Category Archives: Social & Cultural Commentary

I hope he really is a con-man . . .

. . . but not in the typical way we use that phrase. I don’t want President-Elect Trump to gain our confidence, only to use it as leverage for manipulation. I don’t want him to be shady.

But I do hope he will strive to lead us into the truest sense of that prefix con-, which literally means “together” or “with.” I know you agree that our United States feel a little less than united, a little short of together these days.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that we are becoming a nation of experts. In this postmodern era, there are increasingly few agreed-upon normative truths. Some describe this as an age of “self-referentiality,” in which we are losing the ability to seek the common good because we are so consumed with what seems best for ourselves. Without caution and self-awareness, we can easily slide down a slippery slope from reference to what seems best for us to reverence for what we merely like, want, or prefer.

Here’s the great danger of that: when each sees himself/herself as the moral, rational, or political point of reference, anyone who disagrees is wrong. If I am the arbiter of what is good and true, you are wrong (and perhaps evil and/or stupid) if you disagree with me. Did we not see this in the presidential election? Didn’t candidates, campaigns, and individual voters treat their opponents as if they were absolute imbeciles?

The perfect storm is that this rise of self-reference has coincided with the rise of social media. So, we can all publish our expertise via tweets, posts, and blogs. We can critique, criticize, and rate via likes, retweets, and comments.

Though it allows us to express ourselves to a larger audience, social media doesn’t necessarily facilitate better communication. Posts and tweets are not conversational. They are necessarily one-way, monological expressions. I acknowledge the irony that I’m expressing and you’re reading this thought in a blog post.

We’ve all seen the worst of social media “communication.” One person posts a rant. Another offers a rebuttal in the comments. The author of the original post responds defensively. They unfriend/unfollow each other.

That’s not communication. It certainly doesn’t build community. Tweets and sound bytes can give the impression  that we’re not interested in what anyone else might say. They can alienate us and drive us even further into self-reference.

So, when he assumes office tomorrow, I hope President-Elect Trump will use his Twitter account a little less often. I hope he will strive to be less self-referential than Presidential. I hope he will be a con-man, striving to bring us together with each other.

I hope he will enter into conversations, requiring him to be present with people and to enter into that very real form of communication that occurs only as we both express and listen.

I hope he will make a genuine effort to connect with people, whether they agree or disagree with him. I hope he will strive to lead toward what is best for all.

In his interactions, I hope he will be humble and conciliatory, believing that individual concessions are often necessary for the corporate good.

I hope he will strive for consensus, as seemingly impossible as it is in our generation of hyperpartisan politics. I hope he will lead efforts to find the wisest, best solutions for both parties and all people.

Idealistic? Perhaps, but it’s the kind of idealism upon which our nation is built. Our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, or “out of many, one.” Though we have always valued individual rights, we have equally realized that we are stronger and better when we are united than when we stand alone.

You might even say we are a nation of cons.

Our legislative branch, the congress comes together to legislate for the good of the whole.

Our constitution is the covenant (or contract) that binds us together “to form a more perfect union.”

That constitution, by the way, replaced the Articles of Confederation adopted by a Continental Congress.

I believe with all my heart that we live in the greatest nation on earth. I thank God that we will observe a significant transfer of governing authority tomorrow with no shots fired, lives lost, or battles fought. But our nation can be–ought to be–greater still. I pray and hope that President Elect Trump will be a con- man as he leads us.

Because united we stand; divided, well . . .

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United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.

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The Difference Between Educating and Teaching

For the first time in thirty years, I talked with Mrs.Compton last Thursday!

Although I have often talked about her, I hadn’t actually spoken with Pamela J. Compton since 1984, when I was in her seventh grade class at E.B. Stanley Elementary School. As we spoke by phone last week, the sound of her voice–once part of the daily soundtrack of my adolescence–turned some key in my memory, allowing me to reoccupy for a moment my plastic seat with chrome legs, which glided almost effortlessly across commercial green carpet to its place beneath the black metal desk with the wood veneer top. I could envision the room’s geography, easily recalling the placement of my desk, Mrs. Compton’s desk, the chalkboard, the flag, the pencil sharpener, and other prominent features.

In fact, I couldn’t help remembering the place so well. It was the setting in which Mrs. Compton changed my life.

At that time, our county had no middle schools or junior high schools. So, we were in elementary school from Kindergarten through seventh grade, after which we moved across the hill to high school for eighth through twelfth grades. During the 1983-84 school year, my classmates and I were the big men and women on campus at E.B. Stanley–we were seventh graders! From our Kindergarten classes adjacent to the gymnasium, we had proceeded from first through third grades down one of the schools twin corridors and from fourth through seventh grades along the other.

By that spring, we were in our eighth year in the building, and we had reached the school’s academic and social summit. One day as we made our way from the gym down that long corridor to the seventh grade “pod,” we stopped at the water fountains just outside the auditorium or “little theater,” as it was called at E.B. Stanley. About that time, a Kindergarten class passed by on its way to the cafeteria, and one of the Kindergarteners was so impressed with our size and status that he said, “Wow! College kids!”

As impressed as he was with us, I may have been just as impressed with myself. By the spring semester, seventh grade was coming to a close, and I was practically in high school. I had learned that I could get by academically without investing a lot of effort, and besides, one of my classmates had started calling me “Mr. A+.” Since I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted that nickname, I reached a point at which I didn’t invest much effort at all. I was merely getting by academically.

