The Common Good
December 2013

Grief, Courage, and Perseverance

by Brian Doyle, Joan Chittister, Walter Brueggemann, Cherie Q. Ryans, Shane Claiborne, Richard Rohr, Shelley Douglass, Lisa Sharon Harper, Anne Howard | December 2013

Reflections on stopping gun violence, a year after the massacre in Newtown.

IN THE YEAR since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14, thousands more have died by gun violence, and the NRA seems to stymie sane firearm measures at every turn. How do we stave off despair, hold on to hope, and keep moving forward when the odds feel overwhelming? —The Editors

Bigger Than Politics by Brian Doyle
An Insanity of Rationality by Joan Chittister, OSB
Vanquishing the Kingdom of Despair by Walter Brueggemann
A Letter to Those Who Grieve by Cherie Q. Ryans

What Would the Prince of Peace Say Today? by Shane Claiborne
Driving Out the Demons by Richard Rohr
The Fruits of Forgiveness by Shelley Douglass
Overcoming the Power of Money by Lisa Sharon Harper
In the Name of the Child of Bethlehem
by Anne Howard

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Bigger Than Politics
What do we say to those who are weary?        

by Brian Doyle

WHAT WOULD I SAY to those who are weary of assault rifles mowing down children of all ages, every few months, for as long as we can remember now? Oregon Colorado Wisconsin Pennsylvania Connecticut Texas Massachusetts Minnesota Virginia do I need to go on? I would say that this is bigger than politics. I would say this is about money. I would say Isn’t it interesting that we are the biggest weapons exporter on the planet? I would say that we lie when we say children are the most important things in our society. I would say that the next time a tall oily smarmy confident beautifully suited beautifully coiffed glowing candidate for office says the words family values, someone tosses an assault rifle on the stage with a small note attached to it that reads Is this more important than a kindergarten kid?

I would also say, quietly, that this is bigger than rage and anger and snarling at idiots who pretend to hide behind the Constitution. I would say this is also about poor twisted lonely lost bent young men no one paid attention to, no one really cared about. And I would say that people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, who ran right at the bent twisted kid with the rifle in Newtown, are the flash of hope and genius here. Those are the people I will celebrate on Dec. 14. There are a lot of people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, may they rest in peace. We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me. But it’s there. And there are a lot of days when I think the whole essence of Christianity, the actual real no kidding reason the skinny Jewish man sparked the most stunning possible revolution in history, is to gently insistently relentlessly edge us away from our savagely violent past into a future where Dawn and Mary are who we are, and you visit guns in museums, and war is a joke, and defiant peace is what we say to each other all blessed day long.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland (Oregon) and the author most recently of The Thorny Grace of It, a collection of spiritual essays.

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An Insanity of Rationality
This spiritual disease thrives on violence and calls it good.      

by Joan Chittister, OSB

THERE IS A MADNESS abroad in the land, hiding behind the Constitution, brazenly ignoring the suffering of many who, over the years, have died in its defense, and operating under the banner of rationality. It’s a rare form of spiritual disease that thrives on violence and calls it good.

They want a proper response to violence, they tell us, and, most interesting of all, they insist that only violence can control violence. If “the good guys” have guns, this argument goes, “the bad guys” won’t be able to do any harm.

This particular insanity of rationality argues that violence is an antidote to violence. Then why do we find scant proof of that anywhere? Why, for instance, hasn’t it worked in Syria, we might ask. And where was the good of it in Iraq, the land of our own misadventures, where the weapons of mass destruction we went to disarm did not even exist and the people who died in the crossfire of that insanity had not harbored bin Laden. So how much peace through violencehave all the good guys on all sides really achieved?

The insanity of rationality says it is only reasonable to arm a population to defend itself against itself. And so, day after day, the level of violence rises around us as hunting rifles and small pistols turn into larger and larger weapons of our private little wars.

