A well-known restorative justice film, "A Justice That Heals" recounts the role of faith and the church in caring for the families of both a murderer and his victim. The film climaxes in the mother’s act of forgiveness and counsel to the young man who killed her son. The power of that image of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration almost obscures another dimension of the grieving family's response to the death of their son. The victim's father resigns his job and becomes the director of an advocacy group for gun control.
The late Carl Dudley demonstrated in his research on mobilizing congregations that communities of faith rally to advocacy only after they have generated sufficient energy about and engagement with those affected by the policy. Congregations care about people not policy, stories over statistics, and narratives before numbers. Even the civil rights movement found its genesis in the story of Rosa Parks, and others like her, rather than in the "ethics" of segregation and discrimination. So, like the family in "A Justice That Heals," our work to mobilize around gun control requires creating a climate where people's experience with those who are victimized by bad policy.
The list of victims includes those who have been shot by readily available legal and illegal firearms and their families, but also the perpetrators of the violence and their families. In his book Don't Shoot, Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy recounts the numbers of youth and young adults who carry weapons out of fear rather than aggression. Or, as the father of the victim in the documentary laments, these guns are made available to kids "who use them to settle schoolyard fights." We don't absolve shooters of complicity when we organize around gun control, rather our credibility to organize depends on our ability to engage all those directly involved and affected.
This is why our Healing Communities ministry begins with helping congregations create a climate of welcome and inclusion to all who are affected by crime and violence. This requires direct address of the shame and stigma of incarceration, and offers an accompanying affirmation of the humanity of all parties concerned. Crime victims have voices, perpetrators have personhood, and all their families have faces. When congregations can see the humanity of all involved — especially when they realize that many victims, perpetrators and their families sit in their congregations week after week suffering in silence — they achieve the foundation upon which organizing can occur.
In this sense, gun control becomes inextricably linked to violence control, showing how our national cultural consensus around violence. We like it, you know; think of how our biggest holiday weekend of the year, Thanksgiving, revolves around rituals of consumerism and violence, as in overeating and football. Our language around intellectual debate reflects violence — we kill and destroy arguments. Some preachers "wreck the house," or "kill the congregation," with powerful sermons. As we become sensitive to the pain felt by those who have been victimized by violence, or believe that violence is the only way out, our language will change and our solidarity with those involved become a platform for organizing.
Unfortunately, it took Newtown to raise the awareness of the rampant reality of the dangers of guns and violence. Many who did not feel connected to the issue saw no reason to become advocates for gun control. They formed views of the gun issue apart from understanding the relevance of the issue. As Christians, we should understand our connection simply by virtue of our principles of care for others. Unfortunately, while we often care for others, we seldom care for "Others," people not like us, or worse, people we demonize and dehumanize in our view of their behavior, color, neighborhood of residency, or ethnicity. In that sense we mirror the behavior of the historians of Jesus' era who never reported Herod's slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. All sorts of records exist of Herod's killing of his sons, political threats, and persons with opposing views. But these were important people. Of course their murders would be recorded —documented in such a way that Augustus is claimed to have said "It is better to be Herod's dog than one of his children."
When Herod kills important people, people take notice. By virtue of our connection to and empathy with families in Newtown, those killed there are important. But the deaths of thousands on city streets receive little notice. Those others who die daily from readily available weapons merit little attention. Even Trayvon Martin's murder was just a police item in the Orlando Sentinel until his family hired an attorney who led a public relations campaign to call attention to the situation.
But even when people don't notice — when media and historians do not notice — God notices, and God mobilizes. God called Matthew to document the issue, mobilized Joseph to deliver the young Jesus from the imminent danger, and led the One delivered to deliver the world. We need more Josephs to see this is our issue.
Once we establish that gun violence is "our issue," once we have established solidarity, organization has a platform. Newtown is us, but so is Chicago. The politics of Herod that allow uncontrolled violence can be confronted by the power of a people that belong to a God who sees Bethlehem and Brooklyn, Judea and Jersey, Canaan and Chicago.
Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation.
Gun image, val lawless / Shutterstock.com