In David Joy’s eloquent essay, “Gun Culture Is My Culture. And I Fear What It has Become[i],” he writes: “As sad as it is to say, the silence is easier. While the two of us sat there sipping coffee, there were kids on the television in the background, high school survivors who were willing to say what we are not, and I was ashamed.”
Later he names the thing these students are willing to say, the thing that is harder than the easier silence: “Fear is the factor no one wants to address – fear of criminals, fear of terrorists, fear of the government’s turning tyrannical and perhaps more than anything else, fear of one another.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I want to talk about fear that is always pushing against my skin. It resides just behind the thin skin that covers the bone between my breasts. I press on that bone trying to push it farther inside and clear my throat because, even thinking about my fear, makes my airway feel narrower.
It is a fear that has taught me to be environmentally aware. To notice people in my periphery: not just his Chicago Cubs 2016 baseball hat, but the lifeless hair, the color of dirty straw, that hangs below it, and the tattoo on his neck that symbolizes something I’m certain is a threat.
To know, before I accept a table at a restaurant, where the alternate exits are located and which one is preferable based on the table I will borrow and its proximity to the front door.
To wonder about shooting ranges and the cost of the lessons I would need and the fact that with that same amount of money, I could take a decent vacation and for a few days, try not to think about guns and the fallout of their creation.
It is a fear that taunts me, because I am a leader of people, and a bringer of hope, ordained into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and currently serving my fourth congregation in a town that is as blue as the last town was red. It is a fear that morphs into a skittish sadness that can not settle on what to do next and requires that I keep lists, calendars, plans, alarms that move me through my day like an invisible robot that seizes my waist, lifts me to my feet, and guides me to the table, opening my tablet and placing my hands on the keyboard.
It is not a fear of death. It is a fear of life, damaged.
It is a fear that fills my head with visions beyond students crouching under desks, and shots ringing out in hallways lined with metal lockers, making the sounds of shots sharper. It is a fear that imagines the weight of the individual and communal PTSD carried by everyone affected by gun violence, decades into the future, crashing down on the world like an endless avalanche.
It is a fear that began in David Joy when he was 14 with a gun placed on his temple and continued in me the day I watched the news of Columbine High School unfold as I was making grilled cheese for my young sons.
I have actively lived on the other side of the tracks from this culture in which David Joy writes my entire life. As he owns his place in Gun Culture, I ask myself, what is the name of my Culture that I too might name my place in it?
Peace Culture is too pretentious. Idealist Culture is too narrow. Fear Culture is incomplete because, as he so eloquently points out, Fear Culture is the overarching one that gathers both sides against its breast.
Yesterday, a man from Saudi Arabia came to the church wanting to inquire about becoming a Christian. This is the week our church prepares for a Garage Sale that functions with no garage and yet takes over every square inch of our sacred space. The community will be lined up before the doors open Saturday morning and by 2:00 tables once holding mountains of coffee makers and blue jeans and chopping appliances bought after dark from QVC, will be gone.
So when this 20-something student from a country in which Islam is the state religion and in which the legal system is based entirely on Sharia law, and the government has stated that the Holy Quran and the Sunni school of Islam are the state’s constitution[ii], asked me: “What must I do to be certain I will go to heaven?” my immediate thought, “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” was laughably inept, and completely informed by the culture within the building in which we were sitting.
I talked to him about baptism. He asked me where and when this could be done. I told him it was customary to baptize new believers within worship on Sunday morning, surrounded by community that would walk with him as he practiced his faith. He dropped his voice and asked, “Could you make an exception? Could I be baptized privately?” I asked him why he would not want to have the community rejoice with him on this occasion. He said, “because when I return to my country, if anyone were to find out, they will kill me.” He emphasized this by drawing his index finger across his throat.
When he left, I felt the fear that had been in the room with us begin to pulse in my chest. I wondered: Was he sincere? Was he genuinely seeking information on becoming a Christian? Or was he trying to find out if this pastor would do a private baptism for a man born in a country where the practice of a specific religion was tied to his right to live?
I thought about what he had been wearing and how I had looked for telltale signs of a gun before I invited him into my office. I thought about how I had done this as naturally as I once might have welcomed him with open arms.
I thought about my friends at the local sheriff’s office and wondered whether I should let them know about the visit. Then I wondered whether that conversation might lead to this man’s deportation before his degree was secured in May.
I asked myself: What would Jesus do? I imagined Jesus continuing to move through the crowds, healing some, avoiding some, teaching some, and always trying to find a quiet place to rest. I noticed there was no record of him ever going to authorities.
David Joy is right. While we are debating the practicality of guns in our country, we are ignoring conversations about the one thing that is driving people on both sides of this issue to become increasingly adamant about their position: Fear. We are all afraid and because we do not know how to extinguish the fear, we are each blaming the other side for the fact that it is already inside the walls of our bodies.
Those who live in Gun Culture fear a reduction of their ability to own the things that give them a sense of safety and keep their fear at bay.
Those who live in Put Down Your Weapons Culture fear the things that make some feel safe will ultimately extinguish the lives of those we love or cause them irreparable harm.
I wonder: what would happen if we were to talk more about our fears. Might we gain a better understanding of one another? Might the wall that we have so carefully constructed between our two cultures begin to weaken? Might we collaborate better on solutions to address the fear itself, and might our collaboration yield more effective solutions than anything we have thought of to date?
I don’t know. What I do know is that these words from James Baldwin ring true: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
And I do know that the thing those on both sides of the gun divide are not facing fully, is Fear.
[i][i] The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2018
[ii] USA Today, Culture and Religion of Saudi Arabia, March 21, 2018