Death and the Possibility of New Life (Gun Violence Sabbath Sermon)

(This was my sermon from Sunday’s Gun Violence Sabbath.  – Scott)

Erbie Bowser was a school teacher who worked with special education students. He was an imposing figure at 6-foot 7-inches and 335 pounds, but was described as a “gentle giant” by those who knew him. He liked to have fun, entertaining crowds before Mavericks games with the a dance troupe for overweight men, the ManiAACs. In 2010, he quit his teaching job to form his own non-profit to provide clothing, tutoring, and food for children. By all accounts, he was a good man.

In 2011, Erbie and his wife Zina began divorce proceedings. Court documents show that he warned her against taking any of their property, saying, “I will bury you.” He emphasized the point by opening a pocket knife and adding, “Call the police and I will execute your kids.” The judge granted a protective order, which barred Erbie from coming within 200 yards of Zina or her children. The judge wrote in his report: “Family violence has occurred and is likely to occur in the future.” On August 7th of 2013, the judge’s prescient words were fulfilled.

Erbie Bowser began his shooting spree at 10:30 pm in the home of his ex-girlfriend, Toya Smith. He killed Toya and her daughter Tasmia as well as injuring Toya’s son Storm and family friend, Dasmine. When the police arrived at Toya’s house, Erbie was gone, but Dasmine bravely identified him from a photo lineup. The Dallas police suspected that he might go after Zina next, so they alerted the DeSoto police that he might be on his way. As the DeSoto police made their way to Zina’s house, they received a 911 call that there was an incident at the home. Erbie Bowser shot and killed Zina and her daughter Neima and wounded her two boys, aged 11 and 13, before running out of ammunition.

I don’t know what happened in Erbie’s life that sent him down this path of violence. It’s possible that he had a breakdown of some kind in 2010 that caused him to quit his job and created marital problems. It’s also possible that, like many cases of domestic abuse, the threats and violence went on for years, but was well hidden outside his family. Since his arrest, neither he nor his lawyers have said anything publicly while he awaits his capital trial in prison. In any case, it wasn’t exactly beyond reasonable supposition that something like this could happen. The divorce judge predicted it and did what he could to prevent it. Interestingly, one thing he could not do is prevent Erbie Bowser from having a gun.

The discourse around gun violence quickly descends into a series of claims and counterclaims, with statistics flying around like the bullets they represent. We argue about how to label things. Is it a mass killing? A shooting spree? Is it gang violence? We slice and dice the numbers into murders and accidents and suicides. We even compare the number of gun deaths to other ways we might die. These are all important distinctions because they point to multiple causes and multiple possible solutions.

However, they also become ways to distance ourselves from the problem. Mass killings are committed by kids who are mentally ill – they either aren’t medicated enough or they are medicated too much, depending on who you ask. Gang violence is only a problem for “them,” for “those people,” the people that live wherever I don’t live. Because why would you live in a place like that, anyway? That’s why it’s so important to distinguish between North Oak Cliff and South Oak Cliff, right? By dividing things up into a myriad of smaller problems we convince ourselves, first, that each problem is not really so bad, and, second, that the possible solutions are so varied and complex that we can’t possibly solve them all. Why even try?

We seem to overlook the one common denominator: guns. Across class, race, and geography, whether unjustified or justified, accidental or purposefully self-inflicted, guns remain the most efficient way to destroy a life. Bullets cannot be dodged or outrun. The damage they do is immediate, devastating, and longlasting. There are an infinite number of ways that someone might die, but there is one way that is extremely effective and absolutely pervasive: guns.

Frankly, when I consider the damage done, the easy availability, and the total inaction on the part of our representatives, I am mystified and I am angry. How many times do we have to turn on our televisions or our computers to see that someone has once again shot up a school or a mall or a theater or an office building? How many times must we be outraged? How many times must we be disappointed and lose interest and go on with our lives? Until the next time. Until the time it happens across the street or to people that we care about. At some point, all the isolated incidents add up to an epidemic. Something has to change.

In John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born again, born from above in the Spirit. This seems like nonsense to Nicodemus: a grown person can’t return to the womb to be born again. Jesus gently mocks him: How can you be a teacher of Israel and not understand this stuff? Jesus is simply explaining what he has seen and what he knows, but Nicodemus does not get it.

I feel this way when we talk about gun violence. We know that background checks work. In states where background checks are required for all gun sales 38% fewer women are killed with a gun by an intimate partner; there are 49% fewer gun suicides; 39% fewer police are killed with a handgun; and 64% fewer “crime guns” cross state lines. Yet, in spite of all that we know, people do not believe. Instead, people believe that we need more guns with unfettered access to them. It seems like nonsense to adopt anything other than a posture of opposition and defense. This is often the nature of the things of heaven: baffling to people of the world.

