Every January, we remember nationally, with gratitude, the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and we also remember that he did not do this work alone; that the power of Dr. King’s message was his invitation to each of us to dismantle the structures of oppression and injustice in our communities and in our nations; his invitation to radical love for each other even in the face of hostility and hate, even in the face of distrust and difference. I pray that we, too, will find the strength and courage to stand on the side of love, to resist through nonviolent action and to link ourselves to our neighbors, to find the strength to address violence in its many forms.
I’ve been an activist for many causes—from immigrant rights to environmental justice, tenants rights and access to affordable housing, from economic access issues like fair wages and equal pay to access to health care and quality education. I have long held that these issues are intricately connected, and in some ways it didn’t matter which one I was working on as long as I could see the web of connections. When I came to Kansas, I was invited to work with a group of people from faith communities on preventing and responding to gun violence.
This was an issue near and dear to my heart as my husband and aunt lived through a school shooting in the 1980’s in Goddard, KS—an event that surely changed both of their lives in profound ways. Gun violence takes on many forms in our culture, because we have so much more access to guns than any other society.
It is estimated that we may currently have more guns than people in our country, with the Washington Post reporting that we have 357 million guns and 317 million people in the U.S. http://gun-control.procon.org/
22% of Americans own one or more guns (obviously some people own a lot)
Over last 25 years, research on the effect of guns on public health has come to a near standstill, as the the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was basically forced to discontinue its work following the Dickey Amendment, which deducted $2.6 billion from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount of its gun research program, and restricted CDC (and, later, NIH) gun research. Sadly, it’s reported that Jay Dickey (R-AR), now retired from Congress and the author of the Dickey Amendment and has since stated that he no longer supports the amendment: “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time… I have regrets.” 
According to the Everytown website, guns are the number one cause of death in homicides and suicides, and are the number 12 cause of death overall every year, and the 14th cause of accidental death in the United States. This statistic is particularly sobering as we face the proliferation of guns on college campuses. Everytown, a national group devoted to ending gun violence, shows that women in domestic abuse situations are 5x more likely to be killed by the abuser if there is a gun in the house and 62% of firearms deaths are suicide. Finally, black men are 14 times more likely to be killed by a gun than white men.
But we’re not just armed to the teeth with guns. We are armed to the teeth on multiple levels. When I agreed to take 5 teenagers to the UU United Nations Office Spring Seminar this year I had no idea how many other ways we are armed to the teeth. The Ploughshares Fund shows that while we have decreased the number of nuclear warheads we have since the cold war, the reality is that there are still nearly 15,000 known nuclear warheads—with Russia and United States holding the majority of these. (7,000 and 6,800 respectively). A small fraction of these, if detonated, would destroy life as we know it on this planet. Increased tensions with Russia and North Korea are among the global irritants that have moved the Doomsday clock to 2.5 minutes to midnight in 2017–midnight being nuclear warfare has happened. So while we have fewer of these weapons overall, we still have far too many and the tensions that could lead to these being deployed is deemed to be quite high.
Drone warfare has also become a political hot button—being used with greater and greater frequency and allowing governments like ours to be disconnected from the violence they bring—lives lost are just numbers, people who are never encountered by the deliverer, allowing no deep awareness of the harm done. In-accuracy and the inability to be sure that targets do not include civilians have led to incredible loss of life and health and have raised tensions and conflicts rather than decreasing them.
In thinking about violence in our culture, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about and talking about all of the factors that lead us to be violent. For me, right relationship or being out of right relationship is at the core of our choices individually and culturally. Theologian and essayist James Luther Adams, in his essay on “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature” puts it this way: “As creative beings we can act to preserve or increase, destroy or pervert, mutuality…we are fatefully caught in history, both as individuals and as members of a group, and we are also able to be creative in history” (65 Essential JLA). Adams says that “we can use our freedom by expressing a will to mutuality, but we can also abuse it by exercising a will to power.” (69) The escalation of arms—whether guns, bombs dropped by drones, or nuclear warheads–in any human community, is an exercise of power. The use of restorative justice practices and non violent resistance strategies are a will to mutuality. Human nature is capable of action across the wide spectrum of these.
My husband, John, has been very avidly following the gun violence debate over the last several years and finds it to be connected to violence as a cultural paradigm he tracks in sports, movies, and other activities. John began by re-evaluating his love of certain movies in the face of the violence they insinuate. About three years ago, he decided to simply let go of the movies in our collection that were most violent, despite a couple of decades of re-visiting them. One of the movies he got rid of was the cult classic “Boon Dock Saints,” wherein a trio of Irishmen who have been involved in crime start to bring vigilante justice to their rough world of crime. There’s a lot of gun fire, a lot death, and a lot of drinking.