It’s safe to say Mrs. Compton was not impressed. As she returned our graded papers to us one day, she stopped very deliberately right in front of my black metal/wood veneer desk and made eye contact that practically commanded my attention. I had not performed well on this particular assignment, and her eyes said so.

My recollection is that Mrs. Compton was not terribly tall–not even when she wore her gray leather cowboy boots. I, on the other hand, have always been relatively tall. So, I sometimes embellish this story by saying that we were eye-to-eye as she stood and I sat. Regardless of that detail, the rest is unquestionably true.

She stood before me, looked right into my eyes, slid my mediocre assignment across the desk, jabbed an index finger onto the paper and said to me, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this!”

I feel sure that normal daily activity continued in that room, but for me, the world stopped. There was no denying it. She was right. It felt like she was shining a bright light on something I didn’t want to see within myself or about myself. She expected more of me than I was willing to expect of myself. I felt like such a disappointment, and as much as I would love to say that I felt like a disappointment to Mrs. Compton, I had to say then and I must say now that I realized I was a disappointment to myself.

That day in seventh grade was one of the days in my life when everything changed. Thanks to that eye-opening experience, I began to expect more of myself. Academically, athletically, and in most other aspects of life, I learned that I cannot always determine outcomes, but I can determine the effort that I exert. Mrs. Compton was a crucial messenger to me about the importance of a work ethic–of being able to expect yourself to do better. Over the past thirty years, I have remembered her words countless times. Even today, in moments of contentment, self-satisfaction, or outright failure, I look at myself in the mirror–always making eye contact–and say to my reflection, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this.”

I’ve told the story of that day in seventh grade hundreds of times, but I still have a strong emotional reaction each time I tell it. Call it what you want, whether goose bumps, chill bumps, or hair standing on end, it happens every time I tell or even remember the story. Recently, I shared the story with my congregation, and then just within a few days, my daughter Grace began her own seventh grade year.

Maybe that’s why I felt the urge to reach out to Mrs. Compton last week. We had swapped email messages six or seven years ago, but this time, I really wanted to be able to express my gratitude with my own voice, and I’m so glad I had that opportunity. I got to express thanks. She got to say that she was glad to have made an impression. We both got to catch up on the past thirty years . . .

You cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak I felt when Mrs. Compton told me that she retired a few years ago because she had gotten close to burnout. Like so many others, she had grown tired of the pressure to “teach to the test,” in this era of SOLs and other standardized tests. It was crushing to hear that a person who had changed my life is no longer in a classroom to change lives because our society has changed its view of education.

In fact, I believe I can make a compelling case that our society is in the midst of a pendulum swing away from education and toward mere teaching. You may question whether this distinction is merely splitting hairs. Not to me. I acknowledge this distinction with such great conviction that I have not once referred to  Mrs. Compton as a teacher in this post.

Our word and concept “educate” comes from a pair of Latin words. One is educere, which means “to lead out,” and the other is educare, which means “to train,” or “to shape.” Notice that both of these definitions make the student the object. Education is a process of training or shaping a person. It is a practice of leading out the virtue, reasoning, and potential within the student–within each student.

By contrast, our English word “teach” comes from an Old English word tæcan, which means “to point out, to present, or to show.” Clearly, this definition emphasizes the subject matter, which is presented, shown, or demonstrated to the student. Teaching has to do with imparting a particular set of skills or a particular type of knowledge to the student. So, it’s entirely appropriate to say that today’s teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” as they present particular Standards of Learning to today’s students.

I empathize with today’s would-be educators. I believe with all my heart that they are responding to a call and that they have a sense of vocation to be educators, rather than merely teachers. I cannot imagine their frustration! What if the church dictated to me what I would preach, when I would preach it, and what my parishioners were expected to learn from my preaching? What if I were evaluated on the basis of what my church members committed to memory, rather than what they committed to heart? What if my effectiveness were gauged by the quantity of what church people learned, rather than by the quality of their life-changing experiences? The very thought is ludicrous to me.

The problem, at least in my view, is that we are so eager to quantify learning that we have rushed into standardization, evaluating teachers, schools, and entire school systems on the basis of how well or poorly they teach particular skills and facts. In the process of standardizing learning, my fear is that we subtly discourage the creativity and attention to the individual person that are so crucial to education. Are we headed for a society in which we excel in games of Trivial Pursuit and fail miserably in the pursuit of virtue?

I can look at any variety of websites to see the body of knowledge that my children and all of their peers are expected to learn, but the only way we can train, shape, and lead out the best that is within each child is by setting teachers free to be educators. Loosen up on the SOLs! It’s far less important to be taught facts than it is to be educated to become a lifelong learner, a contributor to society, and a changer of the world.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between teaching and educating. Teaching is the transferring of information; educating is the transforming of lives.

I’m living proof. At this very moment, I can’t recall a single language arts fact that Mrs. Compton taught me. I don’t even remember what books we read that year. But as you already know, she changed my life.

As we ended our conversation last Thursday, I thanked her again for expecting so much of me. She simply replied, “I knew you had it in you.”

There’s the magic. I didn’t know I had it in me. It had to be “led out.” I had to be educated.

Thanks again, Mrs. Compton. The world needs you–and more of your kind–educating our children.

