Monday, July 15, 2013

The Difference a Gun Can Make

The Real Difference in the Trayvon Martin Case:
A Gun Changed Everything
by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Sermon as prepared for Second Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Baltimore, MD
Sunday, July 14, 2013

SERMON TOPIC: The Difference a Gun Can Make

TEXT: You shall not kill (Exodus 20:13)

We are living in difficult times. We are witnessing gun deaths in the United States of more than thirty thousand persons per year since 1997. From the Revolutionary War in 1775 to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which totaled 116 years of engagement in foreign wars, there were 650,858 persons killed in combat. In the eighteen years from 1979 to 1997, the United States experienced 651,697 deaths by guns. There were 839 more persons killed by guns during this 18-year period in the United States than in 116 years of foreign wars involving the United States.[1] During the Fourth of July holiday weekend a few weeks ago, twelve men were killed and at least 60 other people were wounded in shootings throughout Chicago. Two hundred murders have now occurred this year in Chicago, a city that witnessed over 500 murders last year.[2] Recently, in your city of Baltimore, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts announced a plan that included using federal officers to combat crime and murders in this city.

We are living in a culture of violence in the United States. From toy guns and holsters, to movies and cartoons, to video games that simulate warfare and deaths by automatic weapons, inlcuding blood splatter. Participants of all ages are able to be actors in the simulated slaughter of other human beings. Violence on television provides actual blueprints for killing another person. And daily we watch the glamorizing of murder on our mobile devices and hear lyrics to songs declaring that there is something noble about killing another human being, including shooting the police.

Our text for the morning is taken from our ancient Judeo-Christian Covenant that some theologians believe pre-dates the Prophet Moses. Hence, these commandments are a reiteration of God’s desired covenant for the ordering of communal life. The Ten Commandments could be considered an internal declaration as to how one ancient Israelite would treat another. Our commandment under study today might then read, “Do not kill (another Israelite).”  The Hebrew word for murder “rasah”, reminds us that human life belongs to God.

In the words of my early learning about God and life, I was often reminded, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” This was an interpretive spin off of Job 1:21 which reads “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (NRSV). In our reflections on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s confessional document, A Brief Statement of Reformed Faith, we find the words, “In Life and in death we belong to God,”[3] which are representative of our connection to the Author and Finisher of all things, God Almighty. These words also remind us of the common brother and sisterhood among humanity, which links us in a mutuality of love through the love shown by God Almighty. However, this God-centered love is difficult to identify amid the massive killing in the United States today.

Our denominational policy reminds us that, as Presbyterians, we have a responsibility to broaden our relationships with other faith communities, creating a broad-based social movement to prevent gun violence:
Our church can and should lead the way in the broader faith community to the creation of a broad-based social movement to prevent gun violence, beginning with and led by an opening to the Holy Spirit, and drawing its strength from the grassroots, especially people in the pews. Such a coalition of congregations and other faith communities can take practical direct action on local levels while generating critical change in cultural norms and attitudes toward guns, their possession, distribution, and use. In this way our church, the faith community, and the movement they can lead, will heed God’s call to protect more of God’s children.[4] (emphasis added)

John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, believed that biblical principles had direct applicability in the ordering of civil society. So, in his commentary on the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” Calvin expressed a theological perspective on the ordering of society that is based on the value of each human life as loved and redeemed by God, and therefore, in need of protection. The purpose of this commandment is that, since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each. In general, therefore, all violence and injustice, and every kind of harm from which our neighbor’s body suffers, is prohibited. Accordingly, we are required faithfully to do what lies within us to defend the life of our neighbor, to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and when danger comes, to assist in removing it.[5]

We worship this morning following the midnight verdict in the case Florida v. George Zimmerman, which exonerated Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I visited Central Florida Presbytery on June 4th. The meeting was held at First Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Sanford, Florida, a week before the jury selection in the George Zimmerman case. I left Sanford convinced that if George Zimmerman had not had a gun that night, Trayvon Martin would be alive today. The power of a gun gives courage to pursue in moments of cowardice. If Zimmerman had not had a gun, he would not have followed Martin, nor could he have shot him to death.

I have heard both blatant and subtle inferences that the actions of George Zimmerman had nothing to do with race. The State Attorney for Florida declared last night that Trayvon Martin was profiled, but she would not affirm that race was the basis of the profiling. Those persons who believe that this killing had nothing to do with race are either mistaken or naïve in their view of what history and our present reality reveals about the United States of America. This tragedy is only one example of many, that show that continued, insidious, and pervasive racism persist in this country.

In November 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African American and resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed by Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old White man, for playing his music too loud while sitting in a car. In July 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African American who was handcuffed in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is believed to have shot himself in the head with a concealed weapon while handcuffed. Questions remain as to the validity of police reports in Carter’s alleged suicide. The upcoming Sundance Movie Festival presentation Fruitvale Station will depict a true story of the police killing of Oscar Grant. Grant was a 22-year-old African American man on a subway platform in Oakland, California. He was apprehended by police and shot dead while in custody. The White police officer was exonerated after saying he thought he pulled his Taser.

A major sector of our society is impacted by hostilities connected to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation – all of which stem from issues of privilege, domination, control, and entitlement. In the Zimmerman trial, we failed to appropriately implement the law as a basis for enforcing communal morality. Hence, we have sent a message to historically disenfranchised groups and new immigrants that the Stand Your Ground Law is a license for killing without motivation or cause for threat. The Stand Your Ground Law and other similar laws that protect the privileged while distancing the vulnerable from covenant community must be eliminated. Our Christian communal covenant reminds us that “You shall not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)
Our vigilance to press for stricter gun laws in the country must not be deterred by the inability of our Congressional leaders to muster their courage and stand for righteousness. We must be vigilant in our efforts to hold them accountable by advocating:

  1. Banning all assault weapons. These are weapons of war and there is no reason for common citizens to purchase or possess them. We must call for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004.
  2. Requiring universal background checks. Presently, there is no federal provision for background checks and some states that do not require them at all.
  3.  Gun trafficking becoming a federal crime. Currently, prosecutions only proceed through a law that prohibits selling guns without a federal license, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock. We must empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their entire criminal networks.

Let’s be clear…Killing is an act of Non-Love! Killing is antithetical to the will of God! Our call is to be supportive of abundant life while recognizing that, in life and in death, we belong to God.

The writer of I Corinthians establishes the basis of just treatment towards another human being as grounded in love. Love (agape) refers to self-giving action on behalf of others, which God’s Spirit makes feasible. If a person is going to practice love, she or he must hate evil. It is not just that she or he avoids evil; she or he must take a stand against evil (I Corinthians 12:9). The advocacy work that I do daily means nothing, if love is not the essence of my actions and advocacy (I Corinthians 13:1).


[1] James Atwood, America and its Guns: A Theological Expose (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) Appendix p. 227-228.
[3] A Brief Statement of Reformed Faith, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2004), 267.
[4] Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call; approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); developed by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP); published in 2011; p. 6
[5] Ibid. Gun Violence and Gospel Values, p. 9.