Friday, January 11, 2013

random thoughts on gun control

The discussion continues regarding gun control and there are lots of arguments that are coming from the pro gun folk that need to be addressed and lots of fallacies or at least misleading ideas being promulgated from those who are for gun control.  Here are a few of the issues as I see them.

1.  Violent crime has decreased in the US over the past few decades including the murder rate.  Indeed, our rates of violent crime in the US are lower than many of the nations that are raised up as examples by the gun control folk.  At the same time, our gun violence rate is significantly higher than all of those places.

2.  Assault weapons represent a very small percentage of guns used in murders.  They are disproportionately used in mass violence, but that too represents a very, very small percentage of gun deaths.  While 26 were killed at the Sandy Hook school, some 700 have died by guns, almost all one at a time and the vast majority by handguns, since then.

3.  A significant proportion of gun deaths occur in gang violence.

4.  The rates of violent crime are higher in large cities with large populations of folk living in poverty.

5.  The number of guns in a given area is directly proportional to the number of gun deaths.  Whether this is a direct correlation or coincidence is debatable.  For example, the south has one of the higher rates of gun ownership and of gun deaths.  It also has a poverty rate that is higher than many other areas of the country.

6.  All of the statistics are clear, owning a gun makes one more likely to die from a gun than not having one and those statistics are consistent everywhere.  If we look at #1 again, that explains why in England there is a significantly higher violent crime rate, a lower murder rate,  and an amazingly lower rate of death by gun. 

7.  We live in a violent society, but other cultures are violent as well.  Video game playing is higher in Denmark, for example, where the rate of death by gun is extremely low.  Ditto in Japan.  Again, if we look at #1, England has a higher rate of violent crime, but much lower rate of death by gun.

8.  We have significant problems with mental health care and with poverty in our country that directly impact violent behavior although often in ways that are counter-intuitive when one watches the news or listens to talk radio.  For example, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.  The same is true of the poor.  

9. Gun ownership is going down.  Still, the myth of redemptive violence is prevalent in our culture and we still have a love affair with guns that borders on idolatry.

10.  There are significant differences in how to understand the 2nd Amendment.

11. There are literally millions of guns already out there.

Some implications of all of that...

1. Banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines will not lower the rate of death by gun significantly.  It will lessen the possibility of mass murders, but they are extremely rare.

2.  For gun control to make a dent in the raw numbers, handguns must be included in any regulations and some kind of buy back would be required to begin to lower the number of guns in the general population.  Many possible laws, for example how guns must be stored, would be virtually impossible to enforce. 

3.  There are clearly other cultural issues like mental health care and poverty which must be addressed in order to change the level of violence, but the removal of guns from the equation cannot be dismissed as a way of lowering the level of violence.

4. Education is required to begin to dispel the myths that owning guns = protection or having more handguns in the general population lowers the incidence of violence.  These ideas are widely held and clearly not true according to any of the objective studies. 

5.  Any gun control changes that will have a significant impact will involve conflict and serious discussion regarding the meaning of the 2nd Amendment.

What do I think?

I think all assault rifles and high capacity magazines should be banned.    Currently owned weapons of this sort would be subject to a government buy-back and destroyed.  Any found afterwards would be confiscated and destroyed and the owners face a substantial fine.  Collectors owning such weapons would have to have them modified to be non-functional and inspected.  Armor piercing ammunition would also be banned.  I think concealed carry permits should be available only under the most extreme cases.  Nobody should be able to purchase any gun without significant background checks, education, and licensing both for the owner and for the weapon.  Nobody under age 18 would be allowed to own or use a gun for any purpose including hunting or target shooting.  Ammunition would be tracked.  By law, all guns must be stored in locked cabinets and ammunition must be stored separately and also locked.   Stand your ground laws would all be repealed.  A public service announcement campaign would begin, telling the truth regarding the statistics of gun violence.  I think that would be a start.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Ah Ha!

