When a Stranger Brings a Duffle-Bag to Church

Yesterday, at church, a stranger in military fatigues sat in the front pew with a zipped duffle-bag beside him. He was enthusiastic in his participation. He might have been homeless. And God help me, I kept an eye on that bag. Just as we finished the hymn before the sermon, the man grabbed his bag and walked toward the back of the church. Was he headed out, maybe? Or into the balcony that overlooks the congregation? It turns out that he wandered downstairs, to what I call the mingle bin, where he waited to visit with us over coffee and donut holes.

I didn’t talk to him, but he seemed to be a lovely man—a Vietnam vet. I hope he enjoyed our music, and our quiet, or at least our air conditioning. I hope he didn’t notice that at least some of us imagined scenarios of our diving under the pews, or shielding the children, or even jumping on top of the guy from our vantage in the choir loft. It’s all laughable—we altos of vengeance—until it’s not.

Now a church must be a welcoming place. By definition, it’s a sanctuary. It must especially welcome the stranger. It should certainly welcome the homeless. But according to Business Insider, we’ve had 158 mass shootings* in 2018 alone, where (as of June 28) we have gone 177 days into the year.  According to MassShootingTracker.org, 338 US mass shootings had occurred in 2017, by the start of October. There are, of course, only 365 days in a year.  On top of that, we can all remember the church shooting in Texas, and the one in South Carolina, and the one that killed members of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. So, yeah, I kept an eye on the guy’s duffle-bag.

We liberal churchy types are in an odd spot. Now, more than ever, we want to keep our doors open to those whom society has sought to remove. A few years ago, my own denomination featured a national television ad where we showed conservative churches ejecting undesirables from their pews—the way Trumpers now seek to eject certain people from our border and our military. The liberal church, now more than ever, must declare that because all people enjoy extreme human dignity, all people** enjoy a place before God.

But in the meantime, we say, please don’t shoot us. In the meantime, my church has devised a crisis plan that involves calling police when most necessary, and not calling them at any other point, so that people in our church who are afraid of police can feel that much safer. In the meantime, my church has to stand publicly for the causes we believe in, while we know our stance is at cross purposes with the demographic that has the most guns (and committed the most shootings).

We have to think about all of this—how to become both wise as serpents and gentle as doves. And as I confronted these things in the time it takes to go from prelude to postlude, I decided on a few points:

1.We can make a plan, but it has to stay defensive. Church safety does not involve ushers who are packing heat. I don’ have space to get into this argument, other than to urge you to look into reasons why few (if any) armed civilians have been able to stop a mass shooting, even in a state where guns are plentiful. A man with a pistol and a MAGA hat tried to help at the Texas high school shooting. Police tackled him, and called him a “slap in the face.”

2. A defensive plan is reactive, but not reactionary. The worst thing that could happen with a stranger in church is a mass shooting. That’s probably true. But the second worse thing is a false alarm. A false alarm is also far more likely to occur—and it can damage Christianity almost as badly as a massacre.  Can you imagine a church calling the police on a homeless veteran, or on a couple of Latinos, or on an unfamiliar black man? That one move would ratify every prejudice our opponents say we have. And as for us liberals who work hard—but not hard enough—to differentiate ourselves from the Bible thumper, one mistake like that will throw us right back onto the pile of BS whose stink we have tried for years to remove.

3. This is all to say that we can have a defensive plan, sure–but it can’t displace our cause. As I sat in the sanctuary with the man with the duffle-bag, our minister preached against worry. He was talking about the lilies and their toiling and spinning; it had nothing to do with who had come to church that day. But as these things do, the scripture settled on me until it got under my skin. These days, much of the country’s most appalling behavior comes from fear. We fear the Muslim; we fear the “illegal;” we fear the black man as he reaches for his cellphone. We fear that our enemies take advantage of us; we fear that they plot a war on “American values” (whatever those are). We tremble ourselves toward committing atrocity. And once we become party to that cruelty—to that sin—I believe we’ll have suffered a fate worse than death. It’s a fate that damages our entire line. It’s a fate that damages our souls.

Really. That’s what I thought about while I watched Mr. Duffle-Bag wave at the kids during the children sermon.  There are fates worse than death. Am I going to be foolish about my safety? No. Of course not. But I’m also not going to be predatory about yours. If the Trump era has taught me anything it’s that there exists a group of people who would love for the US to become its own shooting match. In fact there exists other people who would love to see it all break out in a church.

