I remember when I was maybe six or seven years old and it came time for Christmas. My mom and dad must have come into a little extra money¸ because they asked us what we wanted for Christmas, which they had never done. We’d always just gotten what they could afford. There’s a picture of us as little kids on Christmas morning, we’re all crowded on the couch, and my brother Doug is holding a pineapple. That’s the kind of present a kid gets when he’s not permitted to tell Santa what he wants—fruit and socks.
But I remember when I was six or seven, that it was different. We were asked what we wanted, so Doug and I asked for pop guns, those little metal rifles that you cocked and fired and they made a popping sound. They didn’t fire anything, they just made that sound. And when we woke up on Christmas morning, there they were, our very first weapons.
It was snowing outside, I remember that, so Doug and I got dressed and went outside and began shooting at one another. We killed one another on the honor system. If the gun was pointed at you and you heard it pop, you were obligated to fall down dead. You couldn’t act like the bullet just missed you, or that it winged you, or hit a non-vital organ. This wasn’t like the Lone Ranger where the bad guys could fire 40 bullets and not hit anyone. You had to clutch your heart and fall to the ground dead as a matter of integrity.
Which, of course, none of us did, because what was the fun in that? And I remember Doug, who was always this gentle, gentle boy, and now is a gentle, gentle man, getting mad when I wouldn’t fall down dead and discovering that while the pop gun was fairly useless as a rifle, it made a wonderful club if grasped by the barrel and swung and so I went down like a shock of wheat beneath the scythe.
“Now you’re dead,” said my gentle, gentle brother.
Indeed, I was. And if not dead, at least stunned. Lying there in the snow, I thought about the power of guns and their ability to turn even my gentle brother into a stone cold killer.
The next Christmas, with our arms race well underway. Doug and I requested BB guns, weapons with an actual projectile, a somewhat ironic gift to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. My parents refused, and like the poor everywhere, we were reduced to killing one another with our bare hands.
What is it about guns, and their power? Not just their power to kill, which is their obvious power, but their power to intoxicate, their power to enchant even the most thoughtful among us, their cunning ability to make us believe we are not safe without them, even as they destroy us. And more importantly, to believe our right to own them is given to us by God, as if the document which grants that right sprung from the hand and mind of God, as if the founders scaled Mount Sinai and climbed down, bearing the Constitution.
Where did we get the strange idea that gun ownership was God’s idea? Well, it says so in the document. The Constitution makes that claim for itself. “We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Which, forgive me for saying so, is a bit like me claiming to be the smartest man in America and if someone asks for proof, I simply say, “Because I said so.”
I’m not a student of the law, nor am I an expert on the Constitution, but I am one who thinks carefully and often about God, so I will confine my remarks this morning to the curious notion that our rights, especially the right to bear arms, are given by God, that God, 232 years ago, thought it would be important, when delineating our rights, for us to own and use weapons that mercilessly and indiscriminately shred the flesh of the very children he created and loved.
So here we are today, in America, where there are more gun deaths per capita in the United States than there are in every North African and Middle Eastern nation, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This means that when my son was stationed in San Antonio, Texas he was in more danger from gun violence than if he had been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq. We accept this carnage as normal, as the price we must pay to be a free people, though how free are any people living under the oppressive cloud of gun violence?
The same leaders who refuse to heal this pox visited upon our nation are the same people who now require our kindergarteners to participate in active shooter drills. And still have the temerity to say our right to own an AK47 is a God-ordained right.
What a curious idea, this notion that God wrote and created our constitutional rights, when it is clear men wrote and created them, and did so for their own advantage, protecting their power and property, while denying power and property to others, namely women and the enslaved. Because God created these rights, the argument goes, because God endowed them, we cannot, we must not, challenge or change them.
But I see no divine hand in these laws, no motive of love, justice, or peace. I see only the guarding of power, privilege, and wealth, which in the past 232 years has been given to others only begrudgingly, never willingly, and almost never without the spilling of innocent blood. I see a very human document, not a divine declaration.
For if our rights were bestowed by God, and not created by men, they would be perfect, and would never need amended, yet we have amended them 27 times.
If our rights were bestowed by God, and not created by men, they would lead toward love and justice, and not division and rancor.
If the right to bear arms was bestowed by God, and not created by men, it would enhance life, not destroy it. It would bear the fruits of peace, righteousness, and mercy. Instead, its fruits are death and pain. Since the Sandy Hook mass shooting on December 14, 2012, when 20 children, 6&7 year-olds, were shot and killed, since that very day, more children have died from guns in America than American soldiers have died since 9/11.
We must disabuse ourselves of the belief that rights are given to us by God. Rights and laws are the products of human minds, and are therefore a barometer of our moral development, so can and should be challenged and changed as we grow in understanding.
The only counter to bad theology is good theology. Since our leaders seem unable to do what is right, we must. This means countering the cancerous myth that guns and violence will deliver us from all evil. I was so pleased to learn that 700 Quakers gathered in London this week at the world’s largest gun fair. Along with 6,300 other people of faith, they blocked the entrance to the fair by lying down on the road, prohibiting entrance. I guess that’s what you call laying down on the job. The police tried to get the Quakers to move. I wish I had been there to see that. There’s nothing harder in the world than getting a Quaker to move when they don’t want to move. I could have saved the police a lot of trouble.
When we moved back to Danville, we got to know a man across the road who had all these guns. Dozens of them. One day he was telling me all about them. We were coming up on the year 2000 when everything was supposed to fail and America would become a dystopian nightmare. I asked him why he had all those guns and he said, “It’s going to get really bad. Neighbors will be busting down my doors to get what I have.”
I said, “I’m your neighbor, and I promise you, no matter how bad it gets, I won’t bust down your door.”
He died last month of cancer. But he stopped living long before that, enslaved by a fear that left no room for optimism, peace, or joy.
When I was a child,” the Apostle Paul said, “I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child, but when I grew up, I put away childish things.”
God, may we lay down its fears, our phobias, our childish ways, and arm ourselves instead with all that is lovely, holy, and good.