But Jesus speaks of earthly things. Jesus is in the flesh describing the human condition and the need to be reborn, but Nicodemus does not believe. What Jesus is saying should be obvious. We have all experienced that need for new life. How can Nicodemus, one of the wisest people in Israel, not understand that need? And if he can’t understand that, how could he possibly understand the things of God? To know God is to be reborn, to be transformed into new life in the Spirit. Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit, it’s true, but we must understand both. In fact, understanding the things of the earth is a prerequisite for understanding the things of God. The two go hand in hand. To understand heavenly things, we must understand earthly things. We must see the world as it is.

We have a tendency to forget about gun violence. In between the heartbreaking tragedies, we convince ourselves that it was just that once. It’s just one disaffected youth, one disgruntled worker, one kid from the wrong side of the tracks. We don’t see the world as it really is. We forget that in America 1 in 3 people know someone who has been shot; every day 32 Americans are murdered with guns; 51 people every day kill themselves with a gun; and every day, 45 people are shot by accident. Our gun homicide rate is 20 times higher than our global peers; the only nations with more gun violence than the United States are countries torn apart by civil unrest. You have to go to a war zone to find a place more violent than America. Beyond the numbers, we forget the names of the victims and sometimes even the perpetrators. We stop seeing the families destroyed, the lives torn apart by loss and grief. For most of us, these awful tragedies have no face that persists in our memory. If we don’t see these things, if we don’t believe the epidemic all around us, how can we possibly know God?

God sent God’s only child so that the world might be saved. All we have to do is have faith. First, we must have faith that what God tells us about the world is true. We must have faith that the world was created for everyone to thrive. We must be passionate in that faith. Second, we must be faithful to God’s ways. From where will my help come? It comes from God and God alone. Do we trust in firepower or the powerful ways of God? Do we live in such a way that our thriving is set over against the thriving of another? Is reality at its core one of opposition, conflict, and struggle? Is that God’s way?

Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York, is having a raffle next weekend. One lucky attendee of their Sunday morning service will receive an AR-15 assault rifle. The flyer promoting the event, mailed to all gun owners in Troy, backs itself with Scripture, the Gospel of John, in fact. It quotes John 14.27: “…my peace I give to you…” it says. It has ellipses before and after the quote, so it’s dot-dot-dot my peace I give to you dot-dot-dot, which usually indicates that there is something both before and after the text quoted. That made me curious, so I did a little investigating. It turns out that what is hidden behind the ellipses is very important. This is Jesus’ Farewell Discourse where he tells the disciples he is leaving and gives them an idea of what to expect after that. In 14.26, he tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit to teach them everything and to remind them of all he has taught them. Then, in the full text of 14.27, he says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Life in God is not a life of fear and opposition. The new life, life born of the Spirit, is a life of peace and wholeness.

The Lenten journey is a journey toward death. However, it is a death that promises new life on the other side. But where is the new life for those caught up in the cycle of violence? The world does not believe the testimony of experts. It does not believe the great witness of our civil rights leaders who achieved great change without firing a shot. The world does not hear the grief and anguish of the victims. It does not see the brokenness of the perpetrators. We see Erbie Bowser on the TV and call for vengeance, death at the hand of the state, blood on our hands. The child of God came into the world to save it, but we fail to believe the testimony. We fail to see the death all around us. As a result, we continue to experience death – over and over and over. But this death is only death. There is no new life in it. At times, it seems hopeless.

But just as the world no longer runs on a global system of slave trade, just as women can now vote, just as same-sex couples can marry in 17 states and counting, there is a way through. That way is God’s way. From where will our help come? It comes from God and God alone. God’s way is the way forward. But what is God’s way? God’s way is certainly to mourn the dead, see their faces, hear their names, weep with the families left behind. But we must also change. God’s way is not to simply mourn as the bodies pile up around us. God’s way is the way of peace and wholeness. Do not let your hearts be afraid. As we mourn the victims, remember that on the other side of that gun is a broken person who, for whatever reason, has run out of options. God’s way is to reach out to those people. God’s way is to create new options and new life. God’s way is to take the option of gun violence away from them.

But most importantly, God’s way is to shine light into the shadows where our representatives creep. Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus saying, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” We can be instruments of peace and we can live our lives without opposition – and we should – but a problem of this magnitude requires systemic change. Attitudes must change, but so must laws. God’s way is to turn over tables in the temple. God’s way is to preach the good news in the presence of those who hate you. God’s way is to go to the house of Caiaphus and the palace of Pilate and, finally, to the cross. God’s way is to shine light on evil right to the end. This is the way to new life.

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