Ah Ha!  That is pretty much what Epiphany means.  The dictionary says that an epiphany is a sudden realization.  The English word comes from a Greek word that means striking manifestation or appearance.

In the Church calendar, Epiphany is January 6, the first day following the 12 days of Christmas.  In the lectionary, the scripture passage most tied to that day is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.  Some cultures celebrate Epiphany as the day when gifts are given rather than on Christmas and in some places, the children leave hay out to feed the camels rather than cookies for Santa.

I've been thinking a lot about the Church Year this year and have paid careful attention to the season of Advent, a penitential season of preparation, prior to Christmas, then the full 12 days of Christmas beginning on December 25, and now, Epiphany.  Here's the question I've been wrestling with for Epiphany... just what was/is the Ah Ha?  What is the sudden realization?

Tradition says that the Epiphany was for the Gentiles, the Magi who realized that the Messiah had come and traveled to see him and bring gifts.  An interesting interpretation... the Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from what is now Iran.  The Zoroastrian religion is a highly dualistic religion that sees an ongoing battle between the transcendent and all good god and the force of evil, between creation and chaos.  In their eschatology, at the end time there will come a savior who will remake the world and even the dead who had been banished into darkness would be restored into full life in the presence of the all good god.   Ok... so we can easily see how they may have understood Jesus as this savior figure and come to worship him.  Here's the part that catches my attention this year, nowhere are they told to repent of their "heathen" faith and turn to Judaism or some form of proto-Christianity.   They leave their gifts, worship Jesus, and return home.  There is no reason to believe they have interpreted their experience in any way except as Zoroastrian priests.

One cannot reliably argue from silence but whenever we read scripture we must remember that the scripture writers included what they felt their readers needed to hear and didn't include what they felt their readers did not need to hear.  Only Matthew tells us the story of the Magi and he gives us precious few details.  So how do we make sense of this odd little passage?  He doesn't tell us of the conversion of the Magi.  They don't stay to become followers of Jesus and, as far as we can tell, none of them return thirty years later to follow him.  Is the story just a set-up for Herod's slaughter of the innocents and a rather complicated narrative to get Jesus to Nazareth?  Maybe, the real epiphany is not meant for the Magi, but for Matthew's readers (first the church he wrote for and ultimately for us).  Maybe the real epiphany is that the gospel is inclusive even of those so far beyond the margins as to be completely invisible.  Maybe the good news includes not only the Jews and the direct believers but also those of foreign religions who may encounter Jesus but continue to practice their own faith in an authentic manner.  Even Zoroastrian priests are included in God's kindom.  Maybe the Ah Ha of this little passage is a nascent universalism, still yet to be fully realized or understood. 

Wouldn't that be an epiphany?

Friday, January 04, 2013

best CD's of 2012

Well... I have to say that is a misleading title.  For a musician, I am remarkably uninformed as to what is going on in the music world.  Outside of my very small circle, I just don't hear all that much and so I clearly miss out on some wonderful music that would stretch my ears and my imagination and enrich my life.

Luckily, I have some friends who are much more in touch than I am.  Fernando Gros is one such person.  He has a delightful blog that shares his connections with the larger culture in ways that are foreign to me.  Recently he posted his 12 best albums of 2012 and I watched his video links and a few more from some of the artists.  While there were a few of his choices that didn't do much for me and a few that I could listen to or not, there were also a few that really caught my ear.  I'll share those here.  You can go to Fernando's blog to see the rest of his choices.  And thanks Fernando for opening my ears to these folk!

His number #12, Traces by Karine Polwart is a CD I should have known as an acoustic musician but did not.  Indeed, it is my first listen to Polwart.  Everything an acoustic performance needs to be...

I've always loved African music and have found the folk making music in the African diaspora to be very inspiring.  Fernando's #11, Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang – En Yah Sah,  is another new one to me which I found infectious.

