The Common Good

Bringing America Back to Life

Yesterday, I read about the 2-year old child who shot herself by accident in North Carolina over the weekend. Then I read about the horror of another school shooting in Nevada. Only hours later — shots rang out again on our block in North Philadelphia, for the second time this week. This time a bullet went through the window of one of the houses owned by our non-profit.

Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne
A mother who lost her child to gun violence beats on the barrel of a handgun from the streets. Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne

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I was talking to a friend about my anger over the 300 lives lost in our city this year to gun violence. With the most sincere intentions, my friend said in an attempt to console me: “It’s just the way the world is.” 

I’m not willing to give up that easy. It may be the way the world is today, but it doesn’t have to be the way the world is tomorrow.

Other than car accidents, gun violence is the biggest killer of young people in the U.S. One child or teen dies every 3 hours, 7 die a day, and over 50 die a week. According to our friends at the Children’s Defense Fund, over the past 50 years we’ve lost three times more young people (160,000) to gun violence than all the soldiers killed in war (52,820 killed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined). I read a study that said a teenager in North Philly stands a greater chance of getting shot than a soldier in Afghanistan. In fact, in 2010, three times more children were injured by gunfire here in the U.S. than soldiers in combat. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  

I’m also not so sure that, as my friend said, it is the way the “world” is. The more I travel the world I am convinced it’s not the way the world is … it’s the way the U.S. is. I’ve seen a lot of the world, with travels taking me to about a dozen countries a year, and this is what I’ve seen:

In one year, guns murdered:

27 in Australia, 59 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 190 in Canada … and 10,177 in the U.S. 

Recently I was in a kid’s room looking at all the books on his shelf. I picked up a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. As we flipped through all the freaky and wild facts, one page caught my attention because it had a gun on it. “MOST GUNS” was the record.  And which country held the record? The U.S. — with nearly 300 million guns. But what haunted me even more was seeing that we have around 90 guns for every 100 people, almost as many guns as people. The runner up was India, with about 4 guns per 100 people. 

I don’t want gun violence to be normal, or acceptable. I don’t want it to simply be “the way the world is” — or the way the U.S. is.

I think of the bullet holes that pierced the stained glass windows of our cathedral, leaving giant holes in them. I think of the six bullet casings I’ve picked up on my two-block walk to the office. I think of my pastor friend, Corey Brooks, who had the agonizing task of performing the funeral for a 6-month old baby killed by gun violence. Does it really have to be this way?

As a Christian, I have a strong suspicion of violence since I worship a victim of violence, a forgiving victim who died on a cross with love on his lips. 

And there is a beautiful verse in the Bible that speaks of “beating swords into plows” — turning weapons into tools, transforming the things that have brought death into tools that cultivate life. Compelled by those verses and by our bloodstained streets, we started. We have taken AK47s and beaten them into rakes and shovels. We have taken the barrels of guns and melted them into garden hoes. 

Over the past few weeks there have been weapons conversions happening around the country. One was at the National Cathedral. Another was right here in North Philly. One of the most powerful things I have ever seen was last month. We took a handgun from the streets, and watched the mothers who had lost their children to gun violence beat on the barrel of that gun. Hitting the red hot metal with tears rolling down her face, she said slowly, hitting the hammer after each word: “This … is … for …  my …  son.” 

Soon there will be a network of blacksmiths and welders around the country ready to transform weapons into tools. But we need more than symbolic acts. We need a movement of people across this country who refuse to let violence win, a movement of people who refuse to settle for the country as it is and insist on dreaming of the country as it could be. I’m ready, are you?

Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.

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