assault weapon, “Normally I’d put a stop to this, but these people need a wake up call, so, do your worst.”

That is precisely what the preachers are alleging.  So let’s get one thing straight: That is not God.  God is not that.  In the First John we learn that God is love . . . full stop.  Or, if we wish to quibble,  “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

The God of Huckabee and Dobson would be familiar to Darth Vader and his legions.  The preachers appear to have slipped over to The Dark Side.

How do we explain such strange talk from esteemed holy men?  The Apostles of the Religious Right have so consistently equated gay bashing, opposition to abortion, and school prayer with holiness that God has been subsumed under these headings.  For four decades, the culture war has reshaped American evangelicalism so successfully that abortion, gay bashing and school prayer have consumed all other concerns.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Sandy Hook tragedy should provoke serious moral reflection.  Violence works for the entertainment industry just like culture war wedge issues work for the Religious Right.  In both cases, an ugly product is hawked in the market place because it sells.  We have been raised on a steady diet of violence.  We love the stuff.  It shapes our culture, our national identity, and all too often our foreign policy.  We’ve got a problem.  We need help.  Badly.

But God is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the slaughter of innocents.  That’s on us.  God is Love.  God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all.  None, whatsoever!

Time to ban assault weapons

Miguel De La Torre is professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and an ordained Baptist minister.  When I first read this piece a couple of days ago, I was shocked by its emotional tone and wondered why the horrific events in Aurora CO were affecting this guy so much more deeply than they affected me.  Was he a bit thin-skinned, or was I emotionally retarded?

When I realized that Dr. De La Torre’s children lost friends in the Aurora shooting everything snapped into focus.  This opinion piece originally was originally published by the Associated Baptist Press.  AGB

Time to ban assault weapons

By Miguel De La Torre

It has been a horrific day, and as I type these words the day is not yet over. I have shed tears. I have hugged my daughter closer. I have yelled and cursed God. I am emotionally spent. Still, I must capture this moment in words. Where the hell was God while innocent lambs were being slaughtered?

I don’t know, and, honestly, no response is satisfactory. Rhetorical Christian clichés and unexamined romanticized eschatological hope fall short. Maybe God simply was occupying the same space while God’s only begotten Son hung from a cross. (more…)

The myth of redemptive violence

This article originally appeared in the Red Letter Weekly.

By Shaine Claiborne

I had a veteran friend once tell me, “The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war.”  He went on, “My government told me that.  My Church told me that.  My family told me that… I came back from war and told them the truth – ‘Violence is not evil, except in war… Violence is evil – period’.”

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with news stories of violence – a shooting in Colorado, a bus bombing in Bulgaria, drones gone bad and the threat of a nuclear Iran, a civil war in Syria, explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week’s cover story of Time magazine is — “One a Day” — showing that soldier suicides are up to one per day, surpassing the number of soldiers that die in combat. The US military budget is still rising — over 20,000 dollars a second, over 1 million dollars a minute spent on war, even as the country goes bankrupt.

Our world is filled with violence – like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people, and people killing themselves.  In my city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, we have nearly one homicide a day – and in this land of the free we have over 10,000 homicides a year.

Today, Barack Obama called the shooting in Colorado “evil”.  And he is right.

But perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere – period.  It’s obvious that killing folks in a movie theater is sick and deranged, but the question arises – is violence ever okay? (more…)

The American vigilante myth

By Alan Bean

In an illuminating weekend piece, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday addresses America’s love affair with the lone wolf vigilante.  “Of the countless stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “the American myth of the solitary enforcer of justice may be the most tenacious, beloved and — as the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin has so grievously demonstrated — distorting.”

In the movies, the vigilante takes the law into his (occasionally her)  own hands because “the system” has dropped the ball.  If they can’t get me some justice, the vigilante thinks, I’ll make my own.  This stark sentiment drives the narrative arc of dozens of blockbuster Hollywood films every year.  “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Dirty Harry asked forty years ago, and thousands of films are resolved in similar fashion.

For every lone wolf hero there must be a corresponding villain, a punk, a thug, a gang of thugs, or the favorite of prime time television dramas, the pathological serial killer.  In this sense, Hornaday writes,  “the fatal encounter” in a gated community in Florida, “played out like an all-too-real clash of iconographies: Zimmerman’s idea of the property-defending hero Standing His Ground vs. the hoodie-wearing youth who has symbolized menace and urban violence in everything from “The Wire” to last year’s comic teen-thugs-battle-aliens satire “Attack the Block.”

The racial dynamics shift from plot to plot, but the man who takes the law into his own hands is normally white and middle class while the punks and thugs, regardless of race, are heartless incarnations of evil.   We can’t know if Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was racially motivated, Hornaday says, but he clearly saw himself as a stand your ground vigilante protecting his neighborhood from the forces of evil.