Clearly this particular piece of childish logic has yet to quell the gang violence in Chicago. It didn’t even work on an army base in Texas where, we must assume, the place was loaded with legal weapons.

What’s more, it does nothing to save the lives of the good guy’s children, who pick up the good guy’s guns at the age of 2 and 3 and 4 years old and turn them on the good guy fathers who own them.

So the mayhem only increases while white men in business suits insist that their civil rights have been impugned, their right to defend themselves has been taken from them, and more guns, larger guns, insanely damaging guns are the answer. Instead of hiring more police officers, they argue that arming students and teachers themselves, nonprofessionals, will do more to maintain calm and control the damage in situations specifically designed to cause chaos than waiting for security personnel would do.

It is that kind of creeping irrationality that threatens us all.

And in the end, it is a sad commentary on our society. We have now become the most violent country in the world while our industries collapse, our educational system declines, women are denied healthcare, our infrastructure is falling apart, and there’s more money to be made selling drugs in this country than in teaching school. No wonder gun pushers fear for their lives and sell the drug that promises the security it cannot possibly give while the country is becoming more desperate for peace and security by the day.

The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence. These are they who remember again that we follow the one who said “Peter, put away your sword” when it was his own life that was at stake.

The hope is you and me. Or not.

Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision, author of 47 books, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

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Vanquishing the Kingdom of Despair
Hope is not a passive reliance upon God; it’s a human act of commitment.

by Walter Brueggemann

THIS FALL WE had a reading at church from Jeremiah 32:1-15. This is the narrative in which Jeremiah is mandated by God to buy the family property in a moment when land has almost no value because of an invading, occupying army. In obedience Jeremiah secures the property for a time when “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in the land,” that is, when peace and economic coherence will again be available. The narrative attests the primary elements of hope for a time of chaotic failure.

Negatively, it is clear that serious hope for the future is not grounded in present data. Indeed, all of Jeremiah’s circumstances tell against any such investment. Hope is an act that primarily contradicts the “facts on the ground.”

Positively, hope in this narrative consists of two ingredients. First, hope is grounded in the deep, holy intentional purpose of God. God intends a peaceable, workable economy of houses and fields and vineyards in times to come. Jeremiah is committed to a hope grounded in God’s resolve, at which Jeremiah has arrived with certitude.

But second, hope is not a passive reliance upon God. Hope is a human act of commitment to and investment in the future. Hope is an act of human couragethat refuses to cherish the present too much or be reduced to despair by present circumstance. Hope is the capacity to relinquish the present for the sake of what is imagined to be a reachable future. In the end, hope is a practice that bets on a vision of the future that is judged to be well beyond present circumstance, even if one does not know how to get from here to there.

The issues are the same for us as they were for ancient Jeremiah. On the one hand, Christian faith affirms that, as Rob Bell asserted, “Love wins!” Without that conviction, there is no reliable gospel hope.

But that sureness about God’s large resolve is not just an assurance; it is a summons. It is a summons to risky investment that the world thinks is foolish. It follows that now is the time for yielding justice, for foolish forgiveness, for outrageous generosity, for elaborate hospitality. None of these acts can come from fear, anxiety, or despair. But they are all acts that evoke new futures that the fearful think are impossible.

Hope in the end is a contradiction of the dominant version of reality; it subverts the dominant version of fear, anxiety, despair, and violence. The capacity for such contradiction is at the heart of Christian faith. More than that, it is at the root of human well-being, for ourselves as for all our would-be neighbors.

The convergence of holy resolve and human risk-taking does indeed generate an alternative reality. That has been a mandate for Christians since the beginning of Jesus’ summons to “a conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and the same mandate has belonged to serious Jews well before us. In the kingdom of despair, there is no trust in holy resolve and no courage for an alternative. At our best, we know otherwise! 

