Meditation from May 15 – the languages of guns and love
An American Language
May 15, 2016
For Beloved Community
Vernon K. Rempel, 2016
Acts 2:1-21 (Presented as a reading from Eva Klink)
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”
Dynamism makes right
Elisabeth Zerofsky wrote last week in The New Yorker
about a reading of the writings of the French philosopher
“What he was saying is that politics as we know it needs to take a secondary position,”
The reader said about Camus. He added that he admired the writer’s independence in standing up to both the left and the right: “He was fearless.” Camus felt that an absence of values had led Europe to disaster, that societies had decided that a leader was right merely because he’d succeeded.
There’s the thing, I think: “…societies had decided that a leader was right merely because he’d succeeded.”
“An absence of values had led Europe to disaster.”
(The New Yorker, May 16, 2016, http://nyer.cm/gMhmTWw)
This sort of “strong man” politics
has unfortunately too often been
encouraged by the Christian faith
Jesus becomes a vacant stand-in
for whatever strength or order or dominance
people want to establish.
“In the name of the Lord.”
And so in our text, Peter’s meditation ends with the phrase:
“Calls on the name of the Lord”
It’s hard for us to not hear it as
yet another “strong man” declaration.
But what if it is not an invitation to become more powerful
where others are less powerful,
or to dazzle the world with words and miracles?
My sense is that the context of
“call on the name of the Lord”
is not to create a new and better religion
that excludes or replaces.
Rather, it is a declaration for healing and repair.
All the people, in the work of the Holy Spirit,
could understand what was being said.
Shared humanity is recovered, repaired, brings joy.
It is as if, today, people stopped driving around
in competition on the road
and began to use their cars as a way
to share the road and to care for each other.
Shared humanity, shared life pathways,
shared speech, being alert to each other,
That is the nature of the wonders of Pentecost,
and it is the context for that phrase
“all who call upon the name of the Lord”
It is not a battle cry to win,
but rather an invitation to transform
for the sake of love.
That is the language of love
that is spoken at Pentecost.
Not a language of fear, dominance, power-mongering.
This last week, I’ve been thinking about
another language, a dominant language
in American culture,
a language of the strong man.
No politician seems to be able to speak another language.
It is the language of guns.
Now what I’m going to say
is not said to be derisive – too much of that already.
I am going to address ridiculousness,
but it is the ridiculousness of the gun-impulse
not the ridiculousness of the people
for one simple reason:
they are God’s children.
We all are.
We are all in this together,
our fates are linked,
we need each other for shared dignity.
Also, I’m not seeking to be right where others are wrong;
I don’t want to be more right.
I want to take action that matters for human lives and dignity.
To walk forward toward a new conversation
and then new social arrangements.
Last week we had the privilege
of visiting a Jewish family as they were
sitting shiva for the young son who had died.
Sitting shiva involves staying in your home
without leaving, for seven days,
cooking no food, wearing torn clothes,
simply sitting and visiting.
So when we arrived, the grieving father and mother
were in their living, just sitting and talking,
the mother on the floor with a friend,
the father in a nearby chair.
Marilyn had known the boy from her work,
so when she came into the room,
they immediately greeted her with great joy.
Then they wanted to know any stories
she might have about their son.
It was a warm ritual.
It gave time for grief to unfold for awhile,
in all the different ways that grief will show up.
It felt organic, significant, and most of all
it felt deeply right, it rang true
to a deep language of love, and loss, and love.
On our way home, we were driving down Arapahoe Road.
I noticed this on the north side:
“Colorado’s biggest gun-safe store.”
Now I suppose that’s good,
if you have them, keep them locked up.
And if you have them for hunting,
then as far as I’m concerned, good enough.
But I wondered, with all the rhetoric about
having guns to protect against the government,
and our Colorado “Make my day” law,
whether a lot of guns in the safe
might be intended to kill people.
As I pondered this, almost immediately
I saw a large sign for an Active Shooter Response conference.
There have, of course, been horrific and tragic shootings
in our area: Columbine, Aurora Theater.
These are now short-hand in the media.
But this is not Syria or Somalia or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan.
We have overwhelming safety and quiet
punctuated by shootings.
Now death is death, and if you lost someone
in one of those shootings, you have lost the world.
And your grief is total and never to be minimized.
What I am talking about is how we speak
to each other in our intentions and practices.
How we speak to each other about guns.
What struck me, as we had left that warm shiva ritual,
and come out on Arapahoe Road,
is that shiva was one ritual,
and guns were another.
Shiva was one ritual language
and guns were another.
There we were driving down a massively safe road,
where all we do all day long is drive and shop.
And prominent in the scenario was having
and using guns for the sake of safety.
Safety layered on safety layered on safety.
Guns feel good to us in our culture.
They feel like the right language for safety.
I think it is highly unlikely that a dark theater
full of guns would have resulted in fewer deaths.
Or more guns being walked around on the streets.
But in our culture, that’s the intuition,
that’s the sense.
Guns are ritual objects of safety
(Unless you’re really vulnerable out in the wilderness
with bears and panthers.
Then they may be real tools of safety.)
Again, I’m not talking about hunting.
We have a friend from south-western Colorado,
who liked to hunt with his 80-something father.
And he was a gourmet cook.
He once made use elk stew
from elk that he shot. It was very good.
Also, I’m not talking about using guns to wound or incapacitate,
in order to stop harm from happening.
John Howard Yoder writes an exchange
about this in his little book What would you do if:
Draft board: would you shoot to protect your family?
Yoder: am I a good shot?
Draft board: okay, yes.
Yoder: then I’d shot the gun out of the intruder’s hands.
Just to be abundantly clear,
what I’m talking about is owning guns
with the possibility and intent and design to kill people.
The ritual language of guns
Guns are the ritual object of safety.
We pray: “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”
in the old WWII prayer
from the song by Frank Loesser,
composed in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
We speak in reverential tones about
the second amendment,
the American way of life.
There is an American coolness about it:
Dirty Harry with his 44 magnum:
“Do you feel lucky punk; well do ya?”
Dirty Harry is also where the phrase “Make my day” came from.
As if to say: “Go ahead and do something
so that I can shoot you. It will make my day.”
It’s how we imagine it.
Actually killing someone has often
awakened other feelings in people,
feelings of enormity and remorse.
With our gun rituals, our gun language,
we get your hearts oriented to killing,
to the possibility of it, the feel for it,
the anticipation of it
It grants a feeling of power, and of safety.
Most people never or rarely use their guns
against another person.
Owning them is instead a ritual of safety.
It is to speak the particularly American
language of safety.
It is as if we are saying:
“In the name of the lock, and the stock, and the barrel”
The ritual language of love
We have another ritual language:
it is the the language of bread and wine,
that speaks words of eternal love.
In this ritual language
we get our hearts oriented to love,
to the possibility of it,
the feel for it, the anticipation of it.
I believe that those who would speak
the language of Pentecost,
that language of the healing of the nations,
the miracle of new communication and connection
will choose love, not guns
we will choose the Spirit of Christ,
not the dazzling power of a strong man,
For our safety, our future, and our way of life.
we will choose love.
So be it.