UMs meet to discuss gun sense

October 19, 2017

By Melissa Lauber
UMConnection Staff

When the Critical Conversation on Gun Sense was starting at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center at 1 p.m. on Oct. 17, the Rev. Kay Albury was receiving news that Howard University was on lock-down. There were reports of an active shooter on campus, where her daughter, the Rev. Alexis Brown, serves as campus minister.

The drama and fear of that situation illuminated some of the deep emotions surrounding guns that inspired Bishop LaTrelle Easterling to call together United Methodists for a conversation. Her call hit a nerve: the event was standing room only.

“We used every chair in the Mission Center,” said Sanjeev Christopher, the conference’s coordinator of radical hospitality.

The bishop shared how, when she was writing a response to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, she found herself growing weary of the horror. “The word that kept coming to me,” she said, “was ‘again. Did this really happen – again?’”

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. These are just some of the high-profile tragedies that have been seared into the American conscience. But in the first six months of 2017 alone, there had been 154 mass shootings in the US, and these shootings accounted for just 1 percent of gun violence in America.

Yet even when events become overwhelming or make us weary, Christians are called to act, the bishop said. She reminded those present to never devalue the power and practical witness of prayer and celebrated that social holiness is one of the foundations of United Methodism.

“Our intent is to acknowledge our pain, frustration, fear and sense of paralysis around this topic and discern how we, as the church, can begin to have a meaningful impact in the places God has planted us,” she said.

Some pastors in the meeting raised concerns that their congregations do not appreciate when their pastors “preach politics” and address social issues from the pulpit.

“As your episcopal servant leader, I have an expectation that our clergy are engaging the issues of the day, including the difficult issues of the day,” the bishop said. She rejected the ethos that “the pew can determine what the pulpit has to say.”

“If you are preaching Jesus – Jesus crucified and resurrected and all that that means – and some of your members leave, or you have trouble paying apportionments, it’s alright with me,” Easterling said to a standing ovation.

The bishop welcomed four conversation partners to lead the discussion on gun sense: the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society; the Rev. Mark Schaefer, chaplain of American University; Major Sheree Biscoe, commander of the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District; and Sheriff Troy Berry of Charles County.

The panel, led by the Rev. Rodney Smothers, the conference Director of Leadership and Congregational Development, spoke about guns from their personal perspectives and then responded to questions from the 220 clergy and lay people in attendance. 

‘So that we may walk in God’s path’

Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and SocietyHenry-Crowe shared the United Methodist perspective on gun violence. In front of the Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., she said, is a sign that says we are praying for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. “But not only must we pray, we must act,” she said. “If we remain silent, we are complicit.”

Henry-Crowe acknowledged that there are many perspectives in this conversation.

“We even come today with many different ways of not knowing what to,” she said.

The United Methodist stance on ending gun violence, she stressed, is nuanced. It is outlined in Resolution 3428 of the denomination’s 2016 Book of Resolutions and “draws on Micah’s inspiration, applying Micah’s prophetic dreams of peace to violent realities.”

United Methodists assert that God deplores violence and that Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. Guns make violence deadlier and more frequent, Henry-Crowe said. Domestic violence turns deadlier when guns are involved, and firearms are the most common method of suicide in countries where guns are prevalent.

Not every gun, or every kind of gun, is addressed in the resolution, she stressed.

“United Methodists define small arms to include assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank guns, among other weapons,” she said. She added, “Nations encumbered with violence from small arms face the greatest obstacles to delivering social services to those who need them the most.”

She called on United Methodists to engage in study and educate themselves and others about gun violence; to advocate and organize to address this issue nationally, internationally and in your local context; and to care for your community and the world.  

Fear, faith and guns

Rev. Mark SchaeferWhile Scripture does not make explicit reference of firearms, said the Rev. Mark Schaefer, it does have plenty to say about violence. There are some 407 verses in which swords are mentioned.

“There are certainly verses where God commends violence, there are verses in which violent retribution for some offenses is affirmed or tolerated, and then there are those verses that we as Christians like to rely on to counsel another way forward,” Schaefer said. These passages include the admonishment to be peacemakers and how “those who take the sword, will perish by the sword.” 

“There’s something particular about the gun,” Schaefer said. “In the martial arts, by the time a person learns how to take another person’s life with their bare hands, they’ve received so much discipline and training that the don’t do that. But with a gun, you don’t have any of that discipline and training. It’s powerful. It’s immediate. It’s deadly.”

In the US, at this point in our history, he pointed out, there are 112 guns for every 100 Americans. But the large number of guns points to a larger issue, Schaefer said. America is a country of fear, he said, which is used to sell products, to push national agendas, and to get people to tune into a news broadcast. “It’s how we get one another to do things in this country; we scare each other,” he said.

