Violence in America

Reading: “All this is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it a few centuries ago and could cry out, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ If we are to realize the American Dream we must cultivate this world perspective. – From The American Dream 6 June 1961

Violence in America

When I was a child in the late 1950’s early 1960’s, I remember having these emergency drills in school.   My town was roughly 90 miles from Manhattan.  If Manhattan was hit by a nuclear bomb, what would we do?  So every so often we would move all of our desks against the inside wall away from the windows and we would all get underneath them.  Poor Peter, in first grade he was too tall to fit under his desk so he had to go into the teacher’s closet.  We did this drill on regular basis knowing full well if Manhattan was indeed a target of a nuclear bomb, we might survive the initial blast but the radiation would kill us within a few days[i].

During this same time period, there were momentous changes happening in America.  The civil rights movement was occurring and from my living room in rural New York State I watched in horror as German shepherds was set to attack black Americans in the south.  I saw on my television churches and synagogues being firebombed through out the country.

And across the oceans I watched Walter Cronkite report the news in Viet Nam and saw again in black and white horror children running in the streets while Napalm flames consumed their bodies. These are the images of my childhood that are seared in my brain of life in America, home of the brave and land of the free.

And so I grew up understanding that America was under a threat. There was the threat of nuclear war the Cuban Missile crisis, the fear of race riots, and the fear of the Domino effect of communism that would cause Southeast Asia to fall.  And the only way to combat these threats was with violence or the threat of violence.

And now within the last few months in the aftermath of some of the most horrid massacres, the number one threat that is perceived is that the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, might be curtailed or worse denied.  The fact that there are people having access to assault weapons that have one purpose and one purpose only was not the fear but that we might have guns pried out of our hands.  Here is where America is drawing the line.

In Northport, AL, this past week, hundreds of people showed up at a meeting with State Legislators demanding that gun legislation already in place be repealed. They were demanding that they have the constitutional right to carry guns where ever they pleased.

Now, there really shouldn’t be any surprise at this reaction from “gun enthusiasts” as the local paper called them. After all, this nation has been at war 216 years of its 237 year existence.  There has not been one full decade where America was not in some armed battle somewhere in the world.   The longest period of peace this nation experienced is for 5 years during the Great Depression.

From our earliest days we have been at battle.  The largest and longest campaign of ethnic cleansing in humanity’s history was here in this nation.  More than half of our existence as a nation has been in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.  We don’t like to talk about it in such terms but what the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny policies were about in practice was the systemic elimination of the native peoples. How can this multi-generational genocidal act not shape the American ethos?

Our nation is founded on the justification of violence.   Howard Zinn in his book, A People’s History of the United States writes, “To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important—it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.”

Our history books are written from the standpoint that violence committed was a justifiable means to get what we thought we deserved. While we deplore the violence in an elementary school and in a movie theater and what happens daily in the ghettos of America we shrug our shoulders and say, “yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important.”—but what is important is my right, my constitutional right to have multiple guns to defend my self from the possibility of a government takeover by socialists.

This is not what makes a society free. This is what makes a society enslaved—to fear—to hatred of the other—to a survival mentality of get-them-before-they-get-us culture.

So how do we change a society where violence is as much a part of living as breathing?  A recent op-ed piece by Faith Leaders for Peace, a San Diego based coalition that I helped form 8 years ago, “issue[d] this moral call for persons to reconsider gun possession and to fully appreciate the spiritual peril that ensues from the decision to kill another human being.”

The spiritual peril was never quite spelled out but I imagine such peril might have been described by Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.[ii]

My first career was working as a clinical specialist with developmentally disabled adults, many of whom had maladjusted coping behaviors.  So in my day to day work, I would be called in by staff who were having difficulties with client behavior.  They would want me to change the behavior of the client that very often had taken a lifetime to form.  No one has the ability to change another’s behavior.  But I promised to observe the environment in which the person lived or worked. I would try to figure out what happened that would result in the client behaving in such a negative manner.  Then I would suggest the staff member to change their behavior in how they interacted with the client and if they followed my suggestions, low and behold the client responded differently and their behavior changed. We cannot force someone to change their behavior but we can and we must change out own.  This means we need to begin being proactive and not reactive in our own behaviors regarding violence.