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

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A Letter to Those Who Grieve
I will never find the person who took my son’s life, but working against gun violence helped bring healing.

by Cherie Q. Ryans

AS A MOM WHO LOST her son 23 years ago, I want you to know that I feel your pain and we are forever connected. I have been there, and it was not an easy road to travel. But we do get strength at our weakest moments. What has kept me going these 23 years is what I call my mustard seed faith in God, family, and friends, as well as the lovely memories.

Even though my son is not here, his memory is still in my heart. It helps me to talk about my son. It also helps me to remember special moments that we shared. No one can tell you your loved one is in a better place, or say to you that you’ll get over it. In your time of grieving, these words are not comforting. This is something that never leaves your thoughts.

I don’t know everything about grief. I can only share what has brought me through this most difficult period. In time, I was able to speak to others and advocate for stricter gun laws, among other things. I will never find the person who took my son’s life, but I know that working against gun violence helped me to heal and will spare other lives.

Healing did not happen overnight. I cried often, and still do. I read in the Bible that “Joy will come in the morning.” I waited and looked for that joy. Then one day I experienced the joy. Healing for me is praying, helping, speaking out, advocating, and comforting others. As it says in Isaiah, “God gives strength to the weary ... those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” 

Cherie Q. Ryans lives in Philadelphia and works with Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence.

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What Would the Prince of Peace Say Today?
The massacre of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem and Newtown.                 

by Shane Claiborne

PERHAPS THE ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS was marked more with agony and grief—like that a year ago in Newtown, Conn.—than with the glitz and glamour of shopping malls. As Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby, other moms and dads were in utter agony because their kids had just been murdered.

Jesus entered the world in a posture of absolute vulnerability—an unarmed, innocent child during a time of tremendous violence. In Jesus’ time, too, there was a terrible massacre, an unspeakable act of violence when King Herod slaughtered children throughout the land. The church now remembers this as the massacre of the Holy Innocents.

So let’s imagine. What would the Prince of Peace say today to a nation where these things are true? Fact: More than 10,000 people die from gun-related homicides each year in the U.S.—that’s one Sandy Hook massacre every day. Fact: There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 civilians, making us the most heavily armed society in the world. Fact: After car accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death among young people.

Everything in our world, just as in Jesus’ time, argues that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence—the very thing Jesus came to help us unlearnthrough his nonviolent life, death on the cross, and resurrection. Jesus was a violence interrupter. He interrupted the “myth of redemptive violence,” the troubling assumption that we can use violence to get rid of violence or that we can destroy a life to save a life. He also taught his followers to be holy interrupters.

One example of this was when I joined folks for our first “weapon conversion.” A welder buddy of mine took an AK-47 and transformed it—before our eyes!—into a shovel and a rake. Soon after, we heard about RAWtools, a group of Mennonite blacksmiths in Colorado who melt down donated guns to make trowels and such. Inspired by Isaiah’s vision of “beating swords into plows,” these metalworkers decided to turn guns into gardening equipment. They chose the name RAWtools because they want to “turn war backward and forge peace.”

There is something special about seeing the transformation happen before your eyes, about hearing the sound of the forge, the white heat and sparks, the pounding of the metal. Something therapeutic happens when you take a hammer to the barrel of a gun.

What would Jesus do? He’d keep the sparks flying. 

Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution and a Sojourners contributing editor, is a co-founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia.

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Driving Out the Demons
We have failed to understand that evil is not rational or subject to reason.

by Richard Rohr, OFM

“Lord, take pity on my son, he is a lunatic and in a wretched state!”—Matthew 17:15

I HAVE BECOME convinced that the reason we seem to make so little headway against war, gun violence, bullying, rape, and other forms of abuse is that the underlying U.S. worldview is so strongly in place—and its assumptions are largely held in the unconscious where fear and pain always lodge (the reptilian and old mammalian brain, if you want to be scientific about it)—a hard place to get to.

