Sunday, June 28, 2009

God, Guns, and the Good Ole US of A

The photo above is from the New York Times of Pastor Ken Pagano getting ready to use a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun at a shooting range. (Click on the picture for the full image; sorry it got cut off somehow.) This is probably not the first thing you think of when you imagine a church leader, but I suppose a reality check is always helpful for all of us who might suffer from wishful thinking.

Yesterday, the Pastor invited the members of his church in Louisville, Kentucky to bring their guns to the service, which he called a "celebration of our rights as Americans," and considered a prelude to the upcoming Fourth of July Independence holiday. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, Pastor Pagano is quoted as saying "Guns and God were part of the foundation of this country."

Well, part of me vehimently wants to argue against that, citing the fact that most of the "founding fathers," for example, were not members of Christian churches and/or had very ambivilent relationships with organized religion in general. And while it's true that symbolically, at least, our government gives a strong nod to Christian-based images, holidays, and sayings, it's also true that from the beginning, there was a strong emphasis on freedom to practice or believe what one wanted to. This is pecisely because people like George Washinton and Thomas Jefferson felt it was important to support a diversity of spiritual beliefs, and even those who had no belief in spiritual life.

But I have to say at the same time that this brazen display of gun support by Pastor Pagano and the members of the New Bethel Church actually represents an important, if very sad, part of U.S. culture. We are a nation that began in violence, often with the use of Christian teachings as retorical underpinning. We continue to be a nation that too often resorts to violence as a means of dealing with conflict. And we believe that it is our right not only to own the weapons that help us commit those violent acts, but also that it's essentially a God-give right to use violence whenever we are, or feel, threatened.

When the leader of another church spoke against Pastor Pagano's efforts, here's how he responded "When someone from within the church tells me that being a Christian and having firearms are contradictions, that they’re incompatible with the Gospel — baloney. As soon as you start saying that it’s not something that Christians do, well, guns are just the foil. The issue now is the Gospel. So in a sense, it does become a crusade. Now the Gospel is at stake.” Sure sounds like fightin' words, doesn't it? I'm not intending to suggest the Pastor is out to shot anyone who disagrees with him, only to point out how quickly this issue turns from an exchange of opinions to strong willed, almost militant defense. I've seen this happen in discussions with members of my own extended family, who really don't have time for talk of peace or compassion.

I find myself at a bit of a loss when facing this reality. Every year, countless people in the U.S. are murdered over trivial things or during trivial arguments. Every year, we have more than our share of home grown terroristic acts by men (almost always men) driven over the edge by their own anger, intolerance, as well as some series of issues in society that effected them personally. By no means is the U.S. the worst off place when it comes to violence, but we have such a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves and portray ourselves to the rest of the world - as a nation of freedom, peace, and democracy - and how we actually behave as a nation, and as individuals.

Sometimes, I reflect on words like the Buddha's from the Dammapada:

In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.

And I wonder if they are too simple or unrealistic to address the complicated mess we have when it comes to guns and violence, and the ways in which we have collectively and individually supported or rationalized that violence over the centuries. I am personally one that really thinks it's important to apply our spiritual learnings to the issues in the greater community, and world as a whole. Just sitting isn't enough for me, even though I feel so tremendously supported by that sitting practice. And yet, even on the individual level, it's no small task to whittle away at those seeds of violence within. Hatred seems to have endless masks, some easy to recognize, others very difficult to.

Even though I often find myself tripped up by the violence present in the world, and in my own life, I continue to feel it's essential to work on both edges - to be tempered by the fires within and without (to use our familiar, dualistic language markers). Just being an "activist" trying to change gun laws or address the violence in our culture is a recipe for burnout and arrogance. And just sitting while the house burns down all around us seems a bit foolish.

I suppose a good place to start is to not demonize the Pastor and those who follow him. That doesn't seem to hard. At least it's a beginning. You gotta start somewhere.

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