“Fear pervades our national life,” Schaefer said. “We’ve created a culture of fear. … We’re all scared, we’re feeling out of control and a firearm is an incredibly powerful tool that gives us the illusion of control; and so, we are tempted to turn to it because we want that security. The allure of that immediate, powerful and deadly tool is strong to us when we are feeling afraid.”

But in so doing we run a very real spiritual risk, said Schaefer. “It’s not the tool alone that’s the problem, but it’s the fear we have created. It’s the way we look to the tool we have made with our own hands as our salvation, rather than God. It’s when we trust more in that tool than in God, whose perfect love casts out all fear.” 

Unprecedented challenges

Major Sheree BriscoeIn 2017, as of Oct. 14, there were 540 non-fatal shooting in Baltimore; 101 of them happened in the Western District. This 28-square mile area, with 40,000 residents, was the home of the civil unrest after Freddie Grey died while in police custody in 2015.

Just after that time, Major Sheree Briscoe was brought in to be commander of the Western District. A United Methodist, she brings a faith perspective to her insights from 23 years on the police force.

“The reality is that every day, urban cities are seeing an unprecedented rate of violence,” she said. How the faith community grapples with people’s right and desire to bear arms with that unprecedented violence can be an interesting struggle, said Briscoe.

Coming to terms with that struggle means understanding that crime is really a “byproduct of an ill community,” she said. The church needs to also be in conversation about mental health as it relates to guns and other issues. It needs to wrestle with the interconnectedness of all the challenges stemming from socio-economic conditions, she said, and the disenfranchisement of youth and the expectations and realities facing law enforcement officials.

There is a robust system in place for monitoring police officers’ fitness-to serve as they deal with this escalating violence, she said. But Briscoe also noted that as people in law enforcement, “we collect everyone’s gum on the bottom of our shoes, and then we go home and try not to be sticky.”

She encouraged church leaders to join in partnerships with community organizations.

“Partnerships are everything,” Briscoe said. “Why reinvent the wheel? We need to do more collectively to partner and creating sustainable programming.”

The Baltimore Police Department has several programs in which pastors and other church leader can participate. She encouraged the faith community to take a more active stance in addressing gun violence.

“We are all required to take the Word of God out to the people of God,” Briscoe said. “I wear a uniform to do this.” 

What vision is being cast?

Sheriff Troy Berry of Charles CountySheriff Troy Berry of Charles County, who also serves on a state commission to look at best practices in law enforcement, warned United Methodists about getting caught up in a singular issue. Too often, people want to isolate an issue and their tunnel vision leads to inaction, he said.

Berry stressed the need for those present to challenge their elected officials to express the vision they are casting to spark a dialogue about gun violence and other substantial issues.

He also hopes United Methodists will advocate for common sense legislation, like the bill that came before Maryland legislators last year that would require toy guns to look markedly different than real guns.

“We need to champion these bills,” he said. “These toys guns are being used in actual crimes. … Why does a toy have to look like the real thing?”

In his 25 years in law enforcement, including time as a homicide investigator, Berry has come to believe that gun ownership is a privilege, not a right.

“People who have mental health issues or a propensity toward domestic violence shouldn’t have guns,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who use guns for wrong reasons. That’s where the conversation starts.”

Taking aim at the violence 

Revs. Herb Watson and Frankie RevellAs the panel of speakers concluded their remarks, people rose to ask questions and discuss how guns and gun violence might be addressed, particularly in areas where it is hitting very close to home. For example, on the day before the Critical Conversation on gun sense, there was a shooting just blocks away from Sharp Street Memorial UMC in Baltimore. The day after, the Revs. Tiffany Patterson and Brenda Lewis led a vigil for five people shot, three of whom were killed, at a shooting in Edgewood.

Some spoke about youth and ministering to them around this issue. One after another, they came to the microphones to speak about advocating for legislation, how to best have controversial conversations, the difficultly of enforcing laws currently on the books, police responses, how issues of mental health and guns relate to one another, and how responsible gun ownership might be distorted by those who are advocates of stricter gun control.

The conversation was lively as people explored how to create a culture in which people feel free again to borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbor, and build communities of respect and empathy. Gun sense was the focus of the discussion, but people delved deeper.

“What’s so interesting to me is that when Jesus encounters people, he heals them, he feeds them, he sits with them, he doesn’t preach about what they need to believe in order to get into heaven. He’s actually meeting direct need. That’s what is healing and transformative,” Schaefer said. “There are immediate policy things we can do, but I think unless the church is willing to engage in that deeper encounter with one another things won’t be fixed. …  If there is an institution that should be about love over fear, it’s us.”

As the conversation ended, the all clear was given at Howard University. During that brief time, more than 100 D.C. police officers, many armed with semiautomatic rifles, searched campus buildings and classes were canceled for the day.

The conversation, Bishop Easterling said, will continue. “There are many topics worthy of deep, engaging, critical conversation.” 