The only things that can touch us at that level, to use Jesus’ cryptic advice to the disciples who cannot drive out a demon from the “lunatic” and possessed boy of Matthew 17, are “prayer and fasting.” Until there is an inner healing (a form of “prayer” that is allowed to invade the unconscious) and some free willingness to let go (“fasting”)—and these are probably needed by both the exorcist and the exorcised—there is little deep change in addictive and irrational situations. That is clearly what we are dealing with in regard to gun control.

Most of our arguments and sermons are based on what seems like rather clear gospel teaching, if not also humanistic values or sustainable good sense; but they seem to bear little fruit except in those who are already very goodwilled or somehow ready for an encounter with grace. I am told that all logical/rational/verbal teaching merely touches parts of the neo-cortex and frontal lobes where we have some degree of conscious awareness. But our deep assumptions are normally untouched because they are nonrational, deeply felt, and often fear-based. These are not subject to logic.

What is firmly in place in the reptilian and old mammalian brain, especially the U.S. version, is becoming very clear: Might makes right; power is usually good and usually right; and powerlessness is to be avoided at all costs—because life is about “winning” and always being in control. This mind formed U.S. history, and its sad irrationality is made evident by our unwillingness to join the rest of the civilized world in basic gun control. Until this underlying and terrible lie is exposed for what it is (such exposing is the burden and the glory of the gospel!) and also is deeply healed, my sense is that we will be just as unsuccessful as the discouraged disciples were when “they could not drive out” the “demon of deafness and dumbness,” as Jesus rightly named it (Mark 9:25). Exactly like the possessed boy, the U.S. will keep “foaming at the mouth, grinding its teeth, and going rigid.” Like him we will “keep throwing ourselves into the fire to destroy ourselves” (9:22).

It seems we have paid a huge price for neglecting the entire ministry of healing and community in our preaching of the Christian gospel. We also failed to understand that evil is not rational or subject to reason. Jesus invariably accompanied his preaching with healings. We usually just preach, and these isolated words do not bear much fruit in the garden of goodness.

For us Catholics, and even more for Franciscans, Pope Francis is exemplifying the way to preach the gospel. It seems he heals and creates community wherever he goes, instead of parsing sentences and arguing about who needs exorcism and who doesn’t. He is telling us we all do, by standing first in line. 

Richard Rohr, OFM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (www.cacradicalgrace.org) in Albuquerque, N.M.

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The Fruits of Forgiveness
Hope is wrapped up in a web that includes both victims and perpetrators.  

by Shelley Douglass

MY NEIGHBORHOOD, and neighborhoods like it, has experienced gun violence for years. Usually it’s one or two young men at a time; once it was five. Sometimes it’s a young child caught in the crossfire, or a spouse/partner, or a parent or grandparent. We know the underlying causes—the lack of opportunity, the despair, the lack of mental health care, the ready availability of handguns. We do what we can to make it better, but we know that until our city/state/country sees these lives as valuable, the massive effort to address the causes of violence cannot be made.

How do we go on while we wait for that time? Ironically enough, I often find hope in the victims and their families. I find hope in the young mother whose toddler was killed by a stray bullet while he slept in his bed, the young mother who from the beginning has spoken against the death penalty for her child’s killer. I find hope in the bereaved parents who organize together to prevent more murders. I find hope in people like Callie Greer of Montgomery, Ala., who asked the judge for mercy for the killer of her son—and obtained it. Now that young man is out of prison, married, with children of his own.

I find hope also in some of the perpetrators—those (mostly) men on death row who have matured, faced their pasts, and now work to support other men on death row in making the same steps. I find hope in the middle-aged man I tutored at our GED program a couple of years ago. He had served his time for manslaughter, and he was trying to gain skills to live a better life, outside of the prison system and away from violent friends.

I see in these folks the human capacity for change, for redemption, for forgiveness. I believe that every one of us, made in God’s image as we are, has that capacity. Our challenge is to learn to call it forth in each person. Our hope is that we will succeed.

