By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
With topical prayers, sermons, and candles of remembrance, people of faith around the country worshiped with a common goal during the weekend of March 16: to remember shooting victims and reduce the carnage on America’s streets.
Yet behind the united front displayed in more than 500 settings over Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (GVPS) weekend, a nagging question lingered: How political should religious communities be when tackling the problem of violence?
The answer varies from one setting to the next. As activists try to mobilize faith groups to reinvigorate a stalled push for stricter gun control, they’re finding some outspoken allies, especially among diocesan and parachurch leaders.
“It seems [preventing gun violence] is an issue that’s been pushed to the side,” said the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of Western Massachusetts. “After Sandy Hook, everybody was talking about it. Now it’s moved completely in the opposite direction. … What we’re hoping to create is a movement that’s going to have many different dimensions to it,” including legislative action.
Fisher belongs to Bishops Against Gun Violence, a group of 36 Episcopal leaders campaigning for stricter federal gun control laws. All the stated goals on their website focus on public policy. For example, they want federal background check requirements to include web and gun-show sales. They also want tougher laws governing how guns are stored and a federal ban on gun trafficking.
At the congregational level, however, leaders are proving more reluctant to wade into the political fray, even when they feel strongly about the need to prevent violence. At Trinity Church in Southport, Connecticut, worshipers took time on March 16 for readings on justice and peacemaking, as well as prayers for victims of violence.
But the organizing group, Trinity Against Gun Violence, took pains — as it always does at its events — to avoid any hint of political advocacy. Still, according to founding member Jean Whitney, the group had to assuage concerns that GVPS might politicize worship.
“This can’t be a political issue,” Whitney said. “We believe this is a public health issue. We’re more concerned with education and children’s safety. … There are other people that are doing [legislative advocacy] better than we’d do it.”
The GVPS weekend aimed to build on a similar, more spontaneous initiative last year in the wake of a December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Washington National Cathedral helped mobilize this year’s participation along with Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, an interfaith group seeking to outlaw high-capacity weapons and magazines.
Some local participants, however, stopped short of endorsing Faiths United’s political goals. Take, for instance, Temple Beth Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Brockton, Massachusetts. Last year, Rabbi Ilana Foss gave the gun issue a personal focus by telling the stories of three young men, all former students of hers in Baltimore, who had been gunned down.
This year, her congregation will observe GVPS on March 22 (since March 15 marked the Jewish holiday of Purim). She might note in her sermon how the push for federal gun control has stalled, she said, but she’ll be careful not to push congregants to support any legislative program.
“My role as a rabbi is to sort of highlight what our obligations are, and people can interpret that in a variety of ways,” Foss said. “For some people, that may involve lobbying for particular legislation; action can take all different forms.”
Even in Newtown, where scores of parents became political activists after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, congregational leaders continue to walk a fine line in their quests for social justice via apolitical means.
At Newtown United Methodist Church, parent Sharon Poarch had never been an activist, but she marched for stricter gun control in Hartford and Washington after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Her fellow parishioner, Barbara Bloom, warned that more gun restrictions “would greatly increase the illegal arms market and do more harm than good.”
Ministering to both of them is the Rev. Mel Kawakami, whose Sunday School lost a child in the massacre. In December, he went with a group of local clergy to Washington, D.C., to mark the one-year anniversary of his town’s darkest day. Even there, he made sure to avoid politics.
Remembering shooting victims in the nation’s capital “is not so much a political act as it is an act of social responsibility,” Pastor Kawakami said in December. “I’m not as hopeful to go in and say, ‘Let’s do this politically,’ and hope that the culture will change. I think it has to happen the other way around.”
While congregational leaders try to steer clear of politics, parachurch leaders are hoping some will have a change of heart and become gun control activists. Some will speak at “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: An Episcopal Gathering to Challenge the Epidemic of Violence,” hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma April 9 through 11. They will lead workshops with such titles as “Laws save lives: How the faith community can make them happen” and “How to lobby effectively for legislative change.”
Bishops and congregational leaders who took part in GVPS agree that violence in society requires more than a legislative fix. Cultivating a more peaceable culture on a private, voluntary level marks another area in which faith groups can make a difference — and perhaps find greater common ground.
To that end, Trinity in Southport has found a niche in promoting gun safety education. When Trinity Against Gun Violence made free trigger locks available for people to pick up outside the chapel entryway, a set of 50 was gone within two weeks. The congregation also offers resources on how to store guns safely and how to show kindness in everyday interactions.
Whether the awareness raised in congregations this month ever translates into political action remains to be seen. But that’s not how local leaders plan to measure the success of GVPS events.
“These are very much political issues in terms of how they play out in our society,” Foss said. “But the values that we’re talking about — the value of life, the value of individuals, the sacredness of life — that’s not a political issue. That’s a prophetic issue. That’s a ‘We all need to care about it’ issue.”
Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).
Image: Jean Whitney, chair of TAGV, and Mike Tetreau, Fairfield first selectman. • Amy Nessel photo