The American gun culture is inspired by a similar iconography.  Charlton Heston’s “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!” applause line worked because his audience identified with the man-against-the-world hero trapped between human evil and an unresponsive and bureaucratic system.  This may explain why Zimmerman ignored the request to remain in his vehicle.  “If you want the job done right . . .”

But, as Hornaday points out, the real world never adapts to the cathartic demands of a Hollywood script:

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.

Here’s the big problem.  American’s on both sides of the black-white color line are traumatized.  A sober reading of American racial history does little to enhance the self-esteem of white people, and this is particularly true of the civil rights narrative.  White Americans can face the simple facts of our national history, or we can feel good about ourselves.  There’s no third alternative. 

Maybe that’s why Hollywood has a hard time telling civil rights stories that don’t involve white protagonists.  White people want to feel good about themselves, but history keeps getting in the way.

At the same time, it’s hard for black Americans to reckon with history and come away feeling good about their country.  Whether we’re talking about the era of slavery or the Jim Crow period, the same question arises: Do I want to be part of this country?  An affirmative answer is possible, but only with conditions attached.  At the very least, the truth of the historical record must be acknowledged. 

So here’s the problem.  Black America has a therapeutic need to tell a story that white America needs to ignore.  That was then, white folks say.  “That is now,” black Americans reply.

Which explains why the Trayvon Martin case divides public opinion along racial lines.

Hollywood’s vigilante myth gives white Americans (the majority of movie goers) a therapeutic myth they can live with.   If we can’t talk about us, let’s talk about me.  How we explain the dramatic spike in gun sales following the election of Barack Obama.  Why did a black man who avoids the race issue whenever possible stir such profound emotion in so many white people?  “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure,” our black president says, “that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.”  What could possibly be threatening about that?

America is a nation with two foundational dreams.  There is the Manifest Destiny dream of steadily expanding white hegemony, and there is the Nation of Immigrants and Opportunity dream of radical inclusion.   From the beginning, these two conflicting narratives have been fighting for the upper hand.  The Civil War was simply the most bloody encounter in an ongoing war. 

Even when the president talks about American greatness, everybody knows he’s evoking the Nation of Immigrants narrative.  Obama doesn’t denigrate the myth of white hegemony; he doesn’t have to.  His mere existence constitutes a ringing denial of an old, old story that dare not speak its name.

We are drawn to the Americam vigilante myth because we can’t talk about who we are as a nation.

The demands of the 90-minute movie plot and the therapeutic needs of the majority of movie fans combine to give us a narrative that celebrates radical individualism.  We can’t talk about who we are as a people without making everybody uncomfortable.  So Dirty Harry singlehandedly rids Los Angeles of punks and Mr. Heston dares the government to pry his firearm from his cold, dead hands.

George Zimmerman is the product and the victim of the American vigilante myth.  We can’t escape his fate unless we decide what makes America exceptional.  Is it the ability of white patriots to enforce their will on inferior races; or is it our ability to move from apartheid to radical inclusion?  So long as we avoid the “us” question, the lone wolf vigilante will fill the void.

Juan Williams changes the subject

By Alan Bean

Some stories get too big to be ignored.  So imagine that you are an editor for the Wall Street Journal, the voice of sensible capitalism, the vast majority of your readers are white and conservative, in that classy, New York sort of way, and you are compelled to address the furor over the Trayvon Martin case?  You go to the bullpen and call Juan Williams to the mound.  Williams is the black guy that makes white guys feel good.  If a white editor opined that we should be giving less attention to Trayvon Martin while concentrating on black-on-black crime (the real problem) you might be facing a token backlash.  Your readers would applaud this sentiment, but a few outsiders might take exception.  But Mr. Williams is black, so he can’t be a racist.

Here’s the heart of William’s argument:

The race-baiters argue this case deserves special attention because it fits the mold of white-on-black violence that fills the history books. Some have drawn a comparison to the murder of Emmett Till, a black boy who was killed in 1955 by white racists for whistling at a white woman.

This is a magnificent misreading of the outrage.  When people compare Trayvon and Emmett, they aren’t saying the two cases are identical, or even that they are about the same kind of injustice.  The Till case sparked the civil rights movement.  Rosa Parks had Emmett Till on her mind when she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man.  Some are hoping the Trayvon Martin story sparks a similar revolution.  This time (contra Williams) the emphasis won’t be on white-on-black crime; the focus will be on racial profiling and the easy association between black skin and danger.

Hence the iconic emphasis on the hoodie. (more…)

Franklin Graham and the black-white gap in American evangelicalism

Franklin Graham impersonates his famous father

By Alan Bean

I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.

Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?

Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.

I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.

Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals.  Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.

Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests.  True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism.  (more…)