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Why My Dad Knows More than Anyone in the Federal Government

On January 2, 1999, my dad and I stood in the elevator of State Street United Methodist Church a few minutes before my wedding service began in the sanctuary. During that brief elevator ride, my dad said, “I guess I’m supposed to say something profound. All I can tell you is that marriage takes compromise.” After a pause of a few seconds, he added, “And sometimes it takes lots of compromise.”

He wasn’t telling me that I would have to sell my soul. He wasn’t suggesting that I would have to surrender my most deeply held and cherished values. He wasn’t suggesting that I approach marriage with the idea that I would win some and lose some. He was simply reminding me that relationships require mutual effort, and since marriage is perhaps the most important human relationship of all, it requires and deserves lots of mutual effort, also known as compromise.

Since when did compromise become a dirty word? Why is compromise so closely identified with surrender or abandonment of what we hold dear? That sense of surrender and loss doesn’t have a place in compromise’s original definition.

It’s root is the word promise, which comes from the Latin prefix pro-, which means “forward,” and the verb mittere, which means “to send.” When we promise something, we “send forward” our word about what we intend to do. Add the Latin prefix com-, which means “together,” and you get the idea that compromise consists of two or more parties “sending forward” their commitments to each other. More basically, compromising is the act of making promises together. Isn’t it appropriate that my dad used that word “compromise” just before my wedding service, in which Suzanne and I made promises together in the presence of God and our loved ones?

In today’s political arena, however, compromise has become despicable. Last spring, I watched (almost incredulously, I might add) a television news story about veteran Senator Richard Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary. I didn’t have any particular loyalty to Senator Lugar, but I was stunned to hear that a statesman known for his willingness to reach across party lines to find mutually beneficial solutions had apparently been defeated because he was too willing to compromise. In a CNN story, his victorious opponent “said he doesn’t anticipate successful compromise in the Senate and hopes bipartisanship will be defined as Democrats backing the Republican agenda.”

Richard Mourdock clearly isn’t the only one with such a mindset. Tonight, as the federal government is about two hours away from a shutdown, I hear plenty of politicians suggesting that compromise is something to be avoided at all cost–including, apparently, the cost of thousands of government jobs, the cost of billions of dollars in the stock market, and the cost of even more dramatically diminishing public trust in our elected “leaders.”

Democrats will not compromise with Republicans. Tea Party Republicans will not compromise with their more moderate party mates. The House will not compromise with the Senate. The President will not compromise with the Congress. Elected officials will not compromise their party platforms, regardless of the potential effect upon their constituents. Members of congress prize their vows and oaths to Grover Norquist more highly than they value their responsibilities to their home districts.

By all outward appearances, compromise is deplorable. Far from seeking to cultivate the mutually beneficial solutions, our politicians seemingly invest most of their time and effort in posturing themselves to deflect blame upon their counterparts in the other party.

But compromise hasn’t always been something to avoid. In fact, I can make a compelling case that our nation was literally founded in and upon compromise. The Constitutional Convention, our nation’s founding moment, was full of compromise. Consider, for instance, the three-fifths compromise. In determining the population for taxation and representation, delegates from the northern states advocated counting only free citizens. Delegates from the southern states sought to include slaves in the population count for determining congressional representation. In an effort to form a new union, they compromised and included “three fifths of all other Persons” (i.e. slaves) in the population count for determining representation.

Earlier in that same Constitutional Convention, when delegates had reached an impasse over whether congressional representation should be by state or by population, the convention agreed upon the Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise), which established that each state would have equal representation in the senate and that the representation in the house of representatives would be based upon population. Small states favored representation by state. Large states favored representation by population. They compromised and found a way to continue forward together.

Years later, when legislators differed over whether new territories and states should allow slavery, the Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery only in limited areas of the former Louisiana Territory. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery legislators, poised on opposite sides of what might be called the hot button issue of our nation’s history, somehow found a way to compromise so that they could go forward together.

Certainly, we can critique these decisions with the benefit of hindsight. We can scarcely imagine treating a large segment of the population as if it were only three-fifths as worthy of representation as another. We realize now that the compromises regarding slavery merely postponed the inevitable ideological and armed conflict that became the Civil War. Nevertheless, our nation’s very political roots are in the spirit and practice of compromise.

Somewhere along the way, however, we have lost touch with those roots. So, the “countdown to shutdown” continues, and our elected representatives draw lines in the sand, stick to their guns, fulfill their mandates, and a thousand other phrases, all of which is to say, they are too weak and small to find compromise for the common good.

If they were my children, I would tell them to grow up. I like to think they wouldn’t behave so badly if they were my children. As it is, I believe they are negligent. They are proving themselves unworthy of the sacred responsibilities entrusted to them.

Compromise. Promise together. Each makes a commitment to the common good. Compromise is not a bad thing in and of itself. It enables two or more to find their best future together. In our lives of faith, we might call this understanding of compromise living in covenant together, which is exactly what Suzanne and I were about to do on January 2, 1999.

“It takes compromise . . . and sometimes it takes lots of compromise.” See? My dad gets it. Why can’t the federal government?

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(S)election: Pope Benedict XVI and Every Denomination’s Dilemma

A few weeks ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, appeared on CNN’s Starting Point to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement and the process of determining his successor. In the conversation about the possible motivations for the Holy Father’s retirement, Cardinal Wuerl introduced a very helpful distinction that I believe I’ve always embraced but struggled to articulate.