Dave Smith Oct 19, 2017 7:29pm

I own a number of firearms, and none of the reasons I have guns has anything to do with fear. I suspect that those who spoke (except the policeman) do not own a gun and may have never fired one. No one argues that crazy people should have them. The millions of responsible gun owners should not be restricted because of the actions of those who perform acts of violence with weapons that are usually not legally obtained in the first place.

Carol Oct 19, 2017 9:14pm

Why do you own "a number of firearms"? What purpose do "a number" serve? What purpose does ONE serve? Guns were created for one purpose: to kill. The prevailing myth is that if you have a gun, you can "protect" yourself by making someone else feel afraid of your greater power to harm them. That presumed a gun owner would not really use the gun to kill except to protect--"save" his own life." But it has become a short step from alleging fear to taking "preventative action,"--a "pre-emptive strike." Morphed into "stand your ground."

"A number of guns" makes it increasingly OK to use them against another human being simply because "I" feel afraid. So, God can forgive that murder since "I felt threatened" and that justifies MY taking the life of someone else because I feel threatened?

Gun acquisition--and a misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment's purpose--has been legitimized by a profit-motivated company preying on and unleashing deeper prejudices against people we don't know or understand--different colored skin, different look, different levels of success. Gone is pity, attempts to help a strange neighbor. That is a kind of fear, which has been fueled and prompted--for profit. And to sustain "my way of life"--"white privilege" whether most gun owners acknowledge that or not. Whether they realize it or not.

Curiously, women cannot control their sexual urges sufficient to NOT become pregnant responsibly, so society must protect the fetus by outlawing abortion. BUT a man who "feels" threatened will be responsible enough to kill only under legally recognized justification for his actions.

The "hands off" proliferation of multiple high-power kill weapons satisfies the deepest, deadliest, most unholy of our American appetites: greed, fear, white supremacy, power, male dominance, and self-righteousness that claims "freedom" and "rights" entitles and justifies. What argument can you provide for "number of firearms" that refutes this profile?

Errol Archerson Oct 19, 2017 9:38pm

Most gun violence in this country is gang and drug related. The city of Chicago has very restrictive gun laws. But 2016 was the deadliest year in two decades when it came to homicide rates. Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Los Angeles have had similar experiences. As Dave Smith pointed out most of the guns were not "legally obtained." It seems obvious to me that more gun laws isn't the answer. In other words, gun control laws fail to reduce crime. Criminal don't obey gun laws that's why they're criminals.

John Barnes Oct 19, 2017 10:02pm

Dave, I'm confused. Are you saying that prospective gun owners should not be restricted, or that they should be checked for mental health issues before they take possession? And just how do we do that? Some of these mass shootings are by people who have not yet risen to a level of triggering mental health alerts. I don't know the solution, and I doubt there is one, but I do believe there are things we can do communally to reduce the violence. The U.S. Congress has passed a law that forbids federal agencies from researching gun violence. I believe we need to urge Congress to rescind that law and to take steps to ensure research into gun violence is funded and encouraged. Jesus came to shed light, not darkness.

Tommy Phillips 10/19/17 Oct 19, 2017 10:08pm

Thank you for encouraging Methodist to have this conservation and challenging us to embrace the task of determining what God would have us do as individuals and as a church to address difficult issues like gun violence. I hope that the leadership of our church will continue to challenge us to address difficult issues including social issues. " Jesus said unto him (us), Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." If we believe that we are connected to the past and future, then we must understand our responsibility in these commandments and work toward resolving issues in the present.

Joseph Haney Oct 19, 2017 10:21pm

Mr. Smith does not share any of his reasons for having a number of firearms; I am interested in them.

L. M. Lucas Oct 20, 2017 12:23am

I grew up with guns hanging on walls & guncases unlocked. No gun locks either. What we had was strict parenting and strick grandparenting. This resulted in gun safety first. Second, we learned a respect for a gun & what it is capable of doing. One of my fondest memories of my Grandpa is when we put a penny in the top of the locust yard fence post. Then we tried to hit the penny with a 22 rifle. Grandpa was with us, no one went in front of the person holding the gun until the barrel was pointed upward and then we yelled we were going in front of the shooter. We also grew up killing God's groceries (as I call it), rabbits, squirrels, deer, turkey, bear, chicken, hogs & cattle.
Yes I was raised in the country & we lived off the land (gardens & raised food for cows & hogs too). So to someone in the city who has no first hand knowledge of how to farm & live off the land...guns are used to kill people. Granted, I know guns kill, what the bullet hits. It is so hard to fathome people dying from intentional gun fire. I can not understand how people can harm or kill people as seen on TV.
So, what I'm trying to say is guns used the way I grew up using them, is perfectly acceptable. Guns used to intentionally kill people (excluding times of USA war) is very unacceptable.
With that said, if guns can no longer be purchased legally, they will be purchased illegally.
Remember, a gun can kill whatever it is pointed at, by a HUMAN PULLING THE TRIGGER. Gun, loaded guns do NOT kill until a man or woman pulls the trigger.
GUNS DO NOT KILL unless a MAN OR WOMAN PULLS THE TRIGGER. Have I made my point? The KILLER is a human being, not the gun. Th@nks for allowing me to share my feelings.