Partly, he was thinking about what our kids would eventually watch and partly he was thinking about being in right relationship with himself. John chose not keep those movies because he felt they brought him into collusion with the consumption of violence. Adams would say that he has chosen mutuality over the other choice to “waste freedom or abuse it by devotion to idols of the tribe, the theatre, the cave, and the marketplace” (71). This choice may seem simple, small and unimportant in the larger scheme of solving gun violence or other kinds of violence on our planet, but I think it represents an important pivot point. Consuming violence allows us to see it differently, to become accustomed to being emotionally disengaged from the real consequences of violence.
It seems we are making choices that move us further and further away from real peace, whether it is personal, domestic or international. We are armed to the teeth and praying for peace; but there is so much more we can do than pray.
My partner John’s work as an educator has taken us and our community into a journey to learn more about Restorative Justice, which is a form of non-violent communication and conflict resolution that seeks to address the harm done to relationships whether between people, groups, or countries, and to seek healing; it’s relevant at multiple levels. In schools–where we engage with kids in conflict with each other and teachers, and instead of sending them away from class or suspending them from school, we seek to repair harm and heal relationships; it is also at play in the criminal justice system and there is also a parallel use in large scale international conflict zones. Whether we are suspending kids, incarcerating people, buying guns, dropping bombs or building nukes, we are essentially choosing to avoid dealing with the actual underlying conflicts and issues and disengaging relationships, ignoring suffering and the needs that others have tried to communicate. This is violence, and it shows up in every level of human society.
We can’t decide whether or how other people are in right relationship to themselves or others; simply playing a violent video game, watching a movie or listening to certain music, or even owning a gun can’t be the litmus test; the truth lies in a place much deeper than that, a place each of us must examine. For my husband John, “right thought” was impacted by the environment he chose to create for himself, when he was in tune with the messages of the movies he was consuming, he found himself in a place of cognitive dissonance. As an educator, John introduced the middle school he works at and later the rest of his school district, to restorative practices. These practices, which begin in a circle of trust and listening, allow kids and teachers to build deeper relationship and when in conflict, to restore relationships by addressing the harm done by each other and making commitments to make amends and try new strategies for being community. The key is whether we are engaging practices and strategies that address the harm done and look for better ways to be in community–commitments to engage with each other differently.
Violence is the result of unexpressed and unheard needs–writer Thomas Moore created a diagnosis for this which he calls “Repression of the life force” (127)– when we become isolated and feel our needs are not being addressed. There is a continuum of violence–from how we address ourselves internally, to the kinds of actions and words we bring into our world. Whether someone is able to see how their words and actions “land” for those around them is essential, because not noticing our impact on others is its own form of violence. From this perspective, not providing access to adequate health care or housing is a form of violence; not offering a living wage is a form of violence. Not providing the kinds of learning experiences and opportunities necessary to fully and productively engage in our communities is a form of violence. and so on. When we use restorative practices to understand why a group has turned to violence, we always uncover a significant harm that needs to be addressed. If we drop a bomb on them instead, the harm is increased, and usually the level of violence as well. Having access to basic needs allows people to engage differently with the world around them. Maslowe’s pyramid–that tells us we can’t reach self-actualization when our basic needs aren’t being met– isn’t just a way to understand individual people, it is also a way to understand groups of people and nation-states.
One of researchers I have been learning from recently is a professor named Erica Chenoweth who did research on and compared the effective outcomes of violent resistance and non violent resistance; her research was groundbreaking and changed even her mind. She found two very startling things. One was that from 1900 to 2006, non-violent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.
In addition, the trend over the last 50 years has been that non-violent campaigns are increasingly more successful and violent campaigns decreasingly successful (3:51-4:22). She then also shares that her research has uncovered that the percentage of people participating necessary to have a non-violent campaign be successful is just….[Take some guesses?]
3.5%, sometimes less. She says:
“The point here is that nonviolent campaigns can solicit more diverse and active participation from ambivalent people. And once those people get involved, it’s almost guaranteed that the movement will then have some links to security forces, the state media, business or educational elites, religious authorities, and civilian bureaucrats who start to question their allegiances. No regime loyalists in any country live entirely isolated from the population itself. They have friends, they have family, and they have existing relationships that they have to live with in the long term, regardless of whether the leader stays or goes.”
