Living in Texas most of the last five years, I encountered many reasonable, even progressive or liberal minded, folk who champion the virtues of gun ownership and lift the Second Amendment to iconic status. I had to give up my previous notions, perhaps even my prejudices, about gun owners. I met too many people, NRA members, and even gun rights activists who were sane, educated, respectful, and articulate. In other words, the opposite of what I’d always understood champions of guns to be. I truly came to change my previous, rather prejudiced opinion of gun owners in general. My thoughts, beliefs, and values around guns, however, remain unchanged.
To paraphrase an old adage, guns are not healthy for children and other living things. I still haven’t heard one argument, even from rational, good-hearted people, about why hand guns, never mind assault weapons, are good or necessary for the average person to own.
The NRA’s latest statement about putting armed guards in schools the way we put armed guards at government buildings and airports and other places is just another of the arguments made in support of guns that sound rational for a split second until you look at the assumptions underlying them. For example, if we’re going to protect politicians and travelers with guns, but not our children, what kind of people are we? Wait…wait…wait a minute. Let’s take this one step back and question why we need armed guards, well…anywhere. We assume and thus live our lives as if there were no alternative to violence. Even the most saintly of us give in to the dilemmas of self defense in a violent world. The dilemma we face with guns is the same one we face on a larger scale with war. We can not avoid war altogether because pacifists always lose when force is used and there has to be some way to defend ourselves. Real, actual, lived non-violence is thought of as fantasy. The strongest and most powerful people and government have the strongest and most powerful weapons.
In Starhawk’s post apocalyptic novel “The Fifth Sacred Thing” a group of survivors rebuild a society around San Francisco based on spirituality, non-violence, communal decision making and other hallmarks of progressive thought and utopian fantasy. And yet the characters within (and this assumes the author) are not naive utopian dreamers.
“After the uprising, we found ourselves caught in a dilemma. We knew that war was responsible for shaping the world into all the forms we wanted to change – and yet there we were surrounded by hostile enemies who might, at any moment, attack and destroy us. This was the dilemma that every peaceful culture has faced for the last five thousand years, a least. And this was our one advantage – that we had history behind us. We had seen all possible solutions played out, from resistance to retreat to acquiescence, and we knew none of them worked. That saved us a great deal of time. We didn’t have to waste our energies stockpiling weapons or drilling troops, we could jump right to the heart of the matter, which was magic.”
If this causes you to raise a skeptical eyebrow, stay with me (and Starhawk) a few more minutes.
“Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will. You can look at war as a massing of arms and materials and troops, but you can also see it as something else – as a delicate web of interwoven choices made by human beings, made out of a certain consciousness. The decision to order an attack, the choice to obey or disobey an order, to fire or not to fire a weapon. Armies and, indeed, any culture that supports them, must convince the people that all the decisions are made already, and they have no choice. But this is never true. So, mad as it may seem, this is the terrain upon which we base our defense of this city – the landscape of consciousness.”
I know, stop chuckling. Defend against guns and violence with the power of consciousness? How hippy-dippy, 1960’s, and new age-y can you possibly get, right? Now stop for a second. Isn’t that the point? That it’s silly or impossible to affect the necessary change in the way we think about things, even things as horrible as killing, death, and evil? Christian ethicist and pacifist Walter Wink basically makes the same argument over and over in his writings, asking how can we dismiss the power of nonviolence, when it has never in human history been attempted on a grand enough scale to know if it might work or be a strategy in finally ending our need to hurt and kill each other? Listen to Wink in his book Engaging the Powers:
“Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace … It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America. [p. 13]
The God whom Jesus reveals refrains from all forms of reprisal and demands no victims. God does not endorse holy wars or just wars or religions of violence. Only by being driven out by violence could God signal to humanity that the divine is nonviolent and is antithetical to the Kingdom of Violence. The reign of God means the complete and definitive elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations. [p. 149]”
Starhawk and Wink point us to the discussion we need to pursue in America about guns in the wake of Newtown. The questions we need to ask are: 1. Who are we? 2. Who ought we to be? 3. How do we become that people? If we are a violent people (and we are) and we want to become a less violent people (don’t we?), then promoting and allowing, and encouraging the use of weapons, be they guns or bombs or swords or knives or fists, is not the way for us to reach our goal.
The disagreement, and thus the argument, is not really about guns and the Second Amendment, but about visions of human nature and human possibility. The dividing line is not between those who favor guns and gun ownership and those who don’t. Rather the dividing line is between those who have given up and those who haven’t. Do you believe human beings are incapable of progress, of becoming less violent, of teaching and learning peace and conflict resolution or not? If you’ve given up, guns are an easy choice. If you haven’t given up yet, then guns drive you mad because you must make a conscious choice to live and act differently. Denying our violent gun culture is to engage in revolutionary non-violent resistance. You choose to pursue another way, knowing full well that such a pursuit leaves you not only open to ridicule, but yes, less well defended when and if faced with armed violence.
Shifts in consciousness are never easy, but look around you. We have by no means eliminated racism, but it’s unthinkable now to ask a person to use a different toilet or drinking fountain based on the color of their skin. Sexism hasn’t and isn’t going away anytime soon, but our last election cycle showed that those who demean women, treat rape casually, and seek limit women’s reproductive and other health choices do not represent mainstream America. (Of course as was writing this post this morning, the Iowa Supreme Court was making rethink the sexism example.) For the first time in 2012 general election votes on gay marriage laws went in favor of marriage equality. The reality is that consciousness can and does change. It’s fluid and bendable. We are not trapped forever in a cycle of guns and violence. We can choose differently. We can act differently and we can think differently. Interestingly, violence seems the hardest area in which to change. This makes it even more important to be the change you seek in the world, but the choice is clear and it is a choice.