(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
On the night before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to striking workers with the Memphis, Tennessee Black Public Workers Union. Equal to his civil rights efforts, King was an anti-war advocate. He strongly opposed the Viet Nam war. That position was in keeping with his views about non-violence.
To the striking public service workers, who were angry and restless about their mistreatment, King implored them to continue their peaceful strike. He said, “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world……….it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.” Sadly, his words that night still resonate today. We live in a violent and nasty world where the most innocent among us, our children, are daily slaughtered in wars, in our homes, schools and streets.
I’m today concluding my March message series using topic suggestions from a few members. Today, we’ll consider the subject of guns, violence and spirituality. This is a topic recommended to me several months ago by new member Johannes Bjorner. In a little while, I’ll invite Johannes to join me for an interview discussion about gun control. But first, I want to frame the topic from a spiritual perspective.
Finishing his speech to the Memphis Public workers, King said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … And God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
His prophetic words that seemed to predict his death have been interpreted to be a vision for a world free of racism. Comparing himself to the Biblical Moses, King however aspired to an even greater vision for a world united not just by equality – but also by peace. Such a paradise is one dreamed by humans since the dawn of their existence – an Eden like world of love and tranquility. Unlike most religious figures, King talked about a peaceful earth that people create – and not an other-worldly heaven only God can build.
In that regard, King implored the striking workers to demand their rights non-violently. His words echoed appeals he made years earlier for civil rights protesters to march against white oppressors not with anger……………..but with peace and prayers for white redemption.
These were the ethics that defined his life. Much like Jesus and Gandhi……….Martin Luther King appealed for people to first cleanse their hearts of bitterness. We cannot oppose oppression, we cannot denounce injustice, we cannot speak against prejudice if we harbor angry emotions.
And while it might seem like a Kum-bah-yah idea to dream of a peaceful world that might never exist, it is precisely the ethic of non-violence and love for enemies that must preface any talk about gun control.
Indeed, when we consider the topic of guns, why do people choose to own them – besides for hunting or target practice? People and nations own guns and weapons because of their fears. While legitimate fear is a rational response to the dangerous world in which we live, it is nevertheless an emotion rooted in primitive desires to survive at the expense of others.
But reason and experience tells us there is a better way. Survival of the strongest is a dog eat dog ideology. It’s a zero sum game. Nobody wins. Everybody loses. Alternatively, cooperation and collaboration are proven to be better ways not just for a few to survive, but for all to thrive.
When we consider owning guns for self-defense, we are ultimately saying we put trust in our fears……….and not in our more rational aspirations to love. Yes, guns may be a necessary evil until the dream of a peaceful promised land is realized, but we ought to at least admit that fact. Owning a gun and financing military forces are admissions of human failure.
If that is the case, and if we truly desire to grow and learn, we must each strive to practice non-violence in our daily lives. We must work to reduce our reliance on guns and other weapons for personal and national protection. We should work for universal disarmament – even as impractical as that may seem. It’s not just because guns kill and maim. It’s because they represent the darkness within us – the fear, hatred and anger we have toward others. If every person woke up tomorrow and harbored only love and cooperative attitudes for all people, weapons and armies would immediately be obsolete. They would be seen as symbolically evil things to forever be eliminated.
This hope for a peaceful world is one expressed by the Biblical prophet Isaiah in the quote at the inside top of your programs. His words were an assurance to ancient Jews that, despite centuries of conflict and oppression they had endured, they must not despair. No matter how illusive, no matter how impractical, humans must hope, pray and work for a world of peace where weapons will indeed be turned into plowshares, where disagreements are resolved peacefully, where people always speak and act toward one another not with arrogance or vengeance, but with gentleness and forgiveness.
Despite holding such beliefs, and despite my own efforts to practice non-violence, I instead find myself angry at those who oppose rational gun control. I get angry with those who are not kind or considerate. I’m often filled with scorn for those who deeply offend me, who hold different political views, who are criminals, terrorists or hate mongers. As much as I spoke against making assumptions about others last Sunday, I too often assume that intolerant people are ignorant, evil and not worth my concern. I fail to practice what I preach.
And yet (!!) the breath taking teaching from Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King is that I must let go of anger and scorn and, instead, turn my other cheek. I must refuse to act or speak in anger towards anyone. I must forgive and let go of desires for vengeance. Everything I do must be gentle and kind. Indeed, the powerful lesson of Jesus’ crucifixion and of King’s martyrdom is one that Paul wrote in his First Corinthian Biblical letter: God uses the weak things of this world to defeat the seemingly strong. At Jesus’ and King’s weakest moment, as life blood seeped from their broken bodies, they were at their most powerful.
Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the stranger and the marginalized. The bullies, tyrants and demagogues of the world flaunt their illusory power as they spew hate filled words and advocate violence. But they are ultimately weak, insecure and destined for the ash heap of history. As Jesus taught and Martin Luther King dreamed, peace and joy and love will always prevail.
It may seem I preach to the so-called choir in this message – and in many others – but the sad truth is that we each hold anger, fear and intolerance in our hearts. Do we advocate non-violence and more gun control laws? Good for us! But we must put such attitudes into practice in how we live. To our partners, spouses, children, colleagues, fellow church members and strangers on the street, we must always be winsome and gentle people. We must guard what we say and use instead words of understanding, kindness and diplomacy.
The path of non-violence must begin with us. No bitterness. No anger. No name calling. No speech or opinion that hurts another. We must model to our children ways of dealing with their anger that does not resort to verbal or physical violence. We must champion the peacemakers in our midst – those who speak calmly, those who lift up and never tear down, those who speak opinions with kindness, those who do not live in fear but work and speak in love.
Guns are crude tools in which we too often put our trust. We trust that they will protect us. Instead, we find the opposite. Guns kill thousands every day. In truth, however, it is the darkness within the human heart – the fears, hatreds, angry thoughts, arrogance and unforgiving attitudes – that kills people. I believe strongly in what Johannes Bjorner will soon discuss – that reasonable gun control is a prudent step in building a world of peace. But, BUT, we must first build peace and love inside ourselves – in how we think, speak and act – before we might ever hope to control guns and violence.
And with that, I invite Johannes Bjorner to join me for why he suggested this topic and why it is so meaningful to him. (There is no written text of the interview. Please listen to it on the above audio file.)