I attended the American Society of Missiologists meeting this weekend and it was so refreshing to hear the voices of missiologists as they reflected on various ways in which the church is missionally engaging the world. One speaker in particular raised important questions for me as I also reflected on the gun massacre/terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
One question in particular was premised on the idea that if culture consists of patterned ideas of thinking and behaving, then is the public behavior committed by social actors predictable – meaning are we just typically behaving in the ways in which our place and position in culture has prescribed for us? And if so, is social change sparked in part by social actors who opt to break out of that predictable behavior? I look at a couple of historical examples to help highlight this.
One historical social actor who broke out of her prescribed public behavior was Rosa Parks. She, like other African Americans of her time, was expected to sit in the back of the bus and even relent those seats as more whites got on. Her refusal to stand up and give her seat to a white man, her refusal to obey the orders to move from both the bus driver and the police who subsequently were called to intervene, and then her willingness to be dragged off the bus and arrested, sparked a one day boycott of the buses by all African Americans in Montgomery. This led to what became an almost year-long boycott and the eventual eradication of segregation on buses in Montgomery. The rest, as they say, is history, and good history at that.
Another more recent example is in 2010 when DREAM Act students engaged in a campaign called “Undocumented and Unafraid” whereby the DREAMers went “public” with their immigration status and refused to be cowed into silence or marginalization. This campaign transformed the immigration reform movement entirely, and brought about the near passage of the DREAM Act. It failed the Senate by just four votes, but the change in the public conversation about immigration has not been the same since these brave young people risked their own place in US society and put themselves out front.
In both of these examples – and there are many more we can look to – it would be a terrible mistake to believe that the unpredictable behavior – refusing to move or publicly claiming undocumented status – occurred suddenly or out of the blue. These actions were not unplanned though they were unpredictable to the predominant culture.
Rosa Parks was trained by the Highlander Center, which had helped build the labor movement and was often accused of being communist. Rosa Parks had actually refused to move on the bus previously and so this behavior was nothing new to her. She was trained as a radical activist along with others she worked with through the local chapter of the NAACP and she regularly put that training into action. There was nothing accidental about what she did. She was prepared. It simply was unknown to the whites in Montgomery. The same is true of the DREAMers who had been organizing for years, were trained as leaders long before their message ultimately captured the heart of the movement and catapulted so many of them into national leadership.
So, all of this brings me to the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Emanuel AME Church last week. As has been rightly said by many folks including President Obama; we have been here before. This all seems too familiar. And that is the problem.
A horrific shooting with innocent victims will be followed by sadness and outrage. We feel tremendous compassion for those who have been killed and for their families who will now have to endure a lifetime of heartache and inconceivable loss. And, at the same time, we feel tremendous outrage that these shootings continue, largely unabated; with absolutely no policy change in sight. We feel powerless and defeated which spurs, for a short time at least, more anger and outrage. We are not always sure who to direct it towards, so, almost without exception, about this time someone associated with the NRA or another guns-without-restrictions person makes some incredibly thoughtless and stupid remark.
Case in point for the Emanuel AME gun massacre/terrorist attack, the head of the Texas NRA blaming Emanuel Pastor and state legislator Rev. Clementa Pinckney for his own death by not adopting the policies of guns-without-restrictions. Also stepping into the spotlight of stupidity, Governor Rick Perry who called the gun massacre/terrorist attack an “accident.”
This fuels more outrage and we finally have someone to direct our anger at – for the immediate time. But outrage simply does not last. And being angry at these people actually changes nothing; it is merely cathartic. And the NRA and those in favor of guns-without-restrictions know they just have to wait. And so they do. The outrage burns itself out. We understandably get tired – you cannot live every day on outrage. And so we get distracted by something else: another issue, another story, or just with our own lives.
And nothing changes.
And then there is another shooting. And the cycle continues. It is sadly, maddeningly predictable.
But what if, as suggested this past weekend, we decide to break this predictable cycle and act unpredictably? What if we choose some part of the cycle described above that illustrates the patterned behavior and change it radically, like Rosa Parks or the DREAM Act students?
I can’t get this idea out of my mind. Social change will only happen if we choose boldly and radically to utterly alter our predictable behavior. So, the question naturally is, which part of the above cycle should we break? To break it will not be easy – let’s not kid ourselves. We have to be bold, we have to risk, and we HAVE to be committed. But if we truly are tired of this cycle and we really want change, I believe we have no other choice.
As I said before, we cannot sustain outrage – it’s just not possible. The only place to break our predictability and allow even the possibility for social change to break through is to choose to not get distracted. During the inevitable upcoming silence – the time when the outrage over the Charleston gun massacre/terrorist attack dies down, the media will go on to other stories and we are tempted with distractions, we instead choose to adopt practices that will build a movement so that the next time a gun massacre/terrorist attack occurs – and we can rest assured that it most certainly will – we will be prepared to respond powerfully with a new agenda that will create change and alter the national conversation in a significant way. We will be prepared because we have been preparing.
I would like to offer several practices that we should adopt immediately, even as the outrage will begin to fade away. Adopting these practices will build us individually and most importantly, corporately so that we will respond not with bewilderment and empty outrage, but with purpose, power and specific objectives in mind.
So, here are some steps that we should take if we are serious about ending gun violence:
- Since gun violence is steeped in racism – consider not only this event, but the fact that so many people were (rightly) outraged by the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Newtown and yet so few have similar outrage when people of color are regularly killed by firearms every day in our urban centers throughout the country – those of us who are Anglo MUST enter into solidaristic or incarnational relationships with people of other races. This is more than inviting one person of color into our homes or congregations. This is instead us going to theirs. And it would not be a bad thing to first consider joining or creating solidaristic relationships with our brothers and sisters in AME churches. It all starts here.
- Similar to the first one, we must have one on one conversations with people who have passion to end gun violence. And we should start cross-racially. There is absolutely no way we are going to even see the smallest of reductions in gun violence if we attempt individualistic activism. We should sit with someone once a week and share our passion, listen to their passion, and discuss ways we can educate others and instill this same kind of passion in others.
- Building on the first two, we must engage in rigorous study. Pervasive gun violence is seen as unsolvable often because the only voices providing possible solutions are the ones funded by or representing those who benefit from the guns-without-restrictions status quo. We can start with Gunfight by Adam Winkler which puts the contemporary debate in proper historical context. It is an excellent resource and should be read with a group of people you have created a team with. We also desperately need to be able to talk about this issue theologically so I suggest you and your team go through the three week Bible study, Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities. There are many other resources, but this is a good place to start.
- And we must weigh in with our elected leaders. Regular calls by you and your team (remember, don’t do anything alone) asking them what they have done to appropriately address the epidemic of gun violence will let them know that there is pressure they must answer to for their irresponsible leadership. This should be done by phone calls every few weeks or so and then at least once or twice a year, bringing your new team together to meet with your elected leader or their staff in their district office.
- And be in touch with me! We must build a coordinated movement among people of faith and I want to make sure all who are moving towards a more peaceful society are acting in concert and connected. I can help provide resources that could help in all of these ways. Just ask me!
There is only one way out of the same predictable cycle of outrage, silence and inaction: we must quit being silent and inactive. The choice is ours and how we choose will largely determine how many more people have to die.