It is nearly impossible to legislate the kind of change needed to curb violence in America.  We can make some legislation changes like requiring all gun owners to become licensed in gun safety much like a driver needs to become licensed in car driving.  Or allowing doctors access to know if their patients own guns when they consider them to be a mental health risk and just as doctors can have drivers licenses revoked and keys taken away have gun licenses revoked and removed. This access by doctors is currently against the law in the State of Florida.

But opponents are quick to tell us that if we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns. It is true legislation will not stop gun violence 100%.  But even if the reduction was as low as 25% of annual gun deaths by legislation, this is still roughly 7,500 lives saved.  Aren’t these lives saved worth legislation to increase gun safety?

Given the conservative hold on the house, such legislation will only occur with major concessions to the gun lobby who fears their business will be adversely affected by it.  Such legislation is a start but it is not the entire answer to creating a nation that seeks to turn its weapons into plowshares.

We have an opportunity as a religious body to change our own behaviors towards violence. We must begin with ourselves. It will do no good to tell our politicians to pass legislation and consider the issue fixed.  It also will do no good to scape goat the mentally ill or criminals for the violence we experience in society.  As long as we point our fingers elsewhere we are all perpetrators of violence.

As I stated violence in American culture has its roots dating back to the 1600’s with the first colony massacring the native peoples and the first boat of Africans to serve as slaves.  Violence in America is not just physical; it is also emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

As a religious community we need to be teaching ourselves how to implement the principles we profess to covenant to uphold.  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are not just nice words on the page but a command to teach the skills in how to develop this in our relations, not only with one another but with the world at large.

How do we handle domestic disputes within our families?  We must teach our sons and daughters that violence against women is never appropriate in any form.  Violent speech must be taught to be as inappropriate as violent behavior.  But simply stating it is inappropriate is not good enough.  We must teach our children and our adults how to choose a different way of speaking when in conflict.

There are many curricula out there that teach non-violent communication.  A good non-violent communication curriculum would also teach how to de-escalate a potentially violent scenario.  It does work; I have used this many times when I worked with clients who were volatile.  A recent shooting in a school was kept from getting worse by a teacher who had the skills to talk a student down.  Yes, it is risky, and yes it could have ended with more lives lost.  But non-violent communication is the way to go.  How much better would it have gone if this was already an integrated method to handle conflicts in that school?  Would the student have chosen to use a gun to address his pain?  Or would he have had another skill in his tool bag to use to have addressed the issue.  I would bet on the latter.

In addition to non-violent communication skills we need to ensure that we teach our congregations about the various isms in society that are also rooted in violence.  Racism, Classism, Heterosexism, sexism, ageism, able-ism all have roots in violence.  Not only do they contribute to physical violence, but also emotional and spiritual violence are pervasive in these institutionalized isms in our society.  It is important that our congregations are places where these isms are not enforced and supported.

We need to teach our congregations about micro-aggressions.  “Micro-aggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[iii]”  This is a relatively new way of looking at the effects of isms in our daily communications with one another and how they accumulate and harm a person’s life experience over time.

As a covenantal faith, we can in the words of Rev. Alice Blair Wesley,“ pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come That we and our children may be fulfilled and that we may speak to the world with words and actions of peace and goodwill.”

It is true that our faith is a relatively small percentage of the population of America.  But that should not discourage us from beginning this work.   There is an old adage that states a little yeast leavens the whole dough.  And so it could be for us.  We could be the yeast that leavens the society to change and transform into a nation of peace loving people.  Blessed be.

Violence in America

Rev. Fred L Hammond

Oxford Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

January 27 2013 ©


[i] http://www.nationalterroralert.com/nuclear/   This is based on the results of a 1 megaton bomb fallout at  a Distance: 90 miles A lethal dose of radiation. Death occurs from two to fourteen days.  Todays .

[ii] –Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love 

[iii] Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions in Daily Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.

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