Shelley Douglass lives and works at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, Ala., whose mission is to offer hospitality to families and work for peace and against the death penalty.

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Overcoming the Power of Money
We should not be surprised that the gun lobby holds so much sway.                                            

by Lisa Sharon Harper

I GREW UP in the era of The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, and Fantasy Island. Every night my generation was confronted with situations that seemed impossible, and somehow they worked out fine—and the audience even got to laugh along with the laugh track or fall in love to sappy background music along the way.

But mine is also the generation that watched helplessly as everyday citizens acquitted the police officers who beat Rodney King to a pulp, and came of age as youth workers who ducked bullets and helped clean up after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. We witnessed the failure of Promise Keepers to overcome racism in the evangelical church, and then witnessed the racially divided mega-church boom.

I wonder how all of these experiences have affected my own ability to persist, to hope and work for a better world, especially in light of persistent poverty, racial apathy, and the overwhelming sense that the forces against us are so powerful. Not even the deaths of little white children could move Congress to pass the most commonsense gun legislation.

But that, quite frankly, is due to the power of money. We should not be surprised. The power of money catalyzed and entrenched the most heinous sins in our nation’s history, including the stealing of Native American lands and the stealing of African peoples. The power of money—based in the desire of Southerners to maintain their dominant position in society—ultimately translated into the systematic impoverishment of black families known as Jim Crow segregation. Now, the power of money props up the privatized prison-industrial complex. We should not be surprised that the gun lobby holds so much sway—and lacks so much feeling that it could stand stone-faced and call for even more guns in the face of weeping parents, friends, and loved ones.

Throughout the ages, faith has helped women, men, and children take one more step. Faith helped each generation pass the baton to the next. Faith believed another world was possible—and even probable—with God’s intervention. And until that time, people sang, they marched, they planned, they prayed—and they realized a new day! And so again we wait and work for the day our nation chooses people over profit, life over guns, God over mammon. 

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners.

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'In the Name of the Child of Bethlehem'
Each new life asks us to give our best, to cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another. 

by Anne Howard

"WHY BOTHER?" I asked the rabbi. It was 1982, and I was working for an interfaith nuclear disarmament group, pushing against the massive nuclear weapons buildup of that day. I went to see Rabbi Beerman, one of our advisers, on a day when I was just about ready to give up. I was feeling that it was futile to protest the arms race when every day the weapons budgets swelled bigger, the nuclear stockpiles rose higher, and our country sold more and more weapons to more and more Third World countries. The spiral of violence seemed out of control.

“Our efforts are so puny. Nobody listens. It’s hopeless. Why do we bother to keep working for change?” I asked.

Rabbi Beerman listened, as he always listened to my questions and complaints. Without a word, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a picture of his new grandson, Matthew Benjamin. He asked to see a picture of my new baby son, Benjamin Michael.

In the style of all wisdom teachers, he asked me to think about these two little boys and the world in which they would grow up. He asked me to think about what we owed them. And then he asked: “If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?”

I can hear the echo of his question from that day to this, from that arms buildup to “shock and awe” over Baghdad to unending war in the Middle East to Columbine, Tucson, Trayvon, Newtown, Chicago, Boston, the Navy Yard, and all the other reasons for despair. I hear the rabbi’s question, from that day to this, as a call to hope.

And now I have a new call to hope. My baby son has grown up. He is now a doctor, training in trauma surgery and serving an urban population, where he too often finds himself sewing up the gunshot wounds of inner-city children. I ask him my new version of “Why bother?”—“What keeps you going?” He says, “I feel honored to do my best. I owe each one my best.”

So, in this season of Advent and Christmas, when we share again the story of God becoming known to us in fragile flesh, born in a stable under the boot of imperial rule, I hear the call that each life asks us to give our best, to resist the violence, to cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, in the name of that Child of Bethlehem. 

Anne Howard is executive director of The Beatitudes Society.

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