Thirty thousand people are killed each year by gun violence. First we need to mourn. Not only the children of privilege whose lives are mourned publicly, but all the children, and the men and the women, who were killed, who killed and then were killed, who committed suicide because in their moment of rashness a gun was at hand. All are part of this maelstrom of violence. First we need to mourn. We need to declare a Sabbatical. To let go of the impulse to shoot, to kill. To let go of the rhetoric of cheap heroism and violent fantasies. We need to rest and be ensouled as God rested on the seventh day and was ensouled.
This weekend has been set aside by the National Cathedral and Faiths United Against Gun Violence as Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. This weekend is a time when in our communities of faith we can spend some time meditating on the mounting number of casualties that are a result of gun violence. Gun violence is a catastrophe. The deaths and injuries, intended, and unintended, malicious and negligent, are all tragic. Every human life wasted by a small piece of metal forced out of a metal casing by a small amount of gun powder at incredible speed, is a whole world cut off, wiped out.
I don’t want to engage in the polemics of statistics and definitions. What exactly is an “assault rifle”? What is the difference between automatic and semi-automatic? Do guns protect or endanger their owners in times of crisis? There is good and trustworthy research being done which has produced believable, accurate statistics. If that is your interest (and I urge you to be interested) I refer you to the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. There are also other places such as this where policy oriented scientific research is being done.
There is also “collateral damage” to the culture in this country from the prevalence of guns and the absolutist belief in the right to bear arms.
At heart is the question: what place should guns have in our culture? in our self-conception? This is not a new question. The Mishnah raises this question in the context of figuring out the religio-legal boundaries of the Shabbat. May one carry weapons on Shabbat from private to public domain? The Rabbis differ. One Rabbi, Eliezer, says that weapons are a man’s adornments. (“Man’s adornment” is intentional, the rabbis see weapons as gendered male. This too is reflected in current discourse.) “Sages,” the collective voice of the rest of the rabbis push back, saying that “they are nothing but shame,” and then, as a prooftext, quoting this famous verse from Isaiah 2: And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: a nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. The Shabbat, goes the thinking, is a performance of the world to come, the ideal world. In that world there will be no guns, therefore bringing guns into Shabbat is shameful, degrading, both to the arms bearer and to the Shabbat.
When the Sages of the Talmud, centuries later in Babylonian, ask after Rabbi Eliezer’s source for lauding weaponry as “adornment,” Abbaye suggests that he was looking to this verse: (Psalms 45:4): Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero, in your splendor and glory. This verse seems to say explicitly that a “hero’s” sword is his splendor and glory.
Rabbi Kahane immediately replies that this verse is obviously referring to teachings of Torah. That is, the sword which is girded upon the thigh of the hero is actually the teachings of Torah girded on a Sage. There are no weapons here.
The debate goes on.
Abbaye says that the plain meaning of the verse must be taken into account. Rabbi Kahane expresses astonishment at this demand. “I have been here for eighteen years and have studied the complete rabbinic curriculum, and until this moment I never heard this rule, that ‘a verse may not be removed from its literal meaning.’” (The whole Rabbinic enterprise is built upon midrashic rereadings of verses.)
The outlines of this debate are not that different from the current debate. A weaponized society is not a subtle society. A gun stops discourse. The NRA folks like to say that “an armed society is a polite society.” This may or may not be true. (It could easily be a society of constant gun battles, with body counts even higher than today’s.) However, it is not a “polite” society that we want or need. Democracy, for it to work, needs to be boisterous not quiet. The recent shooting of nineteen year old Jordan Davis in a gas station by a man who thought his music was too loud, or the shooting of a father of a three year old in a movie for inappropriate talking on a cell-phone, gives us a glimpse of what the “polite” society might look like. An intimidated society is not a polite society. It is a society in which everybody lives in fear.
Guns in America today are not gender neutral. (The violently sexist rhetoric of many second amendment fundamentalists is nauseating and frightening.) Men are overwhelmingly the shooters. Women, in domestic disputes, are overwhelmingly the victims of intimate gun violence. The real violence of guns, however, also makes its way into the halls of power. There is a connection, I would suggest, between the violence of the gun rhetoric (“stand your ground” “opposing tyranny” “take my gun from my cold dead hand”) and the violence of some of our foreign policy debates. When a gun is your tool of choice, every situation seems ripe for a martial solution.
We can gradually walk ourselves back from the brink. Common sense gun regulations, regulations which rise above the ineffectual but won’t scare politicians too much, can and do make a difference. The most basic of these is making background checks obligatory in all gun sales. There is convincing evidence that this works. In those states in which background checks are the law in all handgun sales, there are fewer women killed with a gun by an intimate partner, there are fewer suicides with a gun, there are fewer police officers murdered with a handgun that was not their own. It is a small step but a step in the right direction.
We should take this Shabbat, this day in which we remove ourselves from the hurly burly of the world and come face to face with each other, to ask ourselves whether we can afford the rising body counts, the rising fear, the rising intimidation of a weaponized society.
What you can do:
- Get involved. Go to a congregation this Shabbat which is participating in Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. There is a list of participating congregations here If you are in Los Angeles, come to the Shtibl Minyan. (That is where I’ll be.)
- Tell your congressperson that you are in favor of background checks and that you are tracking this issue.
- Talk with folks.
- Don’t lose hope.