Cardinal Wuerl identified a subtle distinction between election and selection, acknowledging that each concept has a place in the identification of a new pope. Clearly, there is a papal election in which the cardinals gather together in the conclave to vote for the next pontiff, and apparently, this process has long been recognized as an overtly political process. In 1824, John Adams lamented to his friend Alexander Johnson, “What a rattling & crackling and clattering there is about the future presidency. It seems like a Conclave of Cardinals intriguing for the Election of the Pope.”

The reason for Adams’ lament was that he thought the presidential election should rise above such political wrangling. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in First Family: Abigail & John Adams, “The more explicit style of political campaigning offended John’s personal sensibilities, which had been formed in an earlier era when any overt expression of political ambition was regarded as inadmissible” (252-3). How surprising is it that one of our founders saw papal elections as more explicitly political than presidential elections?

Even as they participate in an election process, however, the cardinals believe that God has already selected the next pope, and their responsibility in the conclave is to determine together that man’s identity. Put simply, the cardinals’ election is a process of discerning God’s selection.

Cardinal Wuerl speculated–and please realize that I’m summarizing rather than quoting–that Pope Benedict XVI may have focused on the fact that he was an elected leader of the church as he decided to retire. Perhaps he felt that he had served his term and that it was time for the incumbent to step aside and made way for the next elected Bishop of Rome to lead the church.

The historical norm among popes, by contrast, has been to focus upon their selection by God, to understand that they were chosen and set apart for their unique role at the head of the church and to believe–at least during their lifetimes–that they alone could fulfill the responsibilities for which they were chosen.

Who knows whether Cardinal Wuerl is right in his speculation about what may have motivated Pope Benedict XVI to do the unprecedented. Who knows whether Benedict XVI gave any thought to the intricacies of election vs. selection. Regardless, I believe Cardinal Wuerl is onto something crucial in regard to church leadership in the world today.

Roman Catholics are not the only ones to have walked the fine line between election and selection. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of which I am part has historically held the two concepts in a similar tension. In jurisdictional conferences around the nation and world–not so coincidentally, every four years and in the very same years as presidential elections–United Methodists elect bishops to lead the church. All candidates for the office of bishop are nominated by annual conferences, again underscoring the concept of election in our process of naming episcopal leaders. Yet many of the delegates voting in those conferences believe that God has already selected the people for the job, and the voters’ responsibility is to discern whom God has chosen.

After all the ballots are cast, we walk the election/selection tightrope again as we consecrate the men and women we have just elected to the office of bishop, an office they will hold until resignation or death. Even in retirement, these men and women are still bishops, as our Book of Discipline clearly states: “A retired bishop is a bishop of the Church in every respect” (par. 409, The 2008 Discipline). This practice suggests that we believe they are, in fact, selected and set apart by God for the rest of their lives.

We Methodists have always intertwined the ideas of election and selection. Our first two Methodist bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury are proof. Coke was content that he was named (read selected) and “set apart” by John Wesley to be a “general superintendent” of American Methodists in September 1784. Weeks later, when the Christmas Conference met in Baltimore, Maryland, to establish officially the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury insisted that the conference members confirm his role as general superintendent by electing him.

In later years, every bishop would follow Asbury’s precedent of being elected, perhaps because the constitution of the Methodist Episcopal Church was formulated in the very same era as the Constitution of the United States of America. The polity of the church and the nation share many features in common.

Regardless of any disagreement over election or selection, according to noted Methodist historian Frederick Norwood, there was little confusion over whether a general superintendent equaled a bishop. He quotes Thomas Ware, “the plan of general superintendence, which had been adopted, was a species of episcopacy” (The Story of American Methodism, 100). A major ecclesiastical question is whether Wesley, a parish priest in the church of England, had authority to consecrate a bishop or a general superintendent. As Norwood concludes, “Methodists in America have not worried overmuch about it, but they have never quite reconciled themselves to a clear interpretation. Here beginneth the definition–or lack thereof–of the office of bishop in the Methodist Episcopal tradition” (Story, 97-8).

Apparently, we still seek that clear interpretation. I’ve already mentioned how we elect/select our bishops in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. A relatively recent and unprecedented conversation and controversy pertained to how we deselect them.

In July 2012, the episcopacy committee of the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction voted to retire involuntarily Bishop Earl Bledsoe, based on his ineffectiveness as a bishop. Days later, the jurisdictional conference whose delegates had elected Bishop Bledsoe just four years earlier, voted to uphold the episcopacy committee’s decision.

On the committee’s behalf, chairperson Don House said, “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question” (United Methodist News Servicehttp://www.umc.org, June 9, 2012). In a later report, House went on to say, “Our only concern about Bishop Bledsoe was his administrative skills, but as a spiritual leader, as a dedicated Christian, never any question” (UMNS, http://www.umc.org, July 17, 2012).

These statements suggest that the jurisdiction and its episcopacy committee view the office of bishop primarily as an elected role, in which administrative and managerial skills are paramount. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the committee’s and the conference’s action as a recall of an elected official. The suggestion that his skills as a spiritual leader are less vital to the office of bishop than his administrative and relational skills seems to presume that he was elected by people do manage and administer effectively, rather than selected by God to change hearts.

In its deliberations and decision on November 10, 2012, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church overturned Bishop Bledsoe’s  involuntary retirement and required the jurisdiction to reinstate him. According to a November 12 release by the United Methodist News Service, “The Council cited ‘numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process’ and ‘an inability to articulate’ what the ‘best interests’ of the church or of the bishop or of both would be.”

