“Happiness is a Warm Gun”  by Mark W. Harris

 January 21, 2018  –  First Parish of Watertown

 Opening Words – from Martin Luther King, Jr.

By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle… by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.

Reading – from “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell

(This essay from the 1930’s is a metaphor for British imperialism. The narrator is a police officer in Burma, who is summoned to stop a berserk elephant. The crowd expects him to shoot it, and so he does, but then has to watch a long, painful death.)

[At] that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes — faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Sermon

Does our present day round up of immigrants echo in some way the pursuit of slaves in 1850 after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law?  Every single Black person in Boston was placed in danger, including William and Ellen Craft, former slaves in Georgia, who had escaped on the underground railroad. While they lived here, they also became Unitarians, joining the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society in Boston, which was led by the popular preacher and radical abolitionist, Theodore Parker. If Parker’s name is unfamiliar to you then you should wander into my office, and see his picture on the wall. He once lived in Watertown prior to attending Harvard Divinity School. The grandson of the famous revolutionary hero John Parker, who declared on Lexington green, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here,” young Theodore had come to Watertown to teach school, and study with our minister Convers Francis, who was best known for the large library he had acquired. Parker met Francis with these words: “I long for books, and I long to know how to study,” so Francis became his mentor.  If you project this into our current history, think how far Jolie could go! After seminary, Parker went to serve the small church in West Roxbury, but his reputation catapulted him to fame, and he soon found himself in the Boston spotlight preaching before thousands. With the passage of the Compromise of 1850 the Crafts were liable to being taken by slave catchers at any time. Not being able to abide this, Parker defied the law, and took them into the relative safety of his own home, declaring among other things, “I will help just as quickly as I [would] pluck [a man] from the teeth of a wolf.” 

Parker asked what the price of liberty was. During this crisis he composed his sermons with a pistol on his desk and a drawn sword resting nearby. I have reflected about that pistol and that sword over the years. Would I ever encounter such a time when I would take up a pistol ready to shoot someone who threatened another’s liberty? His turn to weapons was more than bluff, because he was also one of the Secret Six, a group of clergy and lay people who helped finance the arming of a slave rebellion organized by John Brown, which ultimately failed, Brown was hanged, and his supporters were momentarily accused of treason. Was Parker aiding and abetting a terrorist, or was he acting on a divine calling to bring freedom and justice to those held in chains by others?

Gun control is not an easy issue to preach about because there are no easy answers. It’s frustrating. We liberals mostly place ourselves on one side of the argument. We want stricter gun laws, taking weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, advocating stricter background checks, and restrictions on automatic or semi-automatic weapons, or devices such as bump stocks that make guns more lethal. We live in a violent culture that seems out of control, while we stand helpless before the gun lobby, the NRA, which demands that the freedom to own guns will not be taken away from them because it is a fundamental right in the constitution.  I have never quite understood that perspective, because when I read the second amendment, I see that it affirms the right to bear arms in the context of the states right to organize militias to protect its citizens, but it is not a legal right that gives people the freedom to acquire arsenals that can kill and wound hundreds, such as occurred at the music festival in Las Vegas.

How often do we stand up helplessly and say, “Not again!”  It seems to happen time and again. I can’t even begin to name them all anymore.  And each seems more mind numbing than the last. We have college campuses like Virginia Tech.  We have places of work like the terrorist couple in San Bernadino. We have places of fun and entertainment like the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, which I learned about moments before a church service was about to start.  What to say? Horrified, yet again. Do we light candles? Do our hearts go out to the bereaved and traumatized? Then, there was the day of the Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Surely we said, this will be the tipping point. All these children massacred.  This will make the difference on gun regulation. President Obama called it the worst day of his Presidency. “It’s not something I want to see repeated,” he said.  But it has been, in other towns and in in other situations. Children were killed at the recent shooting at a church in Sutherland, Texas. For the first time, I saw many colleagues respond by speaking about how frightening it was to step into the pulpit. How can we conduct a service with a non-anxious presence when events like this exacerbate our anxiety?  So I may watch the door to see if there are any strangers, but then could it be someone we know who lost their job or had someone say something that set them off? We have had situations here where people have interrupted services, and even, as many of you know, a former parishioner who emailed the UUA threatening me, and comparing herself to the Boston bomber and the Newtown shooter. A call from the UUA one Sunday afternoon began, “We are concerned for your safety.”  In 2001 a stranger entered the UU church in Brattleboro, VT.  He was distraught and was carrying a knife threatening to kill himself. The parishioners spoke to him, calmed him down, convinced him to put the knife away, but once the police arrived, things escalated, and eventually he was shot and killed.

