A Matter of Faith with a Bishop, an Imam and a Rabbi began as an NJTV series in the spring of 2017. The mission of this series is to examine important topical issues of the day through a faith-based lens. An archive of the series episodes are available for streaming. Learn more about the program and the hosts.

Now we are presenting the A Matter of Faith blog. We feel that it is important — and urgent, that voices from the three Abrahamic faiths can demonstrate solidarity in the face of difference. The format we will follow will have one of us present a reflection on an issue — and the other two will respond.

  • Mark Beckwith is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, NJ
  • Wahy-ud Deen Shareef is the Imam of Masjid War ud Deen in Irvington, NJ
  • Matthew D. Gewirtz is Senior Rabbi at Temple B’Nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ

God, Guns and the Great American Dilemma | 3/20/2019

Bishop Mark M. Beckwith:

A few weeks ago some of my bishop colleagues and I did some lobbying on Capitol Hill to support two bills of legislation that would reduce gun violence.  The first bill would expand background checks for gun purchasers.  The second would close the “Charleston loophole”, so named after the Emmanuel Church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.  Current law says that if a federal background check is not completed within three days, a registered arms dealer can sell a gun to a buyer.  Dylan Roof, who was the shooter in Charleston, had a documented history that would have prevented him from purchasing the weapon that killed 9 people, but since his check was not completed within the three-day limit, he was able to buy a gun and go on his murderous and hateful spree.  The new bill would expand the time allotted for a background check to ten days.

We met with a self-identified conservative member of the House, who was supporting both bills.  He was both surprised and distressed at the vicious pushback he was getting.  “For them,” he said, “having guns is a religion.”

Indeed.  Yet it was not always this way.  When the National Rifle Association moved into its headquarters in 1957, its motto, which was displayed at the building’s entrance, said “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.”  After the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, the NRA supported the Gun Control Act of 1968.  In 1972, Richard Nixon called for a ban on “Saturday night specials”, which were handguns that wreaked havoc in urban neighborhoods.  He had widespread bi-partisan support.

The second amendment (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”) was not introduced into the national conversation by the NRA, but by militant black nationalists – in the late 1960s.  Quoting Mao Tse Dung, H. Rap Brown frequently remarked that “political power comes through the barrel of a gun.”  Other militants called on African Americans to arm themselves.  They saw it as the only way to achieve freedom.

All of this got the NRA’s attention.  Their new focus on the second amendment was a whitelash against aggressive and threatened violent black empowerment.  Owning guns became the NRA’s priority, and protecting the right to buy, carry and use guns has morphed — paraphrasing the Congressman’s observation, into a kind of religious right.

I am not a gun owner.  Never have been.  I haven’t shot a gun since I did some target practice as a Boy Scout some fifty years ago. I don’t have much connection with the gun culture, but I respect the right to own guns, as long as they are bought, stored and used safely.  Which is the position of most gun owners, since they are on record in supporting sensible background checks.

But so much of the polarized conversation about guns, and the passion of gun rights lobbyists, smacks of idolatry to me.  The second commandment – “you shall not make for yourself an idol”, is several thousand years older than the second amendment.  And, to my mind, is much more compelling, and should have more abiding influence.

The two background check bills passed the House.  People close to the workings of government doubt that they will even be allowed to be debated on the Senate floor.  The religion of idolatry may yet prevail again.

While I was in Washington, I was able to attend a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Brady Bill, named after James Brady, who was shot in the back of the head (and survived) in an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. The Brady Bill, enacted in 1994, has been the only federal legislation that specifically addresses gun violence prevention.  That was twenty-five years ago.  The data gathered by the Brady Campaign indicates that the Brady Bill has prevented the sale of 3 million guns to people who should never have had them.  God knows how many lives have been saved.

Last summer, at an outdoor morning worship/rally at the Episcopal Church General Convention in Austin, Texas, a large crowd was addressed by Philip Schentrop, the father of 17 year-old Carmen, who was murdered in the Parkland shooting on Valentine’s Day.  He was passionate, eloquent and courageous.  He openly shared his vulnerability.  He said that many people tried to comfort him, his wife and two remaining children, by saying that the tragedy was God’s will.  A groan went up from the thousand people who were paying rapt attention to him.  Philip said he learned to develop a response to the well-meaning, but tone-deaf comforters: “I think it is God’s will that there be less gun violence.”

His was a powerful faith statement that has stuck with me.  And should stick with all of us.  The Latin root of the word religion is religio, that which binds people together.  Idolatry pulls people apart.  The strands of our Abrahamic faiths have the capacity to weave a life-giving religious web that can promote hope, deepen trust, foster healthy relationships,  provide greater safety – and prevent gun violence.

Postscript.  As we were getting to post our reflections, we all learned of a massacre at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed the lives of at least 49 people.  A hate crime, carried out with a gun.  There will be an outpouring of thoughts and prayers, which are important – but not enough.  No doubt the murderer had some perverse notion that certain people – in this case Muslims, are disposable.  He learned that somewhere – and has had that cruel mentality reinforced.  Our Abrahamic witness – and action, are more important than ever. They need to bind us together.  They remind us that no one – no one, is disposable.  In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

We need to work together to claim, support – and when necessary, rebuild the inter-related structure of reality.

Imam Wahy-ud Deen Shareef:

Is it not time for the American people to “get woke” to its culturally created dilemma? Bishop Beckwith passionately discusses his valiant efforts to pass legislation to prevent gun violence, which I think is absolutely necessary to address the problem from a legal perspective.

