I’m standing in a haunted place. There was an act of violence here this week. Gun violence. A man died in this restaurant where I sat with my wife and had lunch just a couple of months ago. I’m in Princeton for a rally organized by a teenager. We’re here to tell the government we the people want sensible gun control laws. The website said they were expecting 500. Five thousand turned out instead. Princeton’s not the kind of town where you expect gun violence. Affluent and privileged, it’s the kind of place many of us go to get away from real life for a while—they’ve got the best bookstore around and you can still find DVDs at the Princeton Record Exchange. You don’t expect people to be shot dead here.
America’s perverse affair with firearms goes hand-in-hand with its refusal to ensure adequate treatment for the mentally ill. We give them firearms and wonder what could possibly go wrong. We elect the mentally deficient to highest office in the land and instead of reining him in, the GOP reigns with terror. They have shown time and again that they prefer NRA money to our children. They have sold out. And the word appropriately used to describe such a party good manners prevent me from inscribing on this blog. Republicans, true republicans, need a new party. Instead they refuse to call this aberration in Washington what it truly is. Thousands took to the streets yet again this weekend. This was my fourth rally or march since January of last year, and hey, government—they keep getting bigger.
“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” So saith the Good Book. It’s a book the Republican Party has forgotten how to read. Especially the “evangelicals” who’ve betrayed their saintly name. While I’m here in Princeton, a few hours away in the sullied capitol of this once reasonable nation, half a million are on the march. And just as women led the way last January we’re being shown the truth that anyone can lead better then old white men. And the fact that the organizers of these protests are high schoolers, I am inclined to leave the last words to the prophet Isaiah, whom, for any Republicans who might be reading, is in the Bible: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
America’s phallic affair with guns should give us pause to wonder what the true motivation is. My wife sent me an NPR story on the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania. Congregants gathered carrying AR-15s, saying that the Bible’s rod of iron was really a semi-automatic. Did I say it was a phallic affair? According to the story by Scott Neuman, some of the faithful had substituted the crown of thorns for a crown of bullets. Literally. That man dying on the cross because of government overreach, I suspect, wishes he had his hands free so he could rub his eyes. He’s hanging here dying with the title prince of peace only to have grenade grannies praising his name with high explosives. This is what passes for Christianity these days.
Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia
Sensible evangelicals have been in full retreat since November 2016. Stripped of their label by extremists who somehow mistake the lamb of God for Rambo, they no longer have a name of their own. Like worms on the sidewalk in the rain, there’s nowhere left to go. The same is true of rank and file Republicans. They wonder what has become of the (God help us!) party of Nixon. Watergate seems like a mere indiscretion compared to this. I’m sorry, were you waiting for Armageddon? Don’t worry, those who move the hands of the doomsday clock have shifted it closer to midnight than it’s ever been before. You’ll have your end times soon enough.
Among the ironies witnessed by the crucified one from his vantage point high on the cross is that it was his zealous followers who started all this. Religious experts tell us that all world religions depart significantly from the teachings of their founders within one generation. If you’ve read Paul’s letters you know this to be true. I grew up as a Fundamentalist. Even though for my career I specialized in the Hebrew Bible, my upbringing was focused on the red letter words of the other testament. Over and over and over again I read them. Think of others before yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Give away everything you own. The ones I don’t recall internalizing were: arm yourself with deadly force. Give your grannie an assault rifle. If someone slaps you on the cheek, blow him away. It is more blessed to destroy than to forgive. We sit beneath a giant clock with a commander in chief with an itchy nuclear button finger. Even a clock can be a crucifix, if you look at it in a certain way.
Teachers, preferably unarmed, are some of my favorite people. While the travesty of a government muddles along in the District of Columbia I think back on my own education and wonder what went wrong. I’m sure you knew kids who hated school; I certainly knew plenty. For whatever reason they didn’t want to be enclosed in a classroom with everyone else, learning stuff for which they could see no practical application. Reading doesn’t appeal to everyone. Memories of advanced math still send shudders down my spine. And what was the point of gym class if it wasn’t to make those of us who liked reading feel bad at that awkward stage of life when you discover your body isn’t as well-made as that of others your age? Education isn’t perfect, but it’s what we now need more than ever.
There’s no way that everyone will learn to enjoy reading. We aren’t cookie-cutter people. Thinking, as my own mathematical experiences demonstrated, can be very hard work. No one person knows everything. That’s why, at least in my day, after you reached sixth grade you started to have teachers who specialized in subjects. What I didn’t realize as a kid is how hard these modern-day saints have it. Pay scales are low. Hours are long for those dedicated to being good teachers—the brevity of the school day beliefs the amount of work done after hours. Increasingly our educators have to hold down a second job to be able to survive. The least we can do is learn in gratitude.
School shootings are so tragic because many of the victims are those who haven’t had a chance at life yet. We elect uneducated presidents and wonder what could possibly go wrong. Education, if done right, becomes a lifelong journey. The day that passes without learning something new is the day I come home and go to bed depressed. More than simple evolving, life is learning. Teachers are those who set us off on that track. The young, it is true, have more flexibility in learning. There are more options open to you before your thinking gets set in its way. I ran into seminarians who, no matter how much you’d offer, had already made up their minds. No education required. Perhaps what we need to teach at the youngest possible age is that school never ends. The formal classroom experience may cease at grade twelve, the baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral degree, but the learning goes on. And it’s a good thing, not some bizarre punishment. For that teachers, unarmed, are those to whom we should be grateful. If only we’d be willing to invest in them.
