For me, as dangerous and serious as the issue of youth and gun violence in our city is, we have to look at foundational issues; at deeper matters which till the soil of their lives: poverty, drugs, lack of educational support, lack of parental involvement, and lack of sufficient life mentors. We the faith community must get more directly involved in the lives of these young people in all of these critical areas if we expect the turn toward guns and violence to lessen. God needs us to till a different kind of soil in their lives –love, compassion, time commitment, sharing of resources.
Jesus and his disciples repeatedly and passionately advocated for the care of widows and orphans. Any young man living without his father, father figure or male role model actively engaged in his life is a paternal orphan in today’s culture. Our community has thousands, crossing every sociological classification. Drastic, non-traditional, creatively bold, male mentoring initiatives are needed to put a dent in youth, gun violence. Faith community men could convene, recruit from ever sociological classification, and launch new initiatives.
At this point of the American gun violence epidemic, we need everyone whether they have unique qualifications of not to speak against the proliferation of weapons. We definitely have far more guns than we have responsible and peace-loving citizens. Personally, I believe the Second Amendment is an antiquated law whose usefulness is void. However, I do not see anything wrong with hunting and target practice. But assault weapons, rapid fire magazines, and cheap Saturday night specials should go the way of the dinosaur. Jesus said He who lives by the sword will perish by it.
Growing up some years ago, I distinctly remember some of my friends having that old school and old fashioned, solid but loud mother. You know the one–she would execute discipline at ‘the scene of the crime’ instead of waiting to go home. Some of my friends would do everything in their power to make sure that this mother would never have to show up anywhere where they were, except when they got in trouble and needed help.
The faith community is that ‘big mama’ that we call on for help or dinner time, but otherwise want her to remain unseen. We live in the buckle of what is known as the Bible Belt, and with this implication comes the reality that many of us have at least a passing acquaintance with the church.
Lest I be accused of being a Pharisee, let me quickly get to my points. What creates much of the culture of gun violence is nonexistent knowledge of conflict resolution, among other things. You know, the things that ‘big mama’ teaches. But this is a choice, and those who call for the faith community must also be the faith community. What our community needs is to see people who live their witness in the 21st Century. If more of us had already made that choice, perhaps there would be no need to call on us, because we would already be present.
In this question of gun violence is a challenge to the community and the church. Jesus suggests a better way. In Luke 15, Jesus addresses those who think that the lost and the sinner should be left to fend for themselves. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus shows that the lowly shepherd puts the 99 sheep in a safe place and goes after the one that is lost. In other words, ‘big mama’, the old school, no nonsense nurturer, goes and connects with that teenager who is lost with low self esteem, seeking love and assurance, and brings him back to the community, and the community accepts the teenager with love and renewal. The final gist of the story is that we must be or become ‘big mama’. Many of us avoided great pitfalls in our lives because of her. Now its our turn.
The answers to gun violence on the part of teens is simply too complex to answer in a few sentences, or even in a single, well-thought out essay. A beginning point, and it is only a beginning point, would be for the Christian faith communities to address the question of what we mean when we proclaim the imminent reign of the Prince of Peace, and what we will do now to bring forth that reality. Such a proclamation begins with the confession of our idolatries, especially the idolatry of our gun-worshipping culture
Gun violence is not an isolated problem, confined only to certain ZIP codes or segments of the population. Everyone in our community is, on deep and profound levels, impacted by the culture of violence that so permeates our lives. With that being the case, communities of faith must not be found absent from participation in the initiatives to address this that is, quite literally, killing our life together.
More than being a matter of Second Amendment considerations, this is a people matter. And if there is anything about which people of all faiths in all communities can agree it is that all people matter. We who populate the many and different houses of worship in this area exist for the sake of serving people. We are duty bound to engage the communities in which we find ourselves: to love our neighbors enough to go and know them where they are. We can ill afford to wait for people to find us. Those days in religious life are over. We must embrace the idea that we have something to share that fosters life and then actively engage with the ones who are nearest to us.
Will churches, mosques, temples, and other faith communities be able to cure what ails our gun-obsessed society? Goodness no! But do we serve a God who has demonstrated a continuing commitment to life for all of God’s children? Absolutely. We must engage people with a love that is deep enough to know them, to serve them, and to share life with them.