At stake is whether the bishop is an elected administrative official or a selected spiritual leader. Is the bishop ultimately chosen by people or chosen by God? Is a bishop or a pope best understood as a consecrated leader for life or an elected official for a specific term?

Some protestant denominations have arrived at clearer answers to these questions by developing  systems of leadership featuring  elections and term limits. For example, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which also claims John Wesley as its founder, has no office of bishop. Instead, an elected president presides for a one year term. The Uniting Church in Australia functions similarly but elects its presidents to three year terms. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elects moderators for its presbyteries and assembly, usually for a one-year term.

Clearly, there is great variety among denominations in their practices of electing and/or selecting leaders. To what do we attribute this? On the one hand, we lack a clear biblical prescription for how leaders are to be identified. In the Hebrew scriptures, God does the selecting and makes his selections known through various media, from burning bushes to prophets. In the New Testament, the disciples cast lots to name a replacement for Judas–trusting that God will identify his choice by that process–in Acts 1, but the early church “selects” or “chooses” seven deacons in Acts 6. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul offers counsel about the qualifications of a bishop, but he doesn’t say how they are to be chosen. In the absence of specific biblical instructions, various denominations and traditions of the Christian church have determined their own processes of election/selection.

Among protestant churches, especially in the United States, the democratic processes of electing church leaders may be an example of church imitating society or a reaction against a perceived “monarchical” hierarchy in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So, who’s right? Should church leaders be understood as elected, selected, or both? Should they be elected to serve in office for specific terms, or should they consecrated for life? The answer may very simply be: God only knows.

This much is clear. Christians of good faith and clear conscience have come to different conclusions, or at least to different points in their journeys toward conclusions. Maybe we all “see in a mirror, dimly.”

With his retirement and the accompanying process of identifying his successor, Pope Benedict XVI may have opened the door to new conversations and discernment processes toward clarity. Or he may have just muddied the water.

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DADitude

Let me begin this post by saying that I have it made. I’ve had the privilege of welcoming two children into my family by birth and two by adoption. I’ve known the best of both worlds. I am humbled and I feel blessed to be the father of all four.

From my unique vantage point as both a birth parent and an adopting parent, I’ve learned that some people–certainly not most–have some inaccurate assumptions about adopted parents and children. In her wonderful book The Spirit of Adoption: at Home in God’s Family, Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner suggests that every adoption involves both grief and gift. For some couples, there is the grief of infertility. For some birth parents, there is the grief of poverty or some other circumstance that makes adoption seem the best choice for their child. For some children, there is the grief of abandonment or rejection. But for all adopting families, there is the gift of love, the gift of finding each other.

Some people–again, certainly not most–focus way too much on the grief.

One night this week, for instance, I was in a local business with my sons, Brett & Micah, who just happen to be my two adopted children. An acquaintance who knew that we had been expecting another birth child asked if our “bundle of joy” had arrived yet. I very proudly said that we have a six week old beautiful baby girl named Sage.

My acquaintance said, “Well! Two boys and two girls . . . now you’re even.” She continued, “I guess that’s the good news.” I sensed that she might have more to say on the subject.

She didn’t disappoint. She continued, “But the bad news is that you don’t have a true son.”

I’m sure my mouth dropped wide open for a moment before I quickly recovered and said, “Oh, I have two true sons, and now I’m just thrilled to have two true daughters too!”

I quickly looked at my sons to see whether they had heard the conversation, but–thank you Lord Jesus–they were blissfully unaware. They hadn’t been paying attention at all.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself smack in the middle of an awkward conversation about my sons. No doubt it won’t be the last. The difficult thing for me is that my boys are growing up quickly and eventually they’re going to hear and be affected by someone’ s thoughtless comments.

Suzanne and I have had several years to get used to them. Our sons are natives of Guatemala, and Suzanne and I are fairly noticeably Caucasian. Across the years, some people have very helpfully pointed that out to us. Very early on in our lives as adopting parents, we named these encounters “ethnic moments,” or “EMs” for short.

There was the time that Suzanne had both of our boys in a shopping cart and a woman asked, “What are they?” Suzanne replied, “Boys.”

On another occasion, a woman in the checkout line at the grocery store went out of her way to say how precious they were. She then leaned down close to them and said, “Hola!” and every other Spanish word or phrase she knew.

A man in the McDonald’s playground once asked me, “Them your boys?” I assured him that they were, and he seemed puzzled. His next comment? “They look Indian.”

One of the most innocent ethnic moments I’ve experienced was at the primary school lunch table when I was eating with Micah. One of his classmates asked, “Are you Micah’s dad?” I said, “I sure am!” She looked at us both and said, “Your wife must be Mexican.”

I understand that we don’t look alike. I further understand that some–certainly not most–people are slightly confounded by that. But let me assure you that from my perspective (and, I feel confident, from my sons’ perspectives too), that no one needs to feel sorry for us. I feel pretty sure that my boys don’t feel let down by having me as their dad, and I know beyond any shadow of doubt that I feel blessed beyond description to call them my sons.

Genes are simply overrated. As I have often said, being my adopted sons means that Brett & Micah might have a chance to avoid inheriting my epilepsy, my baldness, and my unreasonable stubbornness. They might not inherit my best traits, but neither do they inherit my worst. They are their own persons, which is what we want for all of our children, after all. Right?