It was just after dark and the red and blue lights were shredding the night in Wallkill, New York. We’d driven past this mall just over an hour ago to take our daughter home after a too brief Thanksgiving break. Now there were police cars lined up along the length of the Orange Country Galleria Mall, and my wife said, “I hope it’s not a shooting.” Life in America’s that way. About two hours later we were home and yes, it had been a shooting incident. For reasons nobody knows, a man discharged a handgun into the floor at the crowded shopping center, injuring two. Police had not located the shooter, and no motive was known. The mall was evacuated and holiday shoppers feared for their lives.
Just a few months ago I was in Penn Station, New York when a similar panic ensued. Rail police had used a taser gun on a passenger who’d gotten out of hand. As we were entering the station to catch our train, scores of people were running out in a panic. It had sounded like a gunshot. Clothes and personal effects littered the floor of the station once we got inside. This is the world in which we live. A world enamored of weapons. A world where we hate and distrust the stranger. A world where our government receives support from gun lobbies and refuses to put controls on the sale and ownership of firearms. A world where a peaceful Sunday night on the busiest shopping weekend of the year ends in panic and tears.
Wallkill, New York, is not exactly a metropolitan area. Upstate, as we’ve been learning for the last several years, is pretty big. Small population centers dot an impressive landscape of Catskills, Finger Lakes, and beautifully wooded hills. The people are generally friendly, less brusk than they tend to be in New York City. It seems that where two or three are gathered together there’s a handgun in their midst, however. Trusting ourselves to be good people, we want to arm ourselves to shoot the “bad guy.” Meanwhile Congress still tries to pass legislation to reduce health care since, I guess, too many people are getting shot. It can be a real drain on the economy if the wealthy have to chip in. It’s upstate New York. We have about two hours to go before we can rest at home. Galleria Mall is in lockdown. The rest of the nation is too.
In a strange kind of oneupmanship, the horrendous murders in Sutherland Springs overshadowed the story of Scott Ostrem’s multiple shooting at a Walmart in Colorado. Ostrem apparently shot at random and killed three people. No motive is known, but when his apartment was searched a stack of Bibles was found. Plenty of people have Bible stacks in their houses—I know I do—but the odd element here is guns. The “reasoning” behind the NRA’s convoluted logic is that guns are for self defense. Everyone ought to have them, along with their Bible stacks. When those voices in your head begin to speak, which you grab—gun or Bible—may make all the difference. Fact is, you don’t have to be mentally stable to buy guns. And no matter how much the NRA says you should shoot back, guns in the hands of madmen obey no rules.
Trump promised to make America great again. One of the statistics at which we excel—indeed we’re a world leader—is gun deaths. We also do pretty well at opioid overdosing. Politicians can’t seem to figure out that the underlying causes here are related to the society they’ve built where you can’t ever get ahead and no matter what you do the 1 percenters will get richer while you spend your days struggling to get to the point when you can climb back into bed and sleep it off until it all starts over again. Watch them in congress. See them trying to thrust more money upon the wealthy. See them pocket the funds the NRA so generously offers. And then read the statistics. Some inexplicable disconnect exists that no amount of drugs will bridge. We are a hurting nation. And stacks of Bibles aren’t the answer.
A Bible stack in its natural habitat
In antiquity there was an ideal. Not that it ever existed in practice, but at least they had the idea. The ideal was that there was nothing wrong with wealth as long as the wealthy first ensured that everyone had enough. Then they could go on an accumulate as much as they wanted. The problem of course is that nobody knows what enough is. When do you know that you have enough? Today there’s no ceiling cap. Take your pick: money, guns, drugs, Bibles. You can have as much or as many as you wish. In just about any combination. Any combination that doesn’t involve money. Only the 1 percenters should be entitled to that. And the rest of us here below and fight it out over the remaining three.
The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.
Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.
Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.
Fear, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew, would paralyze a nation more quickly than anything else. In recent years politicians have rather cynically used that information to sway voters. Fear-mongers, such as Trump, tend to have the upper hand because, ignoring FDR, we’ve given in to our fears. The shootings in Las Vegas on Sunday night are only one more example. The NRA, which has doggedly insists that the only way to combat guns is with more guns, defends its rhetoric yet again as 59 people have needlessly died just for attending a concert where a madman checked 23 guns into a hotel room with him far above. Conceal and carry is no solution to fear. Guns have no place in the hands of a fearful public.
A profound sadness accompanies such insane violence, supported almost unequivocally by the GOP. It’s not a matter of someone armed in the crowd shooting back; the shooters take the initiative of taking their own life when some hidden trigger tells them they’ve murdered enough. We see the pattern over, and over, and over. We are a violent people. A violent people have no business having easy access to weapons. As long as money has politicians in its wallet this will never change. We’re all afraid of those who have the guns. And Washington has a perverse love of money. Those of us who don’t have guns are easy to push around. That’s what America is all about anyway.
As this past election showed, and continues to show, a candidate without a mandate may easily buy the White House. The causes held so dear by the Republican Party—guns, no healthcare, tax plans that favor the wealthiest—all of this plays to our fears and gives them power. If we weren’t afraid, what need would we have of guns? After many decades of helping the poorest be an active part of this country, Washington is now intent on dismantling the aging safety nets we’ve put in place. Retirement is a reality for a very few. Medical costs are, even with Obamacare, still a constant worry for many. Natural disasters come and we can’t mobilize even to help our own. But we’ve got guns. Fear itself has come to define the home of the brave. It is said that Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, never let the mansion built on blood money be finished for fear of haunting. That is one fear we apparently no longer have, even though guns have no effect on ghosts.