Live by the Gun, Die By the Gun: But Can We Make Peace Living With the Gun?

RandyBy Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley (photo right),a Keetoowah Cherokee teacher, poet, activist, former pastor, missiologist and historian

*This piece was originally posted at HuffPost.

Full disclosure: I am a committed peace activist who often hunts for his food and has valid concealed carry permits recognized in 36 states. I have never been a member of the NRA.

I won’t take the time here to explain the details above except to say they are deeply held, carefully thought through convictions. Hopefully, my disclosure causes some cognitive dissonance. Because I do not believe the issue of violence in our country is going to be resolved by advocating the talking points of either extreme, it may be helpful to create a sense of disequilibrium. I believe the problem of gun violence in America can be effectively addressed by looking deeply at all perspectives and by finding meaningful and practical compromise through a renewed sense of spirituality.

Some of my colleagues make a good theological argument for Jesus and Just War. (In Christianity, Just War Theory is the basic proposition that some wars are necessarily justified.) Other theologians make what I think is an even better argument, advocating the position that Jesus was completely nonviolent. While I lean more toward interpreting Jesus as advocating nonviolence over violence, I don’t believe he taught mere passive resistance, but an active, strategic, non-lethal form of resistance. The whole Jewish system that Jesus advocated operated in shalom. In essence, shalom was a system built on peace, hospitality, justice (especially for the disenfranchised), public safety, prosperity, equity and equal opportunity. Jesus did not advocate killing as a means to achieve these goals. To do so would be contrary to shalom and self-defeating in its purpose.

“‘Put away your sword,’ Jesus told him. ‘Those who use the sword will die by the sword’” (Matthew 26:52 NLT).

At minimum, Jesus was stating a simple truth. When weapons such as guns are used against others, those using the guns should expect similar acts of violence to be used against them. Call it karma, if you will. Among Native Americans we sometimes say “whatever you do comes back to visit you-so do good things.” Martin Luther King Jr. often used the phrase “violence begets violence” in his parlance. In addition, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others from wisdom traditions of nonviolence also have much to add in this debate. Regardless of one’s final position, according to the words of Jesus and others, the minimalists position, even if it is only coming from a motive of self-preservation, acknowledges the fact that peace-talk is always much preferred to violent-actions. Peace replacing violence is the position of reasonable people but some people are not reasonable, and sometimes they have something to gain by violence.

Who benefits by violence? Typically, violence is advocated by at least three possible concerns:

  • Those who gain power by using or advocating violence.
  • Those who gain financial rewards by using or advocating violence.
  • Those beyond rational thinking because of their emotional or mental imbalance.

But in some ways we are all culpable. Even if we don’t commit violent acts we subsidize violence through our passivity and even through our taxes. If we don’t feel responsible enough to move us towards action, the issue simply becomes someone else’s problem-that is-until it hits us personally. And based on the data, if nothing changes, no one is really safe.

Looking at both sides of the issue, I want to advocate measures that address some very deep philosophical changes and also some very practical actions that I think we all can live with. My suggestions are not the total answer to the problem but I think they can yield positive change in a very short period of time. I’ll begin with the philosophical change.

1. Re-mythologizing the American Myth of Freedom Through Violence to Include Greater Truth

Freedom through violence is a central theme of our nation’s history. The freedom myth that upholds violence in America began with clearing the land of its Native American inhabitants so it is here we must begin. Our ethnic cleansing involved usurping illegitimate power that was often shrouded in shady deals making the attempted genocidal invasion palpable for America’s citizenry. Names such as “The Indian Removal Act,” “The Trail of Tears,” “Sand Creek Massacre,” “The Long Walk,” “The Reservation System,” “The Residential Indian Boarding School System,” “The General Allotment (Dawes) Act” and “Termination” are closely associated with the Government’s “good will policies.” Yet, such depredations cannot take place among so-called civilized nations without some justification.

John Winthrop and the earliest Puritans annulled any Native American claims to the land by declaring Indian rights illegal. “The Indians,” he said, “had not ‘subdued’ the land, and therefore had only a ‘natural’ right to it, but not a ‘civil right.’ A ‘natural right’ did not have legal standing.” [1] Said Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather on the genocide of the Pequot by the Plymouth Colony,

In a little more than one hour, five or six hundred of these barbarians were dismissed from a world that was burdened with them. It may be demanded … Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? But … sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. … We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.” [2]

The great Kentucky statesman Henry Clay’s treatise against Indians as U.S. Secretary of State is indicative of the expansionist atmosphere rationalized in 1827 and beyond:

It is impossible to civilize Indians. There was never a full-blooded Indian that ever took to civilization. It is not in their nature. They are a race destined for extinction … I do not think they are, as a race, worth preserving. Consider them as essentially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race which is now quickly replacing them on this continent. They are not an improvable breed, and their disappearance from the human family will be no great loss to the world. In point of fact, they are rapidly disappearing and … in fifty years from this time there will not be any of them left. [3]

Because the violence enacted against Native Americans was allowed to be justified in America it naturally followed that the enslavement of African Americans, the oppression of Asians, Latinos and many others through violence was justified. Violence against “the other” was then codified in our legal system and in our national memories. Because the same concerns still haunt us today, I propose three immediate action steps that will help us begin a national dialogue and eventually help to heal our nation.