This week two police officers came to First Parish to help teach us how to respond to an active shooter situation. A program with the acronym ALICE – alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate – helped to educate us as to what to do if there is an intruder on the premises. During the presentation we saw a short video, which characterized the response to such a dangerous situation as “run-hide-fight.”  While all of these responses are planned to help keep each person safe, what struck me as I was sitting there, was the painful premise upon which holding such a program is based. It is in direct violation of our faith as Unitarian Universalists.  That premise is that the world is a dangerous place, and there are people out there who want to hurt us. While we are not arguing like the gun lobby that we need more guns to protect ourselves, or that the only way to stop a gun is with another gun, the idea is you have to protect yourself, and that everyone in this cold, cruel world is out for themselves.  We have to be strong, because if we are weak, someone will get us.

It is all about power and control. It is like the meaning behind the Beatles song, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The inspiration for the song actually came from the cover of a gun magazine, which in turn had adopted the idea from Charles Schulz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts, who wrote a book called Happiness is a Warm Puppy.  Puppy and Gun?  What was the correlation? And of course a gun that is warm is one that just fired, a smoking pistol so to speak. Some say that John Lennon equated a gun with the way men behave sexually.  It is about power and control with misogyny issues rampant in a society, where bigger is better.  It is also like the way George Orwell responded as the police officer in Burma.  He felt pressured to use the gun because he felt it was a symbol of British colonialism and control.  They would laugh at him if he didn’t use the gun, but it becomes a mask, and he loses himself in the process of maintaining power.  So I think it is sad that we are running workshops on how to survive when someone is after you. My colleague Ana Levy-Lyons says that’s when we are scared, that’s when our personal gun lobby shows up.  It is our own individual version of it. We are not saying we need more guns, but it is when we are out for ourselves, and only looking to protect ourselves.  When we are frightened for ourselves, we don’t support societal programs because we accept the argument that we need the money, and no one is going to take it from us. We don’t help others because they could be dangerous.  When we feel like this we live in a world of fear and conspiracy and selfishness. Is that a way to build a faith?

This is why liberal religion exists in the first place. Our ancestors saw that Christianity was built on the foundations of empire.  It, too, was about power and control. It also saw the world as a dangerous place filled with evil people. The church could save you, but you needed to be strong to fight evil. The theology behind this was based on violence.  Central to it was savior who needed to be brutally tortured and killed for our sins, which reveals a God who needed to be appeased from the wrath he felt at how sinful we are. That is not the good news. That is the violent news. While humans do have innate aggression and selfishness, we can counter these with other ways of being rather than simply accepting that we need to not trust others and live in fear.

In their book Saving Paradise, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker say that the foundations of Christianity were based on a message about a man Jesus who was compassionate and loving, and trusting of other people. Then the Roman Empire elevated him to heaven to sit at the right hand of an all- powerful God, who judged and condemned. Salvation was dependent upon Jesus’ brutal death instead of the love and compassion he showed in life. The entire Bible became an inspiration for slaves in America. They learned about how they could find liberation in this life when they learned the story of the Exodus, as their story. Freedom from slavery was something that God desired for them.  Slaveholders soon understood this, and prevented slaves from meeting separately, or if they did, it was under guard or with white ministers only. The underground railroad supported by radicals such as Theodore Parker brought freedom for some, but after the Civil War white supremacy took hold again, as the era of Jim Crow began.