There is a faulty but common assumption that every man wants a “chip off the old block” and is somehow saddened or–God forbid–disappointed if he doesn’t have a birth son. Just as some people with really good intentions express their sympathy that my sons are adopted, some people–certainly not most–want to console me for having two birth children, both of whom happen to be daughters.

I remember sharing with another acquaintance this summer that Suzanne and I had learned we were having another girl. He let out a groan of disappointment and lamented, “I was hoping you would get to have a son with your genes!”

Again, let me assure the world that there is no reason to feel sorry for me. I have two absolutely beautiful daughters, and I cannot imagine or dream it any other way!

So, as I said earlier, some people–certainly not most–focus way too much on the grief, whether it’s real or perceived, and whether it relates to birth or adoption.

When it comes to my kids, however, I focus on the gift. I am immeasurably blessed, and I thank God every day for the privilege of having a part in the lives of Grace, Brett, Micah, and Sage. Each is equally my child. Each has an equal share of my heart. Each is a unique and priceless gift from God.

Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve got it made.

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Time for Real Conversation about Guns

I realize that I run the risk of alienating friends, neighbors, and maybe even family members with this post, but as I so often confess, I’m pathologically incapable of avoiding conversation. So, I can’t resist contributing to our society’s ongoing conversation about guns and their place in our nation and homes.

Over the past couple of weeks, firearms have all-too-tragically figured prominently in our societal dialogue, first as Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before killing himself, later as a seven year old boy died outside a Pennsylvania gun store, apparently the victim of the accidental discharge of a firearm by his own father, and most recently when Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire in the Clackamas Town Center mall in Oregon earlier this week.

Because Belcher happened to be a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, sportscaster Bob Costas addressed the tragic murder/suicide in his weekly commentary during halftime of NBC’s Sunday night NFL game with predictable results. Costas quoted FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, who had written, “What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

We’re all aware of the “debate” that ensued. I use the quotation marks here because I’m convinced there really is no meaningful debate about guns in our society. Very quickly, any attempt at conversation about guns diminishes into barb trading, finger pointing, and insult lobbing. As a society, we seem to lose our civility completely over the subject, probably because the conversation is about topics near and dear to our hearts–topics like freedom, liberty, safety, and security. Conversations about those topics inevitably elicit emotional responses, so we should not be surprised that we have such strong feelings about guns and gun control.

May I please try to (re-)frame the debate? May I invite us all to a genuine conversation, rather than a shouting match, about firearms in our society? Toward that end, let’s take a look at the parts of the conversation that cause us to feel so strongly.

The Second Amendment

Of course, the pillar upon which all gun rights rest in our nation is the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Though I suspect that many Americans are completely unaware of the first portion of this amendment, the latter part is vigorously defended and debated. Much ink has been spilled, much breath has been expelled, and many keystrokes have been struck in an effort to determine what exactly the Second Amendment means. Of course, one’s reading of this amendment depends heavily upon the theory of constitutional interpretation to which one ascribes.

For instance, a strict constructionist or textualist might read the amendment’s last fourteen words and conclude that there should be absolutely no laws limiting gun ownership or possession. From such a perspective, any legislative effort to curb or limit (or “infringe”) a person’s right “to keep and bear Arms” is unconstitutional.

My impression is that the National Rifle Association subscribes to this point of view and believes that almost every law limiting gun ownership or possession is an unconstitutional violation of individual rights. After all, the organization’s official website lifts up “24/7 defense of your Second Amendment freedoms” as the primary membership benefit, suggesting that those freedoms are regularly jeopardized, or constitutionally speaking, “infringed.”

A reasonable person can certainly understand the NRA’s zeal. “[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” is a very strong statement, and it places a heavy burden of proof upon anyone–any legislator or any legislature–who would seek to limit the people’s right to own or possess firearms.

Anyone who is fundamentally or even partially opposed to guns needs to understand this. So, if you favor toughening gun ownership laws, outlawing certain kinds of firearms, or stricter laws concerning possession of firearms, realize that you are contending with the last fourteen words of the Second Amendment, which prohibit the infringement of the right to keep and bear arms.

Clearly, however, there’s more than one way to interpret the Constitution. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this debate. Where the strict constructionist or textualist tends to read the text literally and find the text’s meaning by discerning what the words mean to an intelligent, reasonable reader, an originalist or purposivist might try to look through the text to see its original intent or purpose–the situation the words seek to address. These other means of interpretation focus on the context and purpose of the Second Amendment, rather than zeroing in on the words themselves.

Why was it so important to our nation’s founders to protect the right to keep and bear arms? What convinced the framers of the Bill of Rights to amend the Constitution to protect the right to bear and keep arms? The answer to these questions may lie in the first thirteen words of the Second Amendment. Perhaps the original purpose for securing the right to keep and bear arms was to ensure that the state could have that well regulated militia.

Consider the context–during the American Revolution, the local militia units bore the brunt of the fighting before the establishment of the Continental Army and even thereafter, militia often fought alongside the “regulars.” In 1786 & 1787, only months before the Constitutional Convention, militia troops were necessary to bring about an end to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, and in 1794, only a few years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, militia troops would be essential to end the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania.

The framers of the Bill of Rights understood the need for organized, state-sanctioned military units to protect the common good and to ensure the common peace. In search of the Second Amendment’s purpose or original intent, a reasonable person can read the amendment in such a way that the last fourteen words are a means to the end described in the first thirteen words. According to such an interpretation, the people’s right to bear and keep arms shall not be infringed so that a regular militia (necessary to the security of a free state) might be maintained.