  • I propose that a national curriculum be developed as a resource for public schools that tells the American story, including those minority voices from ethnic, racial and gender biased views that have too often been excluded.
  • I propose a national campaign to erect, revise or replace state and national historic markers that reflect the new, more inclusive stories.

By the retelling of the American story by those who once bore the burden of the blood that is claimed to create American freedom; the same people who now have also spilled their blood for this nation, we can begin to see a new kind of American Myth surface for all of us; one that need not always spill blood; and one that is inclusive of all our citizenry.

2. Creating Strategic Peace Making Processes

I propose that the Pentagon, in full cooperation with the State Department, add a new branch under its auspices that spends as much time, human expertise and money developing peace strategies and peace contingencies around the world as it does developing war strategies.

I propose new incentives for video game manufacturers who create new military video games, accompanied by sexy campaigns comparable to war games such as “Call of Duty,” but who reward effective peacemaking strategies as the way to win the game and the war.

3. Enacting Federal Legislation Prohibiting Gun Sales in the Largely Unregulated Secondary Market

More than 40 percent of gun acquisitions occur in the secondary market.[4] These guns are sold for the most part, without comprehensive background checks and waiting periods. If the people behind the gun shows are unwilling to come up with comprehensive solutions to alleviate the problem, they should lose the special entitlements they now enjoy.

4. Enacting Federal Legislation Prohibiting All Violent Offenders From Owning or Having Access to Firearms

People who have a history of violence you should not have access to firearms without waiting for years during a sensible redemption period, and be made accountable before they can apply to have those rights restored.

5. Enacting Federal Legislation Prohibiting People with Mental Illness from Owning or Having Access to Firearms

People who have a history of mental illness you should not have access to firearms without waiting for years during a sensible restoration period, and have strict accountability before they can apply to have those rights restored.

6. Enacting Federal Legislation Requiring Extensive Background Checks for All Gun Sales

Comprehensive background checks and mandatory waiting periods can prevent guns from getting in the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. I had to complete a comprehensive gun safety course to obtain my current permits in my state of residence but I have also lived in a state where all I had to do was show my driver’s license to the county sheriff in order to obtain a concealed carry permit.

7. Incentivizing the Formation of Newly, Strictly Regulated, Private Security Companies for All Public School Systems

The NRA recently announced this as their primary solution to protect our school children. This seemed very suspicious and self-serving (perhaps mostly serving the gun manufacturers needs). But, as part of a more comprehensive package, their suggestion actually does make sense. As long as highly trained security personnel are patrolling the halls of our public schools (and the teachers don’t have to handle the guns), this option provides effective and more immediate protection for our children than they probably currently receive. The private security component also opens up new businesses and job opportunities for those who are trained in security and related areas.

8. An Effective Ban on All Assault Weapons

All automatic weapons should be banned from purchase. All semi-automatic weapons should be equipped with permanent load stops (i.e., six shots) similar to most semi-automatic shotguns. If you can’t kill an animal in six shots, you should not be hunting. All clips of more than six shots should be made illegal.

9. Mandatory Federal Gun Safety Training for All Hunters and Gun Owners

All hunters and gun owners should be required to take gun safety and/or hunter’s safety courses in every state. Because I have lived in many places, I had to take hunter’s safety courses in several states. These courses are always worthwhile. They even serve well as a refresher course for old-timers like me.

10. Create a More Stringent Democratic Process for Going to War

Among some of our Indian tribes, it was the women’s councils who made the final decisions about going to war. After all, they had the most to lose. While I am not suggesting this as the only solution, some form of this paradigm could be considered in a more comprehensive and more democratic process as we seriously consider other options to war.

Certainly, at minimum, the violence in our nation and the cost of our violence has taken its toll on our national conscience and on our children. The price we are now paying is too high. We must begin again. Perhaps this last round of tragic violence will cause us such grief and national disequilibrium that we decide the cost of our own children is just too great a price to pay to continue as we are. Please pray with me that our nation learns how to make peace, living with guns.

Randy is the author of Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.

Sources cited:

  1. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper-Collins, 2003), 13-14.
  2. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana 1636
  3. McLoughlin, William G. 1990. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: frontispiece.
  4. Tulsa World, Oct. 23, 2011,, last checked 12/21/12

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