Thursday, June 25, 2015

Church, Race, and Guns

The shooter, Dylann Roof, killer of nine, including four ministers, at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, was many things: an ELCA member, baptized and probably confirmed in the ELCA, regular church attendee, and a summer camper at a church camp. And a White supremacist. Dylann's father, Franklin, goes to church twice a week. And there is more. Two of the pastoral victims were graduates of an ELCA seminary. 

What intrigues me is how the church is a central focus in this tragedy.  I am driven to my knees that as an ELCA pastor, I am led to ask questions about the place of the church, the teachings of the church, the practices of the church, my ELCA! And of the Black Church. Places of worship, learning, counseling, nurturing, community gathering, suddenly becoming central casting characters in a racist tragedy.

Yet, this scenario is unfortunately not new. The church has historically been the cauldron of violence. In the 1960's, more than 200 Black and multi-racial churches were torched. Similarly, in the 1960's, over 300 Black churches were bombed. In the fall of 1870, the KKK burned nearly every Black church in Tuskegee, Alabama to the ground. In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, 4 young girls were killed in a church bombing.

Why? Racism for sure. But more deeply, according to W.E.B. Dubois, churches were the "First social institution fully controlled by Black men in America." Pastor Belin, an African American pastor, said, "You attack the center, whatever you think is going to hit at the heart. The Black church has been the heart." The church was a center for growing Black strength which was threatening to the White power structure.

Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center says: "[The Black church] is a symbol of Black communion.  If you want to harm Black folks, it's an obvious easy target." The Black church was a vulnerable "soft target." There were no guard towers, land mines, or barbed wire protections. The church is about relationships, fellowship, sharing of means, learning, and listening to the Word, together. Come on in!

In the NEW YORK TIMES, Campbell Robertson and Rachel Swarns write: ""During segregation, churches became places where Black men and women found leadership opportunities denied them by White society." The Black church was about empowerment and human development, unsettling dynamics to White Supremacists. 

Yet unfortunately, the impact of church on violence is sadly legion. Church can create guilt. Church can create a relationship of us and them, insider and outsider. Church can create a justification of the righteous against the unrighteous. Church can be a volatile mix. Into this mix, guns can be the means of a distorted cleansing and blasphemous capital punishment.

Yet, the church must be the church. By its nature, the church is a vulnerable people. The church welcomes all people, opens itself to all, peaches and teaches to all.  The church is not a place for guns, nor a place to preach and teach hatred. The church is the place where peace and love are practiced, forgiveness is generous, where justice is planned and carried out in the world, where the nonviolence of Jesus is announced, taught, and practiced, where all kneel to receive the grace of God in the Body and Blood of Jesus. In church, guns do not have the last word, even as the gun cracks, the bullets strike, and the powder fills the room. The church is the place of eternal rising. The Emanuel AME Bible study has reclaimed the place of shooting: "This territory belongs to God." "Death is swallowed up in victory!"


Sunday, June 14, 2015

I'm Stickin'
James Carville, former advisor to President Clinton, wrote a book titled I'm Stickin'. He explained why he was staying with certain political positions and party. Call it a political apologetic! There have been times when I have had questions about whether to "stick" with the ELCA. I remember proclaiming that I was an ELCAer by confession, but a Mennonite at heart. I liked the Mennonite positions on peacemaking and nonviolence; whereas I felt the ELCA was rather "mushy" about both.

Since that time, I have remained with the ELCA.  I'm stickin'!  Why? 

Because, as I have made a major commitment to nonviolence and anti-violence action in the arena of gun violence prevention, the ELCA has stood-up and spoken-up about positions to address anti-violence actions that lend Biblical, confessional, and ecclesiological support for actions addressing gun violence prevention. The ELCA has stood strong. What has been said:

1.  Jesus has said "No more of this" and "Enough" and "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." when addressing swords and weapons. Nonviolence anyone?

2.  Paul writes of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, all of which are nonviolent: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

3. One might ask: "What about the Old Testament?" Two responses: 1) We must look at the OT through the lens of the NT and Jesus, and in so doing we see an evolving arc of growing nonviolence; 2) Ask: If the OT was so correct about the way of following God, why was Jesus Christ necessary? I suggest Jesus was necessary because people had lost their way in knowing what it means to follow God, to live lives pleasing to God as created in God's Image, to live as human beings as God intended. God had to come in human form to remind us what it means to be a human being. To be a human being means to live nonviolently.

4.  Statements of the ELCA. When it comes to gun violence prevention, the ELCA has made some bold and courageous statements: In 1989 at the Church wide Assembly, a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons was urged as a study proposal meant to move the ELCA to consider an outright ban or regulation. In 1993, again at Church wide, support for the Brady Bill was passed, as was the urging of congregations, synods and agencies to support a broad array of gun control measures.

The 1994 Church Council called on members of the congregations to consider how they might be more involved in countering the reality of and fear of violence in their communities. Gun control was again urged. The 1995 Social Statement "For Peace in God's World" calls upon people to become peacemakers. The 2013 Church wide Assembly called upon members to contact their elected officials and advocate for passage of legislation that promotes universal background checks, prevents gun trafficking, and requires the reporting of lost or stolen guns. A 2013 Pastoral Letter endorsed by the ELCA Bishops urged the church to address gun violence.

Biblical, confessional and ecclesiological groundwork have been formed to encourage and empower people to address gun violence prevention. This is good enough for me! Now the call and the challenge to synods and congregations to trust the Biblical, confessional, and ecclesiological witnesses. With God on our side, who can be against us? [We] can do all things in Christ who strengthens us!

I'm stickin'! 


Ron Letnes