What should be the faith-based community’s partnership role in curbing youth gun violence- if any? Faith-based communities must partner with the Memphis community at large to curb youth gun violence in several keys ways. First, the church is often the most critical part of the moral voice of a community, helping families and individuals shape their opinions about issues. The church can significantly assist in this issue by helping families and individuals know the importance of saying ‘no’ to the unneeded prevalence of guns in our society and then ‘having their backs’ as they stand up against gun violence. It is not always politically expedient to stand on a particular issue. Thus, the church helps provide knowledge, courage and a moral foundation for families to stand up for what they believe needs to happen in a particular issue. Youth gun violence is one of those issues. Second, churches must also provide the means (and the place) for young people in our community to ‘live, play and work’ in environments without guns. I don’t believe anyone gets up in the morning and says, “Today, I think I will ruin my life”. No, I believe that happens when one decision after another pushes us into places where we believe we have no other choices but the ‘unhealthy ones’.
Are faith communities equipped to serve as effective partners in curbing youth gun violence? If not, what’s needed? Yes and no. ‘Yes’ in the sense that churches have the ability to make a huge difference in this issue. But, unfortunately, ‘No’ because churches can become very self-centered, worried about our own issues and needs and forgetting that most of our young people experience a world very different from those within our stained glass windows. The Church must be willing to ‘show up’ in the lives of those living in our communities and be present from here out (not just when it is easy or only we agree). That is not always easy or welcome. But, we must keep ‘showing up’, learning from our mistakes, celebrating our successes, and believing that tomorrow can be better than today.
Why do so many young men in our community have so many guns and use them? There seem to be many reasons why guns are so prevalent in the lives of, especially, our young men. The gun issue is just a tool or extension of the other issues. The issues include ‘acceptance’ through having the power guns provide in certain situations. Or it might be that guns offer a symbol of misplaced confidence through a message of defiance or warning. Or it might be that young men are drawn to guns because it gives them a sense of protection or security. Others use guns in certain situations because of status symbols, belonging, and intimidation. When the world someone lives in is out of balance, people (especially the most desperate and unsettled) will grab whatever they can find to give them an extra sense of gravitas. However, it is like playing with fire, because the same person you are trying to intimidate or send a message to is also playing the same game with guns. The outcome is a collision that can only lead to harm.
Lest we “demonize” teenagers in our city, we must look at ourselves first. Young people need hope and hope is most often formulated in a family. Mom is working two jobs to make ends meet. Dad is A.W.O.L. in far too many cases. We adults have failed them! If young people don’t have families, they will find one and often that family is the ‘gang’ where one is accepted and gains a level of security that a family should be providing. Then you start a cycle. Some have called it urban nihilism. “Life has no meaning.” “I won’t live to be 25.” “I can’t get a job and I’m failing in school.” If those are the thoughts going through a young person’s head, then firing a gun or engaging in violence is no big deal…it’s just the way it is.
The faith community is called a Family — the Family of God — and our role in urban America is to not only support and build up nuclear families but to stand in the gap when a family is not there for our young people. All over Memphis, this is happening: Churches, synagogues and faith based non profits like STREETS, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Repairing the Breach, Leadership Empowerment Center (formerly Youth Vision), G.A.N.G and dozens of others are mentoring young people, stepping in as role models and giving hope and meaning to life. Can we do more? Absolutely. Must we do more? You bet! We need an “army” of loving, caring adults to stand in the gap for these young people. And there are opportunities everywhere to engage. So, don’t demonize our youth, engage with them! Your life and theirs will be changed.
As far as I know there are no youth in my church who have guns. I would bet that most pastors would say something similar. So the only way that faith communities can have an impact is to partner with organizations that actually work directly with the kids who do have guns. That is not our greatest strength. Churches like doing their own thing. To be effective congregations must be willing to work with community-based organizations that do not necessarily have the same belief system. At the Church Health Center we have always followed John Wesley, who said, “If your heart is like my heart, then give me your hand”. To do so will mean working with groups whose theology you might think is nuts, but that is
God’s problem and not yours.
This is another critical emergency, almost as it was in 1968. Therefore, just as the clergy got together then and spoke as one, it might be helpful if our Memphis Ministers association met, both black and white, and addressed the problem of our youth and the role guns have in their lives. We all know wonderful God loving people who take pride in their gun collection and especially those used for hunting. And of course for law enforcement and the military. But for guns to be available so easily, especially to our youth, is a sin! Of course, parental guidance is important but community involvement is also essential and hopefully helpful.