Non violent resistance begins with our ability to speak out against harm we see. Learning to find and use our collective prophetic voices is vital to our sense of ourselves within community. With this prophetic voice, we may choose to:
speak against hate crimes and racial injustices in our justice system and communities, in our economic system and in the fabric of American life; we may proclaim that BLACK LIVES MATTER
speak out against the availability of weapons that have no use in any setting except perhaps war, and perhaps even against war itself and international violence
speak up for the rights and access of marginalized communities that have already sustained wounds from our prejudice and imbalanced systems of power;
speak up for access to basic needs for all of us–all human beings– and define these to include our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being so that we may have housing and food, safety and health, love and connection.
When we speak up, we are in right relationship with ourselves and our community, we are addressing the harm and attempting to begin healing. As Thomas Moore reminds us, “Like an animal, the soul feeds on whatever life grows in its immediate environment.” (Care of the Soul 203). I am advocating that we connect ourselves with what Moore calls “soul power” both individually and communally. In this way we may find ourselves, as Moore describes, at the “fulcrum of action and intelligence that feels the weight both of the soul and the intellect” (120). Or, as Adams says, we may “be possessed by a love that will not let us go” (78). When we act from these places, we may be able to let go of self-righteousness that is often ego-based and narcissistic. Adams warns against action that is taken purely from a place of intellect; we must instead act with “raised affections” and “a vitality that can break through old forms of behavior and create new patterns of community”(78). Soulwork is part of being in right relationship, and Moore says that “when we allow ourselves to exist fully, we sting the world with our vision and challenge it with our own ways of being.”
I invite you into this work, to sting with world with your vision and challenge it with your collective voice, standing with Unitarian Universalists and other communities of faith, standing with communities that need allies and organizations we collaborate with. The cure is acting together, creatively and compassionately.
In New York City this spring I watched our high school youth as they learned about drone warfare and nuclear bombs and the many different kinds of bombs we have. They were asked to consider what we could do for our communities that would answer our prayers for peace. They didn’t respond by giving up, walking away, or getting angry. They responded with compassion, and creativity, with intellectual depth and spiritual curiosity. Our kids came up with songs, and ad campaigns, artwork and screenplay ideas, policy and program ideas. They intuitively understood why violence cannot be met with violence, and that people’s needs come first. If we are concerned that the refugee crisis is a violent situation waiting to happen, we should be. But not because the refugees were violent to begin with–rather, because if the needs for food, shelter, jobs, and safety aren’t met, people will turn to violence because they have not been heard or helped.
Moore says “There is nothing neutral about the soul. It is the seat and source of life…if we do not claim the soul’s power on our own behalf, we become its victims” (129…135). When this happens, he says, we “suffer our emotions…hold our thoughts and passions inward…making us feel profoundly unsettled.” (135). Moore tells us that if “violence is the repressed life force showing itself symptomatically, then the cure for violence is care of the soul’s power” (135).
How can we care for the soul’s power? By restoring relationship and listening to people–responding to their needs and offering an opportunity for healing. We can do this in our everyday relationships, and we can do it in international policy. Like Veteran Scott Cooper, we need to see that advocating for meeting the needs of refugees escaping war-torn areas like Syria is connected to our own security. A former America fighter pilot, Cooper came home and said this: “When you get out of the military you think, ‘What’s the next mission?’ Seeing those affected by war, protecting human rights and national security led me to start Veterans for American Ideals last year to advocate for military interpreters and Syrian refugees.” http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/5926f8934
Peace is not something we receive passively. Peace is the result of addressing harm being done, developing enough relationship for healing to take place, and resisting the urge to retaliate and instead responding with compassion and a desire to understand. We cannot hope to have peace when we are armed to the teeth; we must dismantle our weapons and rethink our strategies. Both our interpersonal commitments and our international agreements can be held to the same core values. Like the two warriors, we must be willing to listen to each other’s stories and acknowledge the needs being expressed, find the humanity in each other and ask ourselves–if each soul is sacred and worthy, how can we take the life of another? Let us make this commitment then, to each other and to all that is part of this interdependent web, as we will sing together in a moment: “May our hands and hearts and spirits be guided by a faith free of fear; ablaze with our commitment, where our hunger and passion meet to call us on our way; may our promises to one another find fulfillment that our future may be revealed as a place of peace and possibility, for all humankind–a deeper justice built by each courageous choice!” May it ever be so, Amen. (Jason Shelton, “Fire of Commitment” (Jason Shelton, “Fire of Commitment” Singing the Journey, #1028)
(Jason Shelton, “Fire of Commitment” Singing the Journey, #1028)