The empty shoes came in all shapes and sizes — cowboy boots and sneakers, children’s sparkly shoes and women’s dress shoes. They filled step after step going up toward the entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The shoes — 467 pair of them — represented the death toll from guns in just one state: Wisconsin.
"I want you to look at these empty shoes," Jeri Bonavia, told the crowd gathered on the Capitol steps on Monday. "I want you to bear witness. All across our state, families are aching with emptiness."
Bonavia is the executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which is using this display of empty shoes in five cities around the state this week.
In the nationwide scheme of things, Wisconsin has a lower death rate from guns than the nation as a whole. The annual average of 467 from murder, suicide and accidents is just a fraction of the approximately 30,000 gun deaths each year across the U.S.
And yet the row upon row of empty shoes on the steps spoke to the heartache that comes with each death, whatever the toll in whatever state.
The local police chief and sheriff, two state legislators, community and religious leaders all gathered to urge action, starting with mandatory background checks for all gun sales.
They know it is a tough battle. But they also know they are not alone. And faith communities are vital partners.
National church leaders spoke in Atlanta just a few days earlier on the need for persistence against the heavily-funded lobbying efforts of gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association.
A panel at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association was called “God and Guns.”
“We are truly messed up in this area,” said David Gushee of Mercer University, an evangelical Christian who compared gun violence in the U.S. with other nations.
“We have a constant low-grade bleeding going on every day. A lot of our domestic problems are resolved by bullets.”
Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement seeking to prevent gun violence, said that in trying to organize the grassroots against the power of money, “The faith community is the most logical one to take the lead.”
Jim Winkler, the new leader of the National Council of Churches, came to that job from a leadership post in Faiths United to Prevent GunViolence. He knows a bit about both the need for persistence and the need for grass roots organizing. And he knows the complexity of the issues.
“The cause of violence is not the gun,” he noted. “It’s the root of violence that is the cause. But first we need to stop the bleeding.”
Bishop Robert Wright, the first African-American Episcopal bishop in Atlanta, offered the theological rationale for Christians.
“Piece carry is at odds with the Prince of Peace,” he said, explaining why he banned guns from all Episcopal churches after a new George law earlier this year allowed guns in churches.
He described lax gun laws that reinforce people’s hostility to one another as being at odds with Jesus’ call to look out for our neighbor.
He looked at Scripture and said there are no texts that affirm our obsession with self defense, adding, “You can’t put those words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus is not from Georgia, he does not speak English and he is not a member of the NRA.”
Finally, he said that enlarging fear is not a very imaginative response to issues around neighborliness.
“It is an absolute offense to human dignity,” Wright concluded.
There are so many issues demanding the attention of faith communities. Faith groups were a highly visible presence at the People’s Climate March. They are actively fighting poverty and global slavery and domestic violence and so much more.
And yet the empty shoes stood silently on the Capitol steps, calling out for witness, for attention to a distinctively American obsession with guns.
Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, WI.