Theology of Guns

for: Project Working Group, Interfaith Center of N.Y.

Bill Leicht, 11 May 2000

In the discussions of handgun violence the interfaith community uniquely represents the concern for being, the sacredness of life. Like other people we feel revulsion at the statistics which distinguish the United States as the most violent country in the industrialized world. Nevertheless our ability to contribute depends more upon our understanding and compassion for people as subjects than upon any special ability to deal with the objective reality of the violence. The interfaith community is called to speak to the soul sickness behind our social malaise.

The Language of Respect

When they talk about violence, and about handguns in particular, kids, cops and the National Rifle Association ("NRA") all use the language of respect. The NRA uses it in talking about citizens' Second Amendment rights to bear arms (and resist tyranny) and their right to defend themselves against a tide of criminal handgun violence. Peace Officers, "cops," are concerned first for their personal safety and second for the handgun as both symbol and evidence of their authority. Kids want to command respect among peers and then to feel safe in possessing the force of a handgun, the "equalizer." None advocate aggression, but that is the outcome of available handguns and lack of understanding of respect.

What kids mean when they say they want "respect" is that they want to be recognized as human beings, not as under-aged objects in an adult world; and they want to feel safe as opposed to feeling that shortly they may "not be." But young people don't know how to reach those goals easily or consistently. Before any peacemaking the first task of conflict resolution is building respect. It is recognizing another person as a being; peace or conflict management grows from the skills of recognizing being.

Greater safety in an unsafe world is a consequence of those conflict resolution skills, while gun possession increases danger. Peace officers put personal safety at the top of their list; for them respect does not mean primarily their recognition as human beings, but as powerful authorities. Consequently, their major wish is that handguns they may face in their jobs be fewer. Thus police training for respect (e.g. the "Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" campaign in NYC) often is more concerned with public relations than with public safety. The beat cop carrying a sidearm often lacks the very skills of respect, of conflict resolution of recognizing being, that would assure his and the public's safety. Safety skills are the developed capacity to extend and embody respect under stress with consistent grace and relaxation, in other words, "conflict management."

Likewise, NRA people probably are also concerned with being, but their language focuses on the object of their veneration, the gun. Nevertheless, dialog may be possible by shifting discussion from handguns as objects of right and symbols of manhood, citizenship, etc. to their purpose as instruments of death, of non-being. The NRA theme that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is actually a move in the right direction. Pursuing this theme merits a separate essay.

Why is it necessary to discuss language in talking about the Theology of Guns? Briefly, 1) Our hard-won separation of church and state means that any religious language of being is unwelcome in secular society and especially in our public education, 2) English and other Romance languages contain the words for being in the form of copulas which do not take a subject and an object, but pair of nouns or adjectives as equivalents. It is possible to say I am, but the English speaker will inevitably say, You are what?That first statement is basic to conflict resolution, because it expresses self respect in the most abbreviated, powerful way. English interferes by interposing the query. In the process being loses its sacred, life-affirming meaning and conflict over objects is easy while affirmation that leads to respect is hard. We need to re-infuse the breath of life into the language of being so that conveying respect is normal, simple and expected.

Learning to convey respect is the mission of conflict resolution training. It proceeds through Affirmation of self and other, to Attention to another being's interests. These represent hope that leads to an increase in Trust or faith in the parties' mutual concern and being, then finally to Transformation in which the object of conflict becomes the subject of dialog and leads to personal and interpersonal growth: in short to love. These words and ideas express the basic ("religious") ideas of faith, hope, and charity in non-religious terms as stages of respect.

The Rites of Guns

Young men commit far the greatest number of attacks with hand guns. Increasingly, girls are also using handguns. It is these same young people who drop out of our temples, churches, mosques and meetings. They also drop out of school. The interfaith community needs to examine what happens before, during and after they disappear from among us to form their own alienated groups. In particular, how have Rites of Guns affected some of the traditional religious rites of passage into adulthood? Some questions we might address are:

A Rite of Passage can help young people to organize identity into a new pattern or gestalt which in turn influences the resources and responses available for development through that stage. If it is based on objective power, like gun possession (and much team sport) young people come to see identity as objective and defined in terms of winning or losing power. If based on subjective awareness, like a bar mitzvah or convocation, the person sees identity as subjective and defined in terms of relationship with other beings. Choices and resources following on such identifications determine whether they may join a congregation of religious people or of street people.