Gun Madness

"Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted because they are no more..." (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

"Blessed are the peacemakers." (Matthew 5:1-11)

After the shooting of children in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, 2012, Isobel wrote a poem based on our reading from Jeremiah today.  It is published in her new poetry anthology.

For all of Rachel’s children, weep, oh weep,          

This time a gunman came and with one sweep

Of bullets twenty children hit the floor.                    

Because we see in shock they are no more.

For all of Rachel’s children, weep, oh weep. 

There is no comfort for our grief is deep.

Like the poem goes on to tell,  the story continues, for daily innocent men, women and children are shot dead by guns across the globe.  Hilary Clinton told us this week that 77 people are killed every day in the US by guns, more by far than those killed on the battlefield. But the US Gun Lobby rejects restrictions on buying guns, and a candidate for the Republican nomination as President proposes that school teachers be armed.  Police shoot first and then ask questions, or they are killed by gangsters who want their weapons.  Meanwhile nations around the world are arming themselves to the teeth at an alarming rate, war in the Middle East is escalating, Palestinian youths throwing stones and wielding knives are gunned down, and in every war zone towns and villages, hospitals and schools, are bombed to oblivion.  Fundamentalists proclaim that we are entering the End Times and witnessing the beginning of Armageddon, and they do so with relish because they think it proves that their reading of the Bible is true.  We, on the other hand, are appalled by parts of the Bible that provide ammunition for ardent fundamentalists to justify owning guns by the score and going to war with religious passion, and remind them that Jesus told us to be makers of peace and that God is love not a God of war.

Recently I gave a lecture to the U3A on the Battle of Waterloo and recounted how the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the coalition forces, after seeing the slaughter on the battle field, declared that the only thing worse than losing a battle is winning one.  Afterwards the warring nations of Europe came to their senses and a hundred years of relative peace came to Europe.  But this did not extend to the colonies.  Guns continued to be made and tested for their effectiveness as war was exported to the colonies in Africa and Asia.  There were umpteen bloody wars in the Eastern Cape and Zululand, and the Anglo-Boer War brought the century to a violent end.  And then European madness broke out again in 1914 and war has become endemic ever since..  We have come to regard war as normal. Working for peace seems abnormal. Soldiers are applauded for killing the enemy; conscientious objectors are jailed for refusing to do so. We humans are the only creatures it seems who have a strange tendency to self-destruct.

Even though every war is meant to end war, none do.  Instead more efficient weapons are invented, ostensibly as a deterrent, but designed to kill and needing to be tested in combat.  Computerized games glorify war as do some TV programmes and movies, awakening an appetite to participate in the real thing. From the moment boys are born and toy guns placed in their hands, guns become an extension of the arm and deemed essential for security.  And now in the US girls are queuing up to become marines on the front lines.  Guns are the centre piece at national parades; they are fired in honour of visiting dignitaries; they are cleaned and polished in preparation to be used against the foe, whether real or imaginary, teaching children to shoot happens long before teaching them to drive, and even a pastor our son Anton knew in Atlanta wore a gun into the pulpit!  The more guns we have, the more tanks and fighter jets we possess, so the propagandists tell us, the safer we are.  And people gullibly accept such nonsense.  Guns have their uses, such as when people on safari are charged by wild animals, or in other extreme circumstances, but for every person whose life is saved by a gun, hundreds of thousands are slaughtered.  Guns are a fetish, they have a mystique, so they will continue to be made, sold or stolen by the million.  Getting your hands on a gun is like getting a new cell-phone.

For all of Rachel’s children, weep, oh weep,          

Of bullets twenty children hit the floor.                    

For all of Rachel’s children, weep, oh weep.

I know we need to be realistic.  How can a Hitler or ISIS be stopped?  How can terrorism be countered?  How do we stop the violent aggression of nations who want to possess more land and control trade?  How do we deal with armed criminals?  What happens when diplomacy seems to fail and enemies start shooting?  I know we need to be realistic.  But what does it mean to be realistic? Is bombing Baghdad  or Tripoli to smithereens the way to get rid of a despot?   Is not working for peace more sane than preparing for war when you know that it will solve nothing and devour most of the national budget?  Is training people to kill others a more realistic way to bring peace to the world than training them to work for peace?  Are spending vast amounts on weapons a better way to protect our society than building homes, schools and hospitals? Does having a gun in your cupboard really protect you from criminals or prevent family members from shooting themselves or children their playmates?

Jesus did not come to tell us that wars would cease, in fact he said there would be wars and rumours of war.  He was a realist about human nature, well aware of the causes and consequences of violence and strife.  But he taught us about an alternative way of being in the world.  In the midst of a violent society ruled over by a ruthless empire he told them that peace makers are blessed, that peace makers are truly God's children.  He told his followers not to take up the sword even in his or their own defence.  Was he crazy or was the world insane?  Was he realistic or a starry-eyed dreamer?  In a world gone mad, a world awash with guns, are not Jesus' words the only bit of sanity left to celebrate and emulate? 

We have come here today to share the peace of Christ with each other, and therefore to commit ourselves as we go out into the world in Christ's name us not just to love peace, but to make it. We have come here to pray for justice, peace and the healing of people and nations, and witnessing to an alternative way of being human in the world. We may not be able to stop wars or the manufacturing of guns, but we can help create a climate of peace, we can help change the gun-made mindset around us, we can in the words of St. Francis, be "instruments of God's peace" sowing love rather than hatred.  It is a tough ask, but it is essential to what it means to be Christian.  "Blessed are the peacemakers for they are the children of God."

(John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus.)