Raising Voices, Taking Action - Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, October 17, 1010

Downloadable PDF - "Raising Voices, Taking Action"

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon General Secretary, National Council of Churches

Heeding God’s Call Call to Faithful Action Philadelphia, October 17, 2010

Greetings from the National Council of Churches, a community of 36 communions (denominations) that range from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to the Korean Presbyterian Church in America, from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Armenian Apostolic Church …. I will let you in on a secret. Churches this diverse don’t agree on everything! But last May our Governing Board passed a resolution which made it clear that on this we do agree: In the USA, gun violence has become a plague, an epidemic, that tears our social fabric and robs far, far too many of our children of their future. The number of deaths by gun violence does not exceed 250 per year in any other western, industrialized nation; but in the U.S. that number is in excess of 30,000! It is hard not to conclude, in the words of the NCC resolution, that “we have become a nation at war with ourselves and numbed to the sacredness of human life.”

Several times, since this action by our Governing Board, I have been asked: Why has the NCC chosen to focus on this issue? After all, there are so many matters that claim our attention; and, like most church bodies, the NCC has limited staff and financial resources. Why have the churches that together make up the Council chosen to raise their voices around this? Today, as we come to raise our voices, I want to answer that question.

Why have the churches of the NCC raised their voices about gun violence? Well, to start with, because the language of “defense through threatened violence,” let alone the perpetuation of violence, is foreign to the scripture we look to for guidance. Yes, I know that there are parts of scripture that say almost anything you want said. But who can deny that central to its witness is the idea that every human life is sacred because it bears the image of God? And that’s why the Hebrew prophets, in their efforts to heed God’s call, looked forward to the day when weapons would be turned into farming implements.

In the U.S., by way of contrast, the number of privately-owned guns so proliferates that there is now more than one for every adult in the country; and these guns are the only consumer products exempt from any federal safety standards. Paint ball guns must meet federal safety, but not domestically-produced firearms! It would be obscene to claim that this is somehow consistent with the scriptures held sacred by Christians and Jews. And the same is true, I dare say, for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais, Sikhs and other religious communities as well.

Why have the churches of the NCC raised their voices on this issue? Because there are times when the policies and practices of a society become so appalling, so outrageous, that people of faith simply must cry out, “Enough!” On average, 83 Americans are killed every day by someone using a gun. Enough! 68% of murders and 55% of suicides involve a gun. Enough! Nine children are killed by gun violence on a typical day in America, a statistic that has become so commonplace that it doesn’t make the nightly news. Enough!

Why are we raising our voice? Because saner gun laws do make a difference. In the decade following the Federal Assault Weapons Act of 1994, there was a decline of two-thirds (66%) in the use of assault weapons – high-powered, battlefield-style weapons! – in criminal violence. It is simply unconscionable, unfathomable that this Act was not extended by the Senate once the initial period covered by the legislation ended in 2004 – but, as you well know, that is precisely what happened. And, friends, this is not simply the blind spot of a previous President. Meeting last November, the nation’s police officers lamented that “there seems to be little or no appetite for gun control legislation in the U.S. Congress or the Obama administration.”

Why are we raising our voices? Because our churches cannot with integrity speak out against warfare abroad, cannot with integrity express our concerns for troops in harm’s way, while ignoring the children in harm’s way on the streets of our cities. Through 2008, 655,000 U.S. military personnel had been killed in all of our foreign wars combined. An awful number: 655,000. But over the past 30 years, there have been 1,035,000 gun-related deaths in this country. I grieve the 3,000 persons killed in the terror attacks of 9/11; but why do we not grieve with greater fervor the 140,000 Americans killed by gun violence since that date? Can we with integrity address international terrorism while ignoring that sort of preventable terror at home?!

Why have the churches of the NCC chosen to raise their voices on this issue? Because gun violence is part and parcel of the thicket of issues confronting our churches and our society. 276 people every day are killed or treated for gun-related injury in hospital emergency rooms, with the average cost of a gun-related injury being $300,000. Factor that into the debate over health care. African Americans comprise roughly 12% of the U.S. population, but 27% of all gun-related deaths are African Americans. Factor that into our public dialogue about racism. Poverty, failing schools, drugs, unemployment or dead-end jobs …. You know the litany of tragedies that challenge the common good – and you know what happens when guns are added to the mix.

Why are we raising our voices? Because on this issue it is possible to make a difference, thanks to the work of such outstanding partners as Heeding God’s Call. Those who lobby against effective gun registration laws, against laws to keep assault weapons and handguns off the street, make a difference because they bring pressure to bear on elected officials. We also know Representatives and Senators! We also know persons in the State House and on Capitol Hill! And we, too, can be effective by letting them know – every week, every month – that we who also vote regard this as nothing less than a matter of life and death.

I give thanks to God for the 200 of you who are here on this beautiful fall afternoon; but why aren’t there 2,000 or 20,000? Please, get your friends involved! Please, light a fire under your congregations! Urge them to teach about gun violence in their education programs. Urge them to support Heeding God’s Call so that, one by one, we can close those gun shops that are known to subvert even the current, inadequate laws. According to the latest statistics I have seen, some 40% of gun sales in the U.S. occur without an ID or background check, either because of absurd laws or negligent practice. We can have an effect on both – by raising our voices and taking action.

During my 25 years as a seminary professor, I often required students to research something they found almost intolerable, to experience the “other side” of an argument about which they were particularly passionate. As a result, one of my students – who, if she lived in the area, would surely be here today – attended a rally or a convention (I can’t remember which) sponsored by the NRA. After hearing for about the tenth time that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” she apparently got to the microphone and loudly declared, “Of course guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people!” – which outed her as a mole, in a room full of people who like to be armed!

Of course, there may be NRA moles here today! If so, I say to you: Be assured that we are not armed. And please hear me when I say: The churches of the NCC are not opposed to responsible gun ownership for recreational purposes. Indeed, we will stand with you to defend that right. But we are opposed, implacably, to the senseless status quo in which a child in the U.S. is twelve times more likely to die by gunfire than in the next 25 largest industrialized countries – combined. And we are intent on raising our voices and taking action until this threat to the wellbeing of our nation and our nation’s children is ended once and for all.