Grimes is about as far outside of my normally listening habits as can be... and I really don't understand anything about the video other than it is interesting to watch.  Still, I really enjoyed her music.  Her recent CD, Visions, is Fernando's #9.

#6 is one CD with which I was familiar and like a lot,  David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant.  They are both unusual artists with quirky views of the world.  I don't know how they got together, but it works.

and finally, I'll share his #5, Bat for Lashes' CD The Haunted Man.  A bit closer to my normal listening than Grimes, but still different enough to be a wonderful surprise.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

the size of government

I'm not going to argue the question regarding the size of the government.  Anyone who has read my blog knows that I am not for small government."  I'm for a government that is large enough and robust enough to do what is necessary to enable this nation to fill full all of its most wonderful promises.  That is another post.

What I want to talk about today i a piece that really has been puzzling me.  With the horrendous violence at the Sandy Hook school, there has been a strong theme among some right wing folk, mostly evangelical Christians, but not exclusively so.  They have argued that we can expect violence in schools because we have legislated God out of the schools.  Their answer is to "bring God back into our schools."

Well... nobody has legislated God out of anywhere - you can't do that or prohibited anything.  Indeed, there is literally no way to stop prayer from taking place in schools even if you wanted to.  Beyond that, religious organizations are specifically allowed in any school that allows any kind of outside organizations.  The concern seems only to be about having the 10 commandments posted, prayers at school events, and the like.

First, let me share a history lesson.  The idea of separation of church and state did not begin with secular liberals.  It was an idea that came from a few very brave and very inspired religious groups.  Many of the early settlers of the United States came from Europe fleeing religious persecution.  Most, like the pilgrims, arrived here and immediately set about building the same kinds of prohibitions under which they had suffered only attacking everyone who wasn't like them.  Two groups however realized that faith is an issue that is decided between and individual's conscience and God.  The Baptists (yes, the Baptists) and the Quakers argued and institutionalized the idea that government and religion needed to be separated.  The famous phrase of a "wall of separation" that does not appear in the constitution actually came from a letter written by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring them that he would work for a complete separation of Church and State, restricting the government from any interference in religious practice.

So, here are my questions... how is it that these folk who argue for "small government" want to insert the government into this most personal and important of issues of conscience?   How is it that these folk who do not trust government to do virtually anything want to give the government the responsibility of religious teaching?  If government was actually given that power, who would decide what it looks like?  Would the school principal write the prayers?  Or the town mayor?  Would they be representative of the divergence of the population of the area or would they just be watered down until everyone could agree (as if that could ever happen)?  Maybe someone from the Westboro Baptist Church could pray for the damnation of all of the children present... or a Santaria priest could sacrifice a chicken.  Maybe an Imam could read in Arabic from the Koran or a gay Episcopalian priest from the Book of Common Prayer.  Maybe a Mennonite could pray for the abolition of the military or a fundamentalist Mormon could prayer for the re-establishment of polygamy.  You get the picture.

As a Baptist pastor, a committed Christian, and a person who takes my faith very, very seriously, I do not want the government teaching my children, grandchildren, or church members issues of faith.  I do not want to give those folk the power to dictate the content of their prayers or of their religious interpretations.  I am not interested in prayers that offend nobody because they mean nothing and I am not interested in prayers that offend me because I do not agree with their meaning.  I am not interested in the 10 commandments published anywhere on government properties because at least half of them have to do with cultic issues and are irrelevant as social policy. 

I do trust the government to build social safety nets.  I do trust the government as the best way to administer health care.  I do trust the government as the best way to provide education, the common defense, and to address many many cultural concerns.  I do not trust the government to handle religion and as a minority religious group (and anyone who takes faith seriously in the US is a member of a minority religious group) the only role government has with regards to faith is to keeps its hands off and to make sure that the broader culture keeps its hands off.  I agree with Jefferson that those words in the first amendment establish a wall of separation and pray that it will never be breached.