By Jim Wallis 2-22-2018

Something is happening with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and, because of them, something is happening to us as a nation.

Like many of you, I have been watching and listening very carefully to the students who have been speaking out and mobilizing after 17 of their friends, classmates, teachers, and coaches were killed in another mass shooting with an assault weapon. As many of the very articulate young people said this week, they are turning their grief into action. They no longer feel safe going to school every day and they can’t understand how the older generation and their lawmakers have accepted this situation in which we all now find ourselves: that all Americans are no longer safe in their schools, theaters, concerts, and places of entertainment regardless of where they live.

On a personal level, the words and deeds of these new student activists have resonated deeply with me. When I was their age, as they say, I remember being told that the war in Vietnam was right and there was nothing that we as young people could do about it. But our friends and classmates were dying in Vietnam, and we learned countless numbers of Vietnamese people were also being brutally killed. We learned that the justifications for that war were based on lies. We also believed that the older generation had failed to recognize the truth about Vietnam, to protest the horrific loss of life, to protect us. We were also told that we could never end the war. But we did. We had to overcome not only the falsehoods but also the cynicism that always says things can’t change. But they did.

Now, because an older generation has failed to protect our children from guns, they have decided to protect themselves, each other, and their eventual children. And their movement is spreading all across the country among a generation that knows how to use social media to mobilize better than any generation before.

A new movement has begun — and the students are already changing the national narrative.

The question now is whether changing the narrative can change the policies that have put us in this situation in which our kids are asking, “Am I safe; am I going to get shot?” Of course that question isn’t foreign to parents of color, but now all parents are feeling terrified at the worst prospect that any mother or father can every face — having to bury their own children.

The students are rejecting the old answers, excuses, and inactivity that enabled our present gun policies. They reject empty explanations for our lack of universal and comprehensive background checks. They know the numbers: The latest poll shows 97 percent of the American people support those background checks. And the students have pointed their fingers at the money and political power of the organization that has resisted those checks — the National Rifle Association. When Dana Loesch, the NRA’s spokeswoman, said at a CNN town hall meeting last night that the NRA does support comprehensive checks with no loopholes or waiting periods — she was lying, and the students know that.

They know that the NRA believes the Second Amendment should not limited by any public safety concerns. But as one of the fathers who lost a child in the Parkland shooting asked President Trump in a White House listening session on Wednesday, what were his daughter’s rights not to be shot in the back in her school hallway while running from a killer with an assault weapon?

The students also know that the NRA’s policy is to make it as easy and fast as possible for people to buy guns — because that’s what makes the most money for the gun manufacturers who underwrite the NRA. And the AR-15 assault weapon, which has become the weapon of choice in mass shootings, is a big moneymaker for the gun runners who control the NRA; the NRA’s gun manufacturers know that they actually make more money after mass shootings. But the students at the CNN town hall meeting last night know that too, so they focus on the NRA and ask politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as they did last night, if they are ready to stop taking any more money from the NRA. Every elected official in the country must be ready to answer that question now coming from the students. And, as the Broward Country Sherriff has said again last night, elected officials who won’t stop taking NRA money should not be re-elected.

Of course, we can talk about and work to fund more access to mental health care in this country. But these students know that addressing mental health in America doesn’t lessen the need to address the scourge of guns. The only purpose of automatic assault weapons is to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Since NRA believes the Second Amendment should not limited by these public safety concerns, its representatives need to be asked whether the Second Amendment should also allow tanks, drones, and surface-to-air missiles to be parked in citizens’ backyards — how about nuclear weapons?

As a Christian, and a believer in prayer, I have been very taken by the message of these student activists that offering thoughts and prayers in the face of tragedy is just not enough anymore —action is necessary. Deep faith requires action. As been often said in previous movements for social change, there comes a time to put feet to our prayers.

Therefore, what does this new movement of high school students for strong commonsense gun safety laws and banning the sale of military assault weapons from civilian society, have to say to our churches and other faith communities? How can these students speak to us, and how can we listen to them? It’s time for pastors to listen to their youth groups and to the parents of students at the kinds of schools where mass shootings are taking place. How could our churches become sanctuaries for the deep grief the nation is feeling? How might we become safe spaces for conversations about how to solve the problems our children face every day when they enter their schools? How could our congregations make students welcome for their meetings, conversations, and times of reflection — whether the young people are churchgoers or not? How can our congregations take this issue deeper than partisan and money politics to examine the moral, spiritual, and biblical issues involved here? What is best for the common good, and how do we discuss that? Let’s see how far our prayers can take us.

As I was writing this column, I watched NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington. He said this: “There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself, and the right to survive. It's not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”

I certainly don’t recognize the words of Jesus in any of that. In the words of courageous young survivor Emma González, I call BS.

I just watched the funeral service of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach at Stoneman Douglas who lost his life by literally putting himself in front of students. That story has especially struck me, perhaps because I was a Little League baseball coach for many years. His friend, Sheriff Scott Israel, did a eulogy and quoted Isaiah 6:8 in which the Lord asks, “Who shall I send, who will go for us? And I said, Here I am Lord, send me!” He imagined the Lord greeting the coach, and said he believes his Lord would say, “Well done.”

My advice to the young activists now: Trust your hearts and your questions. Follow both and let them take you to new places and new roles. Remember that change doesn’t come easily or quickly but takes deepening commitment — not just in the short term, but the long. These events have changed your lives, and hopefully not just for a season but for your vocations and for the rest of your lives — and for the lives of your kids too. Bless you.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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