So be still—be still. That’s what faith is. Do what you’re told and love your neighbor. A nation panicked is a national mob. But discipline is what makes it an army, or a team–or a resistance. Be still. And as we stay calm, we can show that every person is made for things greater than fear.

*While still up for debate, the average definition of a mass shooting involves four or more victims, other than the shooter.

**And it’s easy to say, “Wait! The disenfranchised aren’t the people doing the shooting.” And any statistic would show that you’re right. But welcome, if genuine, also must involve the white guy in the army fatigues. And that’s the crux of my problem.

What Arming Teachers Targets

Here’s the thought that woke me up last night: Trump and/or his wackos succeed in passing some sort of measure that requires teachers to carry guns. Being utterly appalled at the thought of packing such a thing, much less using one on a child they’ve taught, most liberal and moderate teachers resign. We still need teachers, though, so mostly Trumpite teachers take their place. So now we not only have teachers who are willing to shoot whomever needs shooting (or whomever they think needs shooting), but we also have teachers who, following Trump, probably take a dim view of certain subjects, such as science, history, civics, comparative religion, and critical thinking. 

Conspiracy theory, you say? I’m not sure the Trumpites have actually put this in their playbook, but they’ve been gunning (sigh) for the schools for a while now. And besides all that, situations have a way of manifesting from their own factors, regardless of intent.

(Originally posted February 24, 2018)


Smoking Gun

Especially after all the bloodshed that these things promote, it is inconceivable to me why anyone would want access to an assault rifle’s capability to kill so many people, so fast. This morning, I tried on a few reasons—and I warn you, it made me write a slightly-unshapely… accretion. I also warn you that my thinking has led me to a horribly unpleasant realization.

At first I wondered if an assault rifle would provide protection. But then I wondered about protection from whom. Are we talking about a home invader? I mean, wouldn’t a basic, BLAM-BLAM sort of gun do the job in that case? If you need an assault rifle, I need to ask exactly how many people you’ve pissed off. And besides all that, isn’t it true that family members have been injured when, say, even shotgun spray goes through a wall? It seems like an assault rifle would do much worse. 

So what about protection from a mass shooter—or a terrorist, even? Are we going to start carrying assault rifles to movies and nightclubs? Even parodies of the Wild West have the saloon guy saying that you have to check the guns at the door. But let’s say Mr. Blamo does come into your mall, or movie theater, or ice-skating rink, and you have a gun (of any kind). That’s happened before, of course. It happened in Aurora. But it turns out that the good guys don’t shoot, in this situation. Sometimes they can’t see; sometimes they don’t get a clear shot; sometimes they’re afraid that when the police come, they’ll shoot the guy who’s, uh, shooting. You have to give props to these responsible gun owners. All of that makes perfect sense. But it makes me wonder how irresponsible you’d have to be, even to shoot a pistol—let alone an assault rifle—into a panicked public.

Okay, so what about government take-over? If you press some gun owners hard enough, they’ll say that this is something to hedge against. Stepping aside from the debate over that suspicion, I’ve never had a better occasion to ask, “You and what army?” An assault rifle is a potent thing, but it’s got nothing on rocket launchers, helicopters, tanks, F-16s, and all manner of very disquieting warheads. A machine gun—even a battalion of people with machine guns—is not going to help you here. Weapons enthusiasts know this. And this makes me wonder where some of them really want to draw the line. Does the Second Amendment grant each citizen the right to build an of arsenal of any kind? Should Wall-Mart be allowed to sell rocket-launchers? What about that nice chemistry lab on University Ave? Should it be able to sell sarin gas? Our government has those things. In fact, so do our more present enemies. But by my lights, we’d only increase the terror if you, and I, and the guy on the bus had them too.

But let’s go back to the Second Amendment, because that seems to be the great scripture that gun people use to support their claims. And I use “scripture” advisedly, because the Second Amendment is prone to the same sort of out-of-context cherry-picking as a line from any sacred text. In full, the Second Amendment goes like this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When it’s possible for suspected terrorists to buy an assault rifle, I see very little “security of a free state.” When the law requires gun owners to have less training than what you need to earn a driver’s license, I see very little “security of a free state.” And I certainly don’t see a well-regulated anything—let alone a “well-regulated militia,” which implies some kind of organization instead of a guy, a computer full of conspiracies and a head full of hate. 