However, I think the violence featured in contemporary American life requires us to closely examine America’s dilemma with violence and then wake-up the conscience of the American people from this “dream of historical innocent gun ownership” to the harsh reality of a tradition of gun violence that did not begin with the murders of the Kennedy brothers, El-Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, nor did it begin in the 1960s with militant black nationalists claiming the right to keep and bear arms. That was a militant, protective, survival response by some African Americans to 300 now 400 years of oppressive, racist, violent, persecution perpetuated in America’s society in all it terrorist forms. G-d warns us in the Qur’an that persecution is more grievous and heinous than killing, and the most heinous form of oppression is false worship. The NRA has become purveyors of this false form of worship promoting weapons as the idols that promise peace, safety, and security, portraying them as objects of worship that promise to keep the poor, the black, the brown, the innocent, and the faceless suppressed, persecuted, afraid, deprived, and in their place. Dr. Eric Lincoln writes, “…. there is cynicism and hypocrisy implicit in our willingness to be shocked by violence, for violence has long been an integral part of our (American) way of life. It began with the effort to exterminate the Indians (Native Americans); it was confirmed as a way of life in our (America’s) protracted effort to dehumanize the African (American).” The question we must answer is; how can we bring light to this dark dilemma, security to the real and imagined fear, and protect the innocent from the extremes of the deceitful demagogues?

Human life in America became cheap by the corroding of its worth as it was applied to Native and African Americans in the peculiar institution of slavery, genocide, and “through a thousand and one sophisticated stratagems designed to exploit whatever values the white man recognized in the black (and brown) condition – economic, sexual, political, military, psychological, and so on, ad infinitum.” Black, brown and “non-white” life is still perceived as cheap and disposable. “And it continues to be a paradoxical aspect of the ecological structure of American civilization.” The killing we see today in night clubs, hotels, workplaces, and schools is a logical extension of “an implied license to kill if the killing is selective”. What we see happening today and what our children will see happen tomorrow is and will be, in part, determined by what we accepted yesterday, and what we are willing to teach ourselves as the moral principles and rational human consciousness to be lived and practiced today.

Background checks prior to the awarding of a license or the sale of a weapon are important. However, appreciation and a sacred regard for all human life and the reviving of human sensitivities from their narcotized state of indifference has to be the imperative social license that we collectively and religiously work to impress upon the souls and minds of all American citizens. I believe a sincere path to The Real, The True, and The Just is what we must choose in order to find our way out of this life threatening dilemma, and save ourselves and our children from the fire of a weapon and the fires of hype, hatred, hypocrisy, and hostility.

Thank you, may G-d forgive, enlighten, guide, and have mercy upon us always!

Postscript

As we were composing comments on our concerns related to gun violence we were sadly informed about a tragic terrorist attack by a white nationalist on two mosques in New Zealand taking at least 49 lives of worshippers at prayer on a Friday. This terrorist act comes just several months after another white nationalist committed a terrorist attack a synagogue in America taking 11 lives of worshippers at prayer on a Saturday, and previously another white nationalist taking the lives of 9 Christians at prayer in a church. Muslims are told we have a responsibility to protect houses of worship and the lives of those who pray in them.

The dilemma of how we manage this “right to own and bear arms” with the need to protect ourselves from dangerous minds imbalanced and diseased by racial, religious, cultural, and political bigotry calls upon people of conscience to examine what we must do to save ourselves and our families from this fire of hatred. The world faces a global inferno violently being fueled by racial and religious ignorance, hatred, and bigotry and being inflamed by divisive political leadership that has lost it connection with Truth, Reality, and natural human sensibilities. You and I are shepherds and we have a responsibility to protect all innocent lives in our community.

With peace and sincere best regards,

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz:

I am the last to respond to Bishop Beckwith’s wise post. And, so I don’t offer a postscript to the horrific events of last week in New Zealand because they happened before I sat to write.

I frankly don’t have a lot to say because I have said it already. I have cried tears over useless death due to gun violence. I have poured out my heart in petition to the Divine for God’s children, we human beings, to come to our senses as it relates to gun safety. The unfathomable has become common place. My spiritual nausea has become my default existential state because of how often and seamlessly the blood pours onto our soil and makes our communal ground infertile. I am not sure any longer how to learn of each victim’s identity, a whole world, in this case fifty times over, because I waver on how to have faith in a world in which we so fluidly allow such devastating violence.

And, all we do as a society is argue.  We disagree as though our lives depend on it, while people in the meantime, actually die. We create false dichotomies of good and bad; righteous and evil; while nothing communally or legislatively gets done and our collective diminishes.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just, “get rid of the guns”. I am not a fan of firearms myself, but I get that there are plenty of good people who are gun owners and that we live in a country in which we have a national right to defend ourselves. I don’t want to be part of a movement which inhibits the rights of others.  And, I want those who believe in gun ownership to support sensible laws that protect the innocent individual who wants to go to a concert, cinema, classroom or place of worship without the anxiety of being shot to death. It doesn’t seem that hard and yet, in our world which is absolutely grey, we insist on black and white decision making that only leads to clogging of a system that needs to be streamlined. We argue and we die.  We find sport in meaningless disagreement and we allow our brothers and sisters to bleed. Perhaps, the alarm bell of hate has rung loud enough this time for us to respond with an urgency to heal.

And, of course the salt in our wound of this tragedy is that of bigotry and hatred. Sure, anyone who is willing to massacre this many people with such abandon is emotionally unbalanced. But, let’s be willing to acknowledge the continuous killing in the name of hate. I appreciate the outpouring to the Muslim community worldwide, but why do we seem to only come together when we bury our dead, as opposed to building more fortified bridges in our times of joy and celebration? Some of us do, but most of us, even those of us who reach out in interfaith dialogue, don’t spend time knowing one another. We stay in our silos and presume the narrative of others.

Please, let us love our neighbors as ourselves….because if we don’t,  I fear there won’t be any neighbors left to love. My heart bleeds along with every Muslim who mourns.