trj Oct 20, 2017 11:03am

Thank you for your comments Mr. Lucas. I also grew up on a farm and had the same kind of teachings about guns. Japan has the toughest gun laws in the world and yet criminals are still able to get guns. It is rare but a determined person can still get an illegal gun there. What I don't understand is the lack of respect for life and others that seems to be prevalent in todays society. They no longer teach character education in schools but teach society education. They want to change society but first you have to change yourself to change society. And are morals being taught any more at home or in schools? I no longer hear sermons about sin in the church. Has the church forgotten about sin? I mean we still say we are sinners but preach the good news that Jesus came to save us all. Is the church teaching that I had when I was young and not being taught now part of the issue. How can someone take a life and someone else not call it a sin. But it just seems like no one wants to hear about sin anymore. I have 3 guns and go hunting every year to put food on the table. In my state a minor must take a training course to get a hunting license. I would like to see some kind of training safety be given every time someone gets a gun. Have a blessed day

Michael Andress Oct 20, 2017 11:25am

I also wonder why a "number of guns" is needed. Isn't one enough to protect you and your family. People seem to collect guns out of some sense of rebellion against the government. I am a little upset with the Methodist Church for not talking about this problem with any sense of urgency. We've had a gun problem for years and it has only been in the last couple of years that we are seeing any discussion of the problem. Have any Annual Conferences passed resolution about gun violence or about gun control? It seems like the church is hiding from many issues (LGBT, guns, etc. ) that are in direct violation to what Jesus taught us, namely, to love one another.

Charles E. Spickard Oct 20, 2017 12:11pm

Why does Carol ask "Why do you own "a number of firearms"? What purpose do "a number" serve? What purpose does ONE serve? Guns were created for one purpose: to kill. The prevailing myth is that if you have a gun, you can "protect" yourself by making someone else feel afraid of your greater power to harm them." (end of quote)
First, let me say that I own a number of guns. No, I do not shoot any of them on a regular basis. I might target practice once or twice a year. I also collect cameras and have a large number of them but I rarely take a picture. I also have 40 or 50 flashlights. Now this does not mean that I collect guns because I am afraid, or that I collect cameras because I take pornographic or other pictures, or collect flashlights because I am afraid of the dark. So, why does someone make assumptions just because they do not share common interests? To some extent this might be a characteristic of human behavior..
I have lived in the rural South (born and reared in East Tennessee ) all of my life. Mostly in rural areas. I would not consider living in a sparsely populated area without a gun. It can take as much as 30 minutes for a law officer to answer a call. In rural areas we can have any number of species of wild animals to contend with besides the possibility of thieves and burglars. Yes I am more at ease to be able to protect myself.
I also own two of the most dangerous devices on earth (a car and a truck) and this type of device has killed more people than all of the guns in this country. But nobody wants to increase laws concerning them. Adding more laws is not the solution. Until our churches and our parents return to instilling proper values in our youth, the problem will continue to escalate.

C.I. Crouch Nov 1, 2017 8:05pm

Why do I have a "number" of guns? Because I can.

T Keppler Nov 8, 2017 12:24pm

Why does my wife have so many pairs of shoes? Why do anyone have so many TV sets or 200 channels on the cable or satellite box? Guns are inanimate objects. I love that we are talking ... but people, let's focus on the criminal behavior. Question, what are you going to do when someone walks into your church intent on killing everyone there? Pray for Southerland Springs, Texas and let's learn how we can best protect ourselves from evil.

Xavier Ascanio Nov 11, 2017 10:55am

The focus on guns is off point and a distraction from the root causes of violence, regardless of the "tool" used to commit it. Looking to government policy/laws for our salvation is just as spiritually misguided as looking to guns for that salvation. The church should devote its efforts and resources to its mission of creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Wringing our hands about guns does nothing to advance that mission and consumes valuable time and energy that could be put to much better use reaching people who do not know Jesus Christ and live lives of despair and all too often end up committing violent acts whether with a gun, a truck, a knife or any other means. Individual Christians should by all means vote their consciences but church leaders and resources should focus like a laser on spreading the Gospel, which does not mention guns, climate change, or any of the other popular political issues of the day. We don't need a church that spends its time and resources engaging in political discussions. We already have CNN, MSNBC, FOXNEWS, etc. to do that 24 hours a day! My prayer is for the church to get back to its roots and purpose which would do more to stop all violence than any law or policy ever could.