And please, let’s not forget that in the 18th Century, the height of weapons technology was something that took, what? Three steps to fire? There’s pouring and tamping and cocking, and I don’t know what else. In any event, it’s not very Duke Nukem. This should be an old argument by now—but I feel that I have to repeat it: Today’s assault rifle has more destructive power than the Continental Army’s basic cannon. Treating it as what the Second Amendment allows is like saying the Founding Fathers wanted us all to have access to something they couldn’t even imagine. They hadn’t seen modern warfare. Heck. They’d developed an edge over the Brits by deciding it was better to skirmish than to shoot in a line. Some historians say it was actually the Civil War that gave the first glimpse of modern warfare. This saw the innovation of the faster-firing rifle, which had a range of 1000 yards instead of a musket’s 250. It saw the advent of the devastating repeater, which could fire seven bullets in a minute. And this was about 75 years after anybody penned the Second Amendment.

So, in light of all this, I’m really working to keep an open mind. I’m honestly looking for reasons why Citizens and Assault Rifles is a needful thing. The only time I’ve been somewhat accepting of an assault rifle is when it was in the hands of the National Guard, as they stood in the airports after 9/11. In other words, I accept assault rifles only when we’re under siege. So is that the difference? Do the pro-assault folks feel under siege? And if that’s the case, what so threatens them? Is it ISIS? ISIS is using the very weapons we want to protect us. ISIS recruits from within the United States, and says, “Hey. Go buy a gun. It doesn’t matter what list you’re on. They’ll let you.” And besides all that, a little digging shows that the NRA started to shift from pro-gun-control to anti-regulation way back in the 1970s—which, incidentally, was just before the time the US was supporting the porto-organizations that gave us ISIS. When the NRA was born after the horrors of the Civil War, its motto was: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” Over the years, it stood behind gun-control measures that came about under FDR, for example, who wanted to keep guns out of the hands of gangsters. But then, in 1967, six Black Panthers, wearing three-piece suits, walked into the California State House, and declared that oppressed blacks would defend themselves. To this, Governor Ronald Reagan said, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon.” (This NRA stuff is all reported by Salon writer, Steven Rosenfeld.) After the Black Panther event—plus a post-Kennedy-assassination push for more gun control—the NRA started to split. There was a NRA faction that wanted to loosen gun control. And it was led by a guy named Harlan Carter, who’d been acquitted in Texas, for shooting a Mexican who’d come at him with a knife. His faction toppled the NRA’s old regime, and changed the NRA motto to the cherry-picked Second Amendment that goes like this: “The Rights of The People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” The change, by the way, brought the ire of Nixon-appointed Supreme Court Justice, Warren Burger, who said the NRA’s new view of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

At best, then, the pro-assault siege mentality is a fabrication that’s been brought about, despite the protests of conservative icons. It’s run directly against the wisdom of the NRA itself. It’s run directly against the government’s wisdom that saw us through the rise of two Kennedy assassinations, plus Al Capone and his tommy guns. And the impetus from all this reversal comes, at least in part, from the appearance of the Black Panthers. You can say there were other factors; I’m sure that gun sellers make more profit when there are fewer regulations. (They also make much more profit, when there’s more fear.) You could also say that gun regulations infringe on the rural way of life, which includes, I guess, the right to defend one’s land. But then I refer both to my beginning point about protection and also the final point I make here: The question, again, is protection from whom? When I look at the siege mentality that persists after all logic breaks it down, I see that it isn’t the government that the pro-assault people fear. It isn’t anything so armed. It isn’t just ISIS; terrorists make up a minuscule portion of last year’s 60 mass shootings. Nor is it the gun-blasting crazy who goes berserk about un-Christian behavior, or bad lovers or bad grades. Otherwise, we’d be shoring up funding for mental health. (While in fact, in some places, such as Iowa, we’re defunding mental healthcare.) The siege mentality is about the Other. We have to kill the Other—the brown terrorist or the brown Mexican who creeps over the border with a knife. It is, in a sense, the same fear that drives the trope of the lone machine-gunner mowing down a horde of zombies. Zombies–who have so often stood for a society gone amok. At the heart of this siege mentality—at the heart of this fraud that has confounded the staunchest, old-guard conservatives—is racism.

(Originally posted June 26, 2016)