Prudence and Fear: Gun violence and the Life of St. Francis

October 7, 2013

As we do every year in this parish and in many parishes around the Church, today we celebrate the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis taught a radical and profound kind of love and solidarity with all of God’s creation. Francis is especially well known for his appreciation of nature, and his understanding of nature as a fellow servant of God, and so we honor him by blessing our pets and animals today. But Francis is also known for his work to bring peace to world as well, and it’s this aspect of his witness that I would like to reflect on today. I know that this is a difficult topic, but this morning, I would like us to think about the role of guns and the prevalence of gun violence in our culture today. I think the way St. Francis learned to love the people around him has a lot to teach us about how to live as Christians in this culture of violence.

This topic doesn’t just come out of the blue. As many of you know, I meet with the clergy in Lenox regularly, and ever since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, we have wrestled with how to respond. We held a listening forum here last spring, but we believed we needed to continue the discussion. This topic is so important to us that we decided that we would all preach on it on the same day. And we decided that we would pick an arbitrary day, so that we are not responding to a specific tragedy, although it seems like we could always point back to some recent event. Our hope is that we can continue a humble respectful conversation. So this morning, in Church on the Hill, at St. Ann’s, at the UnitedMethodistChurch, and here at Trinity, we are all asking questions about how the Gospel of Jesus Christ informs our understanding of guns and gun violence.

I’m not going to rehearse a list of statistics about guns; I don’t think that would be helpful to us. We all hear about the victims of the tragedies, and we all hear in the news about the shootings that happen just about every day. Instead, I’d like to look more critically at guns and security and fear and the ways that Gospel speaks to these issues.

Before I continue, I want to pause to be clear about something. I understand and appreciate hunters and the place that hunting has in our history and in our culture. I appreciate people who enjoy sport shooting. I’m really not talking about that at all. I want to look quite narrowly at the role that handguns and military style weapons play in our society. First, Handguns and military style weapons are objects. As objects, they are morally neutral. They are just things. But at the same time, guns serve a purpose; they have a function. The function of hand guns and military style weapons is to kill people. That is what they are designed to do. So two questions we should ask ourselves as Christians is this, Why do we have these weapons? What purpose do they serve in our lives?

I’d like to look specifically at the question of owning guns for the purpose of protection and security because this a very different situation from owning guns for sport. Many people buy handguns and military style weapons out of a natural and good desire to protect themselves and their families. But there is a difference between acting out of prudence and acting out of fear.

When I was a kid, my parents – my father really – rarely locked the doors of his car – wherever we went. If I asked, he would always say the same thing, “I’m sure the good people around here don’t want to steal our car”. Now, we never had a car much worth stealing, but there was an underlying lesson to live without fear. Occasionally, we did lock the doors – when we were in an especially difficult neighborhood in Philadelphia, but generally we didn’t. There is a place for prudence, but we should be careful not to mistake prudence for fear. Fear is something we Christians utterly reject. The example of Jesus on the cross is clear. There is nothing for us to fear; nothing will separate us from the love of God, not even death itself. So this is the place where, as Christians, we really come to a decision. Do we live trusting in the living God or do we live in fear of what someone might do to us? If we choose to buy one of these guns for protection, is this an act that truly leads us closer to God and to all of our brothers and sisters?

We see in the life of Francis how this incredible fearlessness plays out. Francis lived in a time when the world was not safe. If you traveled from one town to another there were real risks. There were bandits on the roads and there were wolves in the forests. But Francis taught his followers that the world is not a threat, and they had no reason to fear. In fact, the bandits were their brothers and the wolves were their brothers. They were not objects of fear; they were brothers and sisters waiting to be loved.

So when we approach the issue of gun violence, we have these two principals we should keep in mind: Christians are called to live without fear, and we are called to love all of our brothers and sisters.

There are dozens of bills and policy proposals out there. Some of them may be helpful, some of them probably are not very helpful. I’m no expert, and I couldn’t possible speak about them. But there are experts out there, and we should listen to them. We should listen to public health officials, to experts in criminal justice, to mental health experts. We know that victims of mental illness and despair are much more likely to succeed at taking their own life when they have access to a gun. We know that victims of domestic violence are more likely to be seriously injured or killed when their attacker has access to a gun. If we love these people as our brothers and sisters, then we need to take a hard look at how to help and protect these vulnerable people.

This is not an easy issue; in fact, it often seems impossible or intractable. When we look at a problem that seems impossible and intractable, the easy thing to do is to walk away, to hope it will just go away. But Christians have been involved in solving these impossible and intractable problems before. We know how to do this. There is a path, and we know that the first step that path is always prayer. We pray for the victims of violence; we pray for those injured in gun related accidents; we pray for gun owners; we pray for gun manufacturers, for policy makers; we pray for people who share our opinion; we pray for the people who do not share our opinion. We invite God’s presence right into the middle of the problem. And when we live without fear and with a passionate love for our brothers and sisters, then God will make the rest of that path clear to each of us.

St. Francis

– Michael Tuck+

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