Gun Violence: How Valuable is a Life?
Earlier this month, my friend and colleague, Richard Twiss, collapsed from a massive heart attack during events surrounding the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. When I heard the news I rushed to George Washington Hospital to help in any way that I could. When I arrived there was already a crowd of friends and faith leaders there who were also waiting to find out how our brother fared from the emergency surgery the doctors performed to remove the blood clot that had completely blocked the flow of life through Richard’s heart.
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Over the next few days, I held vigil inside the ICU. I was there to support Richard’s family, pray for Richard and family members when needed, and to help organize a 72-hour prayer chain for Richard that friends around the world took part in.
On Feb. 9 we received the news that Richard had passed away. We all wept — all of us. And as the news of Richard’s death spread around the world, tears flowed.
Dr. Richard Leo Twiss was a Lakota follower of the Jesus way from the Rosebud Reservation — a pastor, speaker, author, leader, and human being with a special calling. He was like family to me.
During one particularly brutal moment in the waiting room early in our vigil, one person broke down in tears crying, “Why?! He was supposed do so much more! Why?! This doesn’t make sense!”
I sat with this broken hearted man and simply said, “Yes …”
It doesn’t make sense. Death doesn’t make sense — especially when it interrupts the life of one so young. Richard was only 58 years old.
It makes me think: Richard was one life, cut short by a heart attack. What about all the images of God erased from our lives and families every year through gun violence in the U.S.? What about their families and pastors and youth groups who held vigils in waiting rooms across the country? What about the estimated 1,793 gun deaths since the Newtown massacre? How valuable are their lives?
In the days after Richard’s death, the family and friends by his bedside stayed together offering support to one another as we reminisced about the life and impact of our friend. Dr. Terry LeBlanc, president of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies and one of Richard Twiss’ best friends, and I got to talking about gun violence around the dinner table one night. LeBlanc is a hunter.
LeBlanc explained, “When I hunt I never take more than two bullets with me, out of respect for the animal.”
I asked LeBlanc, a member of the Mi’kmaq people and a Canadian citizen, to elaborate.
“I hunt to eat, not for sport,” LeBlanc explained. “I only carry two bullets at most, because I respect the deer that is giving its life so that I and my family may eat. I want to kill it in a humane way. I also always give an thanks-offering to Creator and to the animal for the gift of the food provided for us.”
LeBlanc, an indigenous theologian, understands the intrinsic value in all of God’s creation and so even when he hunts for deer to feed his family, he imposes limits on himself — two bullets — a limit to ensure that the deer will die with dignity.
In the U.S. our most current battle to curb gun violence is being waged over whether assault weapons should be banned or not? If not banned, then should we allow the sale of ammunition that carries more than 10 bullets in one clip? And should we require every owner of an assault weapon to pass a background check and register the weapon?
“Assault rifles serve only one purpose,” LeBlanc said, “to kill people.”
What kind of society values the lives of its people so little that it would allow the unregulated sale of weapons created for the single purpose of ending human lives?
After the Newtown massacre, as the country mourned, there seemed to be a window through which Congress might be able to pass an assault weapons ban for the first time since it expired in 2004. But since Newtown, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre, has waged all-out war against the idea that assault-weapons sales and high-capacity ammunition clips should be limited at all. In fact, in LaPierre’s world every school teacher should carry a gun in the classroom.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said LaPierre in a news conference one week after the Sandy Hook massacre.
The same day Sen. Diane Feinstein, author of the 1994 and 2013 assault weapons bans, read from a police report on the 1999 Columbine massacre. There were two armed officers present and they could not stop the shooters. 15 children died.
“You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you,” said Gabby Giffords at a gun violence hearing Jan. 30.
While sitting outside Richard’s hospital room, I reflected on the value of a single life. And I thought about the pastors in cities like Chicago, where more than 500 people died by gunfire last year; and Los Angeles, where gang violence has ravaged countless neighborhoods; and the Bronx and Brooklyn, where poverty, hopelessness, and desperation collide with shots fired every single day. And I thought about pastors and parents in the suburbs who now live in what might happen in malls, movie theaters, schools, and parks. And I thought of our biblical call to walk in compassion and compassion’s call to walk with “the other.” And I thought of what it might look like if pastors in the suburbs joined hands with pastors in the cities and together they called Congress to act — to be bold and courageous — because people made in the image of God are counting on you.
Let it be so, Lord. Let it be so.
Photo: Gun shot in window, Iurii Konoval / Shutterstock.com