According to this interpretation, the Second Amendment is not so much about an individual’s right to bear and keep firearms as it is about the collective right of the people to assemble as militia for their common security. This is a common sense interpretation against the backdrop of the Revolution, before and during which the people’s collective rights were abridged by the British government and troops, and in the context of the fledgling republic, when the people’s common security was threatened by armed, rebelling mobs.

In his book Young Patriots: the Remarkable Story of Two Men, Their Impossible Plan and the Revolution That Created the Constitution, Charles Cerami suggests that the Second Amendment is best read in conjunction with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives congress the authority to call forth, organize, arm, and discipline “the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Cerami writes:

This last phrase, incidentally, adds great clarity to the much-abused Amendment II of the Bill of Rights when the two are read together. This amendment does not deal with a generalized “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” but pointedly stipulates that this right “shall not be infringed,” because arms are required for “a well-regulated Militia” which, in turn, is “necessary to the security of a free State.” Bearing arms for any other purpose is simply not mentioned (211).

Considering the amendment in context and paying attention to its introductory phrase, a reasonable person could legitimately conclude that the right to keep and bear arms in the Bill of Rights is solely for the maintenance of common security. In our nation today, the National Guard and state defense forces have taken the place of militia, and for that reason, one could argue that the need to protect individuals’ right to keep and bear arms is less crucial than it was in the late 1700s.

If you believe that any gun control law is a bad law, you need to understand this. Patriotic Americans who love their Constitution and Bill of Rights as much as you do are legitimately interpreting those documents–just as you are–and coming to a different conclusion. You may disagree with them, but they make a valid argument and point.

Safety vs. Safety

Beyond the fact that we look at the same Bill of Rights and draw different conclusions, we need to acknowledge that our society has a difference of opinion over how best to ensure citizens’ safety. Let me call our attention to this fact–we all believe that a safe society is something for which we should strive. We merely disagree over how best to achieve or maintain it.

Perhaps the primary reason that the NRA and other proponents of gun rights so vigorously advocate for the individual’s right to keep and bear firearms is a conviction that the individual is safer when he or she is allowed to keep or carry a firearm for personal protection. According to this point of view, the best deterrent to crime is an armed citizenry. In the wake of the Perkins/Belcher murder suicide in Kansas City, the NRA’s CEO & Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, “The one thing missing in that equation is that woman owning a gun so she could have saved her life from that murderer.”

From that same point of view, La Pierre and other advocates of gun possession rights would likely assert that the Clackamas Town Center would have been a safer place for everyone if someone in the vicinity of the shooter had a concealed handgun and could have neutralized the shooter before he took others’ lives.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that the mall would have been safer if the AR-15 Roberts used had not been so accessible. Admittedly, Roberts reportedly stole the semi-automatic rifle he used in last week’s shooting, but military-style semi-automatic rifles are available for legal purchase, and many believe that the availability of such weapons is the real threat to public safety.

And how about in the home? Is a home safer because it is protected by a firearm or because it has no firearms in it? It is difficult to adjudicate, simply because statistical evidence is hard to obtain. How many home invasions are thwarted or even deterred by the presence of firearms in the home? We just don’t know. On the other hand, published medical studies suggest that there are increased risks for child mortality by firearm in homes with unsecured guns and that there is a higher likelihood of suicide (because it is so frequently an impulsive act) in a home with a firearm. So it’s just not clear whether we’re safer with or without guns in our homes.

We come from different directions–some of us think the world needs less guns, and some of us think the world needs more people carrying guns–but we seek the same destination. We all want to live in a safe society. That’s our common ground.

How much is too much?

That’s a question I believe we have to answer as a society, and I believe it’s a question we can legitimately ask in light of the Second Amendment. How much firepower ought one person have? How much firepower is or ought to be protected by the Bill of Rights? How much is too much?

Whatever their intentions, whether simply to ensure the availability of militia or to protect every individual’s right to keep and bear arms for any other purpose, the authors and ratifiers of the Bill of Rights could not have imagined the weapons available today. The “Arms” about which they thought and wrote were primarily single-shot, muzzle-loading muskets or long rifles. In that era, there was little difference between and among firearms designed for sport, hunting, and combat.

One wonders how the founding generation would look upon semi-automatic weapons with clips or belts full of ammunition. In possession of a firearm from their era, an assailant might discharge one or two shots in a crowded public space before being apprehended by fellow citizens. By contrast, a semi-automatic rifle with several clips of ammunition is a weapon of mass destruction on the interpersonal level. Armed with such a weapon, an assailant can wreak havoc, as we have too often seen in our society.

Does and should the Second Amendment protection extend to such weapons? I understand the appeal to gun enthusiasts, to people who exercise diligent firearm safety and simply enjoy shooting for sport. There is a rush and thrill accompanying the safe, sportsmanlike discharge of a powerful weapon. There is something exciting about the experience of great power under control, whether it is in an automobile or with a firearm. But the mass shooting phenomenon compels us to ask whether we can continue to guarantee one person’s right to sport at the potential expense of others’ right to life.

God and Guns

I’ve seen several versions of the bumper sticker that says something like, “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Great. Let’s Keep All Three.” I wonder how God feels about those bumper stickers. Surely God is delighted that we ascribe to him some portion of America’s greatness, but at the same time, I bet God yearns for a greater separation from guns in our hearts and minds.

