Gun Violence

Grace-Filled Moments

ON A COOL, windy October evening, the family of 23-year-old Dominic Amey Jr. stands outside and waits. They’re waiting for someone to tell them how and why Amey, a father of three, was shot and killed behind the house a week before. So they pray and they wait. But there aren’t any answers—at least none that night.

Joe Zelenka, a 74-year-old Catholic, wishes he had answers, but instead he offers the family what he has: prayers for peace and healing.

Zelenka has done this many times (probably too many times, if you ask him) since he began coordinating the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis’ prayer vigils for homicide victims—many killed by gun violence—nearly 11 years ago. At every vigil, standing at the scene of the crime, Zelenka reads scripture, offers a prayer, and then invites those present to pray aloud if they so choose.

“I think it’s important that we bring God’s presence where violence has occurred,” he said. The vigils pre-date Zelenka’s tenure with the Church Federation—he’s the fourth person to hold the position of vigil coordinator since January 1996, when the Church Federation began holding a prayer vigil at the site of every violent homicide in the greater Indianapolis area.

The federation’s goal is peace and reconciliation, and to that end Zelenka will hold another service—this time for the person who shot Amey. It’s important, the federation believes, to pray for both the offender and the offended. It can be demanding work, particularly in a city where homicides have dramatically increased in the last few years. But Zelenka said the work is worth it when he witnesses the faith and resilience of the victims’ families.

“The rewarding part is to realize that there are families who want to forgive the perpetrator,” he said. “Families will stand at this prayer vigil where their loved one was killed, and they will pray that the perpetrator may find God somewhere along the line.”

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Shooting at Florida State University

Screenshot via nbcnews.com

Early Thursday morning a gunman opened fire in a library at Florida State University, wounding three students before being fatally shot by police officers. Wielding a handgun, the shooter entered the library and forced hundreds of students studying for exams to flee or take cover behind bookshelves. NBC News reports:

FSU Police Department Chief David Perry said the library was “packed with students studying for final exams” and estimated that there were 300 to 400 people in the building. One group of students sought refuge behind rows of bookshelves. “Everyone started running to one side of the library, then to the back,” one 20-year-old communications student who asked not to be identified told NBC News. “People were saying, ‘Gun! There’s a shooter! Go! Go! Go!’" She said her group hid among bookcases for what she said felt like 20 minutes. Once given the all-clear, the group was escorted to a campus building next door where they stayed until 4 a.m.

Although the identity of the shooter is unknown, police officers believe he was acting alone and that there is no further threat to students at FSU.

WATCH the police report:

INFOGRAPHIC: Guns in America

In Dawn Cherie Araujo’s article, “Grace-Filled Moments” (Sojourners, January 2015), she explores the rising gun violence in Indianapolis and the ways local churches have taken stands to support families and rise up against the prevalence of grief in their communities.

What are groups like the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis facing as they combat gun trafficking and violence? Check out the interactive infographic below and learn about the United States’ tumultuous relationship with guns. What are your state’s gun laws?

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Justice … not ‘Just Us’

Nagib / Shutterstock.com
Nagib / Shutterstock.com

I am a professor of religion at a small liberal arts college in Decorah, Iowa. For the last two weeks in my Religion 239: Clamoring for Change course, students and I have been reading the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. We have been discussing the issue of “justice,” and we have been playing with an image of God as one who works from the bottom-up on behalf of many rather than one who works from the top-down on behalf of a few.

A fundamental principle within this “bottom-up” theology is the idea of God taking sides (a view quite common in most of the “liberative” theologies). Many people, however, are often uncomfortable with the idea of God taking sides. They often assert that such an image contradicts the idea of an impartial and all-loving God who cares equally for all people.

A bottom-up theology of God asserts that God is a God who exists in relationship with all of creation at the same time every created thing is in relationship with every other created thing. While the relationships that involve human beings may be governed by several principles, I believe one principle that governs all human relationships is the principle of “justice.”

Bonds of Brotherhood

PARDEEP KALEKA and former white supremacist Arno Michaelis clasped hands during a radio interview on the first anniversary of a mass shooting that changed both of their lives. Their embrace was the ultimate symbol of brotherhood—two starkly different backgrounds united by a common goal of peace and understanding in an oftentimes cruel and unforgiving world.

Pardeep Kaleka is a member of the Sikh faith community. His father was one of the six worshippers killed on Aug. 5, 2012, at the Sikh temple, or gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wis. Three more were injured that day before the man opening fire on the temple was wounded by the police. The gunman then prepared for one final pull of the trigger, taking his own life.

The shooter was Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, acting on his own volition that Sunday morning. He had spent his life practicing violence and hatred toward all kinds of people he felt to be “different” from him. This hatred culminated in a final unthinkable act, killing six people in cold blood at their holy place of worship.