Christianity had its alternative advocates right from the beginning.  Instead of seeing the world as a place where we could not trust others, and we had to exert power over others because the world is a dangerous place where others are out to get us, this alternative view said that God is loving and kind.  This is a God who wants to bring people together, and make the world a safe haven for all.  This theology says invite others into your life, and don’t be afraid of them. Trust the world as a beautiful and friendly place, where you should be generous to others and help others. No one should be naïve about the dangers around us, but often when we expect trouble, “there’s gonna be trouble.” Traditionally those who advocate for the right to bear arms speak of personal freedom.  Those who advocate for gun control say it is about taking care of everybody – we need fewer guns, or we need to register the weapons.  We will be safer if this industry is regulated. It is about what is good for all of us, not just satisfying someone’s fear that they need guns to protect themselves or their family.

Generally, that has meant we liberals have been advocates for gun control.  A gun collection took place at First Parish a couple of years ago. We have members who have spoken out on more restrictive gun laws.  You have an opportunity today to fill out a postcard that favors restrictions on those who are extreme risks to the community, and a second bill to collect data on multiple gun purchases, both of these are from the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization we recently joined. The issue of gun violence is a multilayered and complex issue.  We cannot simply point a finger at any one layer and say this is what needs to be done.  Because we mostly want to see more restrictive laws, we have a tendency to point that finger at those who are pro-gun and call them stupid or unethical. 

We say others are the problem.  But that is our own kind of spiritual violence, where we imagine ourselves more enlightened or peaceful than others, but we still use our own anger and aggression in other ways, and are just as judgmental or controlling as those we name the evil ones. 

When it comes to gun control, instead of just believing we are right, or attacking the gun lobby, we might consider a faith based approach.  I grew up in a household filled with guns.  Many of my friends and relatives were hunters. I have shot a gun many times. But my most vivid memory of gun use came when I decided one day I would shoot the Blue Jay that kept eating all the food in our bird feeder and frightened other birds away, especially my favorite, the Chickadee.  So one afternoon I loaded up my BB gun, and saw a big fat Blue Jay land on a branch of a tree just outside our back door. I decided I would get him with sheer speed, and so as soon as I saw him land, I whipped open the door with my air pump rifle ready to go, aimed and fired.  The bird did not move at all, as the little BB directly hit the branch below, but not the bird.  The Blue Jay seemingly did a little bounce like a trampoline, and came back down on the branch, and yet was not frightened.  Maybe he sensed that I would not shoot again. I had never shot anything before, and I failed miserably.  I guess I wanted some way to communicate with that bird that I wanted him to share the food.  I wanted to scare him into changing, but not hurt him. That’s how frustrated we get.

Maybe that was what Parker was doing with the gun on his desk. He wanted to show he was not going to be intimidated. He would fight if necessary, and the gun symbolized that hatred and fear and evil had gone too far.  He would do anything to stop it.  Maybe the show of a gun was enough. It is the real world the gun lobby says, but it is not my world.  My happiness, or my faith is found not with a warm gun, but with a warm grasp of  another’s hand in trust and understanding, when we can talk and put our weapons of aggression away.  Jesus suggested loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we reveal the realm of love?   In 2008 a shooting took place at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville. It was politically motivated, as the shooter hoped to gun down liberals and Democrats. He killed two people and wounded seven others. One of the people who was killed stepped in front of the gunman to save others.  Ultimately, the gunman was stopped by several church members who restrained him. All risked their lives to save others. The book Andrea and I wrote about UUism ends with a summation of this story.  When the Fire Chief went to the church, the book says, he was surprised by what he found.  No one was vilifying the shooter. They were taking care of the wounded. They were calmly doing everything they could to help.  He chief said, “Sometimes in this job you get burned out, but it made a big difference to me to see people who did care. We believe stopping gun violence is something we need to do. We can work hard on legislation, and should. But we also need to work on our hearts and live by our faith, which is not to vilify or attack, nor is it to live in fear, but to live with compassion for others, to help others, so that all might live in peace.

Closing Words – from Dwight D. Eisenhower

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.