March 4, 2008

Guest Commentary: Is there a word from the church?

The local daily newspaper had several excellent articles related to Black History Month. But across the top of the page was the picture of a handsome 16-year-old black student shot to death the previous night in a parking lot on West Broadway.I think of the recent LEO cover story about the gun brandishing and near-killing in Jeffersontown (Feb. 13 issue). What is this, “Gunsmoke”?A summary of recent killings across the United States includes an L.A. police officer shot dead by a disturbed young man who had just killed three family members. In another California town, an eighth grader shot a classmate in the head, perhaps because the victim was gay.There have been three recent campus shootings, all with handguns.Then there’s the man who burst into the Kirkwood, Mo., City Council meeting with a gun and killed five, wounding the mayor.A few days earlier, a robber shot five women in a suburban Chicago store in what may have been a botched robbery.I’d quote Walter from “The Big Lebowski” (“Has the world gone crazy?”), but I remember that Walter was brandishing a mean-looking gun at that point in the movie.It does feel crazy, especially when one of the “conservative” groups in our country, the National Rifle Association, resists any attempt to limit the availability of guns in the United States. It’s a surreal script, like the recent headline from Afghanistan, where a suicide bomber kills 80 and wounds 70, the deadliest attack in that violence-ravaged country since the fall of the Taliban. The event? People crowded together to witness a popular pastime in that country: dog fighting. Truth is stranger than fiction.I’m not sure which hold us hostage more deeply — angry people with guns or the NRA, which twists any attempt to limit the proliferation of guns into a violation of Second Amendment freedoms akin to putting members in straitjackets and locking them away.Something’s got to give. We can’t keep letting gun violence perpetuate. And please tell me that the sponsor of the Kentucky House Bill was joking when he suggested that the way to address violence in schools was to allow students to keep loaded weapons in their cars, just in case they’re needed.I’m guessing they were serious, though. Eric Thompson is. He thinks the solution to school shootings is to make firearms as prevalent as iPods on campuses. Thompson is the Internet firearms retailer who sold guns to the shooters at both Virginia Tech and the recent spree at Northern Illinois University. He feels terrible, he says, and would like for us to make him feel better by buying one of his guns in order to stop a future tragedy. “The next news story I want to be involved in is how I sold a firearm to someone who helped prevent tragedy — not cause it,” he says. Good luck on that one. I wonder if such a position would be good for your business?Thompson is offering a new website as a forum for a substantive dialogue on the subject. Surely it’s only a coincidence that this offer is sure to increase traffic to his business website.I stood for more than two years, rain or shine, at the site of murders in this city to protest the violence and pray for peace.The killings continue.So do gun sales — 250 million guns are in circulation in the United States today. That’s almost one per person.Feeling safer?People will always get angry. There will always be severely mentally ill people who refuse to get help. Some people will always need to hide their insecurities behind a bravado of bluster. But given these inevitabilities, doesn’t easy access to guns increase the chance that someone winds up dead or deformed?Politicians won’t touch the issue. For them to suggest gun control is to play political Russian roulette with a pistol filled with bullets.So who will speak out?I sat last month in a conference with people of other faith traditions asking if there are issues around which we could come together on behalf of the world.There are. And if churches and synagogues and mosques and other places of spiritual nurture have any relevance in today’s world, they must find the voice and the courage to translate our deepest truths, such as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love thy neighbor,” into a language that speaks to real life and death issues. Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church at Grinstead and Cherokee roads. Contact him at www.hbclouisville.org