WHILE I’D LIKE to see an assault weapons ban as well as other measures aimed at controlling who can get guns and the fire power available to the man on the street, I’m also well-aware that the man on the street needs some fixing — of the heart and mind variety — if we’re going to curb gun atrocities and other violence that’s so pervasive in society.
Violence is deeply engrained in the American culture, from how we assault one another verbally (just consider our political rhetoric or the way some of us talk to our kids) to domestic and sexual abuse to gun and gang violence; we’re among the most violent nations on the planet.
Even as we encourage leaders on Capitol Hill to take measures to prevent harm — or admonish leaders in state houses such as South Carolina’s to holster the expansion of carry laws and do no harm — much of the work needs to be done person to person, house by house, block by block.
That’s why the conversation Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin began with members of the Midlands faith community on March 15 is so meaningful. I agree with the mayor; there’s no greater partner in the effort to curb gun violence, nurture healthy kids and strengthen communities than the faith community.
“America’s struggling. Our country’s a violent nation,” he said, adding that communities must take the lead in confronting violence. Real solutions won’t come from Washington or the State House, he said.
And we really need solutions. Mayor Benjamin said Columbia was the scene of 432 reported gun crimes last year: five homicides, six sexual assaults, 183 aggravated assaults and 238 robberies were among them.
“It’s time for the church, the synagogue, the mosque to stand in the gap,” he said. “There’s power in prayer.”
The group of 70 or so from different faiths and denominations who participated in the March 15 discussion at First Nazareth Baptist Church included active laypersons, two bishops, a former legislator, an attorney, educators, career military including a chaplain, police officers and a health-care professional. They were sectioned off into groups and given four questions to ponder.
I floated from table to table to listen in on the conversations; the exchanges were passionate and thoughtful. And, at times, direct.
“The faith community should lead, and the faith community should lead from the pulpit,” one gentleman said. “Any preacher who does not stand up against gun violence should find another line of work.”
At that same table, there was a discussion about the need to cut off the flow of guns, beginning with regulating personal gun sales and those at gun shows.
At a nearby table, a gentleman said poverty, lack of education and other factors help escalate violence. “A lot of these kids don’t feel like they have hope,” he said. They need “a line of sight” that helps them envision what they can do in the world, he said, adding that it’s a matter of self-worth.
Another gentleman chimed in: “We’ve got to go back to caring for one another, caring for the child.” Alluding to the “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy, he said teachers must consider children their own when they’re at school and church members must do the same when kids are there.
That’s true, the first man noted, but the job of raising children rests primarily with parents.
Yet another table discussed how people need to embrace the fact that “nonviolence doesn’t mean push over.” Teach kids “meekness is not a weakness,” one person said.
Organizers compiled the groups’ answers to the four questions. Here are excerpts from the resulting report.
• What drives your concern about gun violence? One woman remembered holding a young man in her arms while he died of bullet wounds. Also, the report said, there were “stories of suicides because of the availability of guns around the house, a church member killed by her husband, a soldier who accidentally shot his best friend while ‘playing’ with a pistol. A neighbor on drugs shot a family member; a sibling was killed in a senseless dispute; a grandmother shot herself; a niece was killed; an active church member killed himself with his stepson’s gun; a college friend was lost to gun violence; and the list goes on.”
• What leads to gun violence? “Participants talked about the culture that approves of violence in TV, video games, movies and even in advertising. These graphic messages ‘affect behavior.’ People are ‘desensitized’ to violent death. ‘Life has been cheapened.’ We have a macho culture that rewards violence. Immature, inexperienced youth, without a developed sense of responsibility, are exposed to available guns. Too many guns are available. Armed teachers would just create another layer of guns.”
“The NRA justifies violence. There is a lack of political will in the legislature (and Congress?) to address the problems. NRA’s dollars to members of Congress exacerbates the problems. Laws must respond to today’s violence.”
“There is a lack of mental health services. Mental health is not well-defined. Laws allow the mentally ill into the community without treatment.”
“With the secularization of America, only the home or the church is a forum for moral issues. And even that may not be available because of the break-up of the families and the lack of engaged fathers. Family members are not being nurtured.”
“And then there’s ‘the utter silence of the church.’ ”
• What is the faith community’s role in slowing the gun violence? “The Faith Community’s views have to be preached from the pulpits.”
“Change the mindset of the church from membership recruitment to going out and ‘discipling,’ kingdom-building. … Educate the congregation to counter industry propaganda and challenge people to speak up regarding domestic violence. Organize prayer groups within the congregation on the problems of guns.”
“One group wants the faith community to organize a march across South Carolina to bring attention to the issue of gun violence. … Others want something more in-depth: Reach outside the walls of the church community. Adopt neighborhoods. … Engage the community in the church with tutoring, after-school care or mentoring. Men need to be strong role models for good, involved in mentoring.”
• What does our faith teach about violence? “Beat your swords into ploughshares.”
“WWJD — What would Jesus do? Violence is wrong. … Perfect love casts out fear. Faith and fear cannot co-exist. ‘Welcome the stranger’ — not ‘stand your ground.’ … ‘The Golden Rule.’ ”
Mayor Benjamin sees the March 15 meeting as just a beginning; there is more to come. In the meantime, he implored those gathered to “use this as a launching pad to continue to elevate that discussion in the places you provide leadership.” We should all join that discussion.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.