The bumper sticker reduces God to an ingredient. God becomes one component of a recipe for American greatness. As people with great allegiances in two directions, we American Christians have to discern our loyalties very carefully, lest we come to love one master and despise the other. Because faith and armed conflict have been components of the establishment of our national identity, we can forget that they are incongruous. We can see them as complimentary, or even necessarily intertwined.

In truth, it’s hard to love one’s neighbor as oneself when we view our neighbor as one from whom we might need to defend ourselves with firearms. I’m convinced that armed confrontation, interpersonally or internationally, is heartbreaking to God. And though warfare may indeed be unavoidable in international affairs, individual disciples have to contend with Jesus’ haunting words: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Rather than allowing our society’s ideas about firearms shape our faith, followers of Jesus should allow our faith to shape our ideas about weapons.

In search of civility . . .

As I’ve already said, I’m not convinced that we have much real conversation about the right to keep and bear firearms in this nation, simply because we become so defensive (and occasionally offensive) about the subject. No wonder. As I’ve suggested, most of us enter the conversation from concern for our safety and for the safety of our loved ones. Because the topic affects our sense of security, our “fight or flight” instinct engages. We very quickly assume our defensive positions and are ready to attack anyone who might have another perspective.

Whether our sense of security is compromised by gun violence itself or by conversations about restricting rights to own and/or possess firearms, we rush to defend our own perspectives and to demonize others’.

This has to stop if we are ever going to make progress together toward our common goal of a “more perfect union” and a more secure, peaceful society. We have to trade soundbites for substantive conversation. We have to abandon condescending, trite witticisms for one thing that has really made America great–compromise.

You’ve heard some of the catchy slogans:

  • “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Well, presumably law enforcement and the military would still be armed. Seriously, I believe this slogan is meant to prey upon our fears, to suggest that the only thing between ourselves and chaos is our firearms, reinforcing the idea that any gun control is a bad thing. Taken too far, the idea that our security is solely in our own hands (or firearms) nearly invites us to vigilantism.
  • “If you’re going to blame guns for murder, why not outlaw spoons for making people obese?” I understand that the gun is a tool of destruction in the hands of a person who is choosing to use it in a willful act of violence. In the same way, a person uses a spoon in a willful way to feed himself or herself. But here’s where that comparison breaks down completely–how many spoons are used to murder others? How often does a person in another room get injured or killed when someone is cleaning their spoon in the adjoining room? Has there ever been a drive-by spooning in a gang turf war? Clearly, this comparison oversimplifies–almost to the point of absurdity–a very complex societal dilemma, and this kind of caricature shuts down meaningful conversation or debate.
  • Most recently, a picture has made its rounds on Facebook depicting an M-16 or AR-15 in the center of the frame, surrounded by everyday objects like a rock, a stick, a golf club, a knife, a hammer, etc. The caption says something like, “Any of these can be used to commit murder. Why is only one unfairly labeled an ‘assault weapon?'” Again, there is a valid point that a person bent on murdering another can perpetrate that murder with any variety of objects. Nevertheless, every other item pictured has another primary use, but the gun is literally a killing machine. For crying out loud, the very word “gun” comes from a Middle English phrase that roughly means  “engine of war.” Sure, the individual is ultimately responsible for whatever he or she does with a gun or any other weapon, but it is simply not true that a gun is basically the same as a golf club, knife, or rock in the extent to which it is lethal. It’s labeled an “assault weapon” because it was created to do damage to another human being. Muhammad and Malvo could not have carried out their reign of terror as the DC Snipers with the rock, the baseball bat, or the golf club.

Clearly, we need a new lexicon for this conversation. We have to do better than the language that seeks to vilify, disparage, and demonize the other, thereby envenoming or ending the discussion. It’s time for civil, intelligent conversation.

Where do we go from here?

I’ll be glad to share where I am at the moment in my own wrestling match with this subject. I believe that responsible hunters and sport shooters should always have the right to own firearms. I believe that military-style semi-automatic firearms are too readily available in our society. I believe that no common citizen needs Kevlar-penetrating, armor-piercing, “cop killer” bullets. I believe that we should be very careful about issuing concealed carry permits. I believe that sentencing guidelines for gun crimes should be as tough as (if not tougher than) the sentencing guidelines for drug crimes. I believe that every parent or other responsible adult should ensure that every gun in every home is secured from the reach of children.

Those are some of my beliefs, but I don’t have the final answers. That’s something for our society to discern together. But, as I hope I’ve pointed out here, I believe there are some questions that are key to the conversation. Clearly, these are complex questions. If the solutions were simple, we would have found them by now.

But we must continue to pursue them, and–this I believe with all my heart–the only effective route to those answers is through constructive, intelligent dialogue. Let’s seek the answers through civilized, cooperative communication, rather than assuming we already have the answers and defending them against all threats. We’re better than that.

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Author’s note— Less than twelve hours after I released this post, over twenty school children and teachers were killed and others were wounded in yet another tragic, heartbreaking mass shooting. I join with you in prayers for all whose lives were ended or changed forever today in this senseless display of violence.

Author’s note #2— Acknowledgement and thanks to my high school friend Ernie Odum, who pointed out an inaccuracy in my original post. I had mistakenly referred to “military-style automatic firearms,” but as Ernie pointed out, the AR-15 and similar weapons are actually semi-automatic firearms, rather than automatic. My thanks to Ernie for catching this error and helping me to write more accurately.

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