There was angst, confusion, and grief among the Wisconsin Sikh community after this terrible tragedy. But where many may have expected anger from those most deeply affected, the Sikhs responded with something thoroughly refreshing: peace.

IN THE 21ST CENTURY, peace seems to be more of a mental construct than a state of being. The world around us is filled with conflict, struggle, and anguish. But when the Oak Creek Sikh community had an opportunity to respond likewise to an act of hatred, they refused.

Instead, the Sikhs reached out to the world with a passion to promote peace. The Sikhs took the opportunity to educate the world about who they are—a faith community filled with peace and devotion. But more important, they taught the world an incredibly valuable lesson: Answering hate with more hate leads nowhere. Love and understanding is the only path forward.

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Unlocking the Answer to School Shootings

YuryZap / Shutterstock.com
“Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” YuryZap / Shutterstock.com

Last week’s school shooting in Marysville, Wash., has us all asking the question again: Why did this happen?

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary gave voice to the despair many are feeling as we search for answers. “The question everybody wants is ‘Why?’ I don’t know that the ‘why’ is something we can provide.”

Why did Jaylen Fryberg text his friends and family members to join him for lunch only to shoot them and then shoot himself? Whenever these tragedies occur we are tempted to blame the shooter by making him into a monster. We label the shooter “mentally ill,” claim that he was isolated from his peers, or was a generally troubled youth.

The answer to the question “Why?” has usually been to blame the shooter. We make the shooter into a monster because it allows us to make sense of senseless violence. Why did this tragedy happen? Because he was evil.

But Fryberg’s case won’t allow such easy answers. By all accounts, he was a popular and happy young man, seemingly incapable of causing such harm.

This horrific shooting is so scary because no one saw it coming. If a popular kid like could commit such a heinous act, anyone could do the same. Fryberg’s case deprives us of the easy out of blaming another. The only thing left is to face our own violence.

Weekly Wrap 10.24.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Black People Riot Over Injustice; White People Riot Over Pumpkins and Football
Title says it all.

2. Where Did Ottawa Shooter Get His Gun? 
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was under criminal prohibition from obtaining firearms because of past convictions. A helpful glimpse into Canada’s system of gun rules.  

3. The Paradox of the Christian CEO
Fr. James Martin expounds on Catholic social teaching to address the difficult question: “The question I would ask Christian CEOs is blunt: What do you want to say to Jesus when you reach the gates of heaven? That you took as much as you could, or as much as the market would bear, because the board okay’d it? Or that you accepted what you thought was just,and understood the needs of your fellow men and women, who may have worked even harder than you?

4. A Sandy Hook Father’s Plea
Mark Barden lost a child in the Sandy Hook massacre. In this moving testimony, he offers a plea that we all do what we can to stop the next school shooting before it happens.

WATCH: The Gun Conversation We Need to Have

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images
A floral memorial stands in front of John Weir Foote V.C. Armouries in Hamilton,Ontario, Oct. 22. GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday a gunman opened fire in Ottawa and killed a soldier at a war memorial. It is a stark reminder of the kind of world we live in every time a life is taken through violence. My prayers are with the victim and his family and for the authorities leading the investigation in trying to understand the shooter’s motives.

Like Ebola and ISIS, the shooting is spreading fear around the world. It is not unnatural to experience fear as a reaction to danger. However, reacting out of fear instead of wisdom is the mistake we must stop making.

What happened in Ottawa is also a reminder for me that while we can’t remove all violence, we can take steps as a country to reduce it. In 2011, the last year complete numbers are available, 32,163 died in America due to gun related deaths. In Canada that same year the number was 781. While gun violence can happen anywhere, as Ottawa shows, it happens much more in the United States than any other developed country.

Why the discrepancy? The full answer is complicated, but one of the driving factors is not.

A Sandy Hook Father’s Plea from Sojourners on Vimeo.

Protecting God’s Children: How Gun Violence Impacts America’s Youth

A child points a gun. Image courtesy Marek H./shutterstock.com
A child points a gun. Image courtesy Marek H./shutterstock.com

Michael Brown. Sandy Hook. Trayvon Martin. Aurora. Columbine. 

Within the last decade, the narrative of children and teenagers being killed by gun violence has become an all-too-familiar narrative in the American public sphere. In a recent report compiled by The Brady Campaign, statistics revealed that in 2011 alone, 19,403 children were shot and 2,703 children and teenagers lost their lives to guns.

That’s seven of America’s youth under the age of 20 killed every day.

In the book of Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Jesus calls a child to join the group.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he answers.

If as Christians, children represent God’s creation in its most pure and innocent form, why is it that as Americans, we continue to let children die preventable deaths from gun violence? Gun control policies are a difficult discourse for the American public. Yet one thing we can all agree on is that children should not be killed.

Of the 2,703 children killed in 2011, 61 percent were homicides, 32 percent were suicides and 5 percent were unintentional shooting. These statistics propel gun-related deaths to the number two leading cause of death for youth in America.  

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