By Drew Stockstill (MDiv ’12)
If we are Facebook friends or if you follow me on Twitter, you have probably noticed an onslaught of stories on gun violence ricocheting through your newsfeed on a daily basis. Earlier this year, my senior pastor Baron Mullis and I along with hundreds of other Georgia clergy stood against legislation that would have required us to allow guns in our places of worship. In the process, I realized there is much I have to learn about the actual nature of gun violence in our state.
I grew up in south Georgia where hunting is popular and even though I did not hunt, I did enjoy shooting (clay) skeet. Many of my friends and family own guns. And perhaps like many of you, I have personal connections to victims of gun violence. Still, I felt I needed to become more mindful of how guns are truly experienced in our communities, so I made a personal commitment: to read every story of gun violence in Georgia for a month, to post the story on Facebook with the #gunseverywhere hashtag, and to tweet the story on Twitter to both Governor Deal and candidate Jason Carter.
I have shared more than 35 stories of gun violence in Georgia in the past month, and I didn’t catch every story. I posted these tragic stories without comment. Most of them involve people in anger or fear or aggression or ignorance or just accidentally firing guns…wounding or even killing…often someone they knew. Two or three times a day I would check news sources hoping to come up empty-handed, but not a day passed in three weeks without at least one new story of gun violence.
The stories are unsettling and terribly sad. I began to notice the human lives laid bare in these headlines: husbands and wives, brothers, sisters, police officers, children. The scenarios ranged from intoxicated diners killing a police officer, to quarreling lovers, to stray bullets buzzing through a birthday party, to a man leaving a park after Father’s Day celebrations.
What I noticed is how far removed these stories felt from the fraught political debates swirling out from within the gun culture, debates about Second Amendment Rights and gun lobbies and liberty. Those debates often deal in adrenaline, fear, anger and hysteria fueling hypothetical scenarios. These actual stories are complex, gritty, overwhelming and ultimately forgettable. They are simply pushed down the newsfeed by the next day’s headlines of further violence, forgettable except to those whose lives changed forever.
How are we to respond to this amount of gun violence around us? Do we let fear become our foundation, arming ourselves against hypothetical threats, using these stories as justification for viewing the ‘other’ (our neighbors, as the Bible calls them) as potential threats to our safety? I have faith that we can live together in this country in a way that does not build upon fear. Fear and anxiety may be motivating forces behind many systems – economic, political, religious, even familial. But hope, not fear, is the motivating force breathing life in the Bible. Hopeful, not fearful, should be the primary posture of the Christian.
The responses I’ve received in the past month have been varied, but I am grateful for all of them because they show the power of these overwhelming stories to speak a truth that stirs us. Mostly, I have heard of the power the stories have when posted one after the other each day. Sure, some folks have “unfriended” or stopped following me. One man, in anger, asked me to remove him from my distribution list. I didn’t. (He’ll have to “unfriend” me.) But mostly I have had fruitful conversations with gun enthusiasts who, after being moved by these stories, reasoned that surely our state could enact more responsible gun laws that require licenses, background checks and extensive training for every Georgia gun owner.
I have also had conversations with members from our church and friends with personal connections to some of the stories. Gun violence is not abstract. It is close to home. In November of 2012, a young man named Lee was shot and killed while waiting to be let into an apartment complex on Ponce. As an infant Lee had water sprinkled on his head in the baptismal font that sits in front of our church. People who sat in the pews of our church that day made a promise to nurture and care for him.
I invite you take time to read through these news stories yourself. You can scan them on my Twitter page @dstockstill. They reflect one month of gun violence in Georgia alone. Yet, while we are caught between the controversy of existing gun laws and the tangible stories before us with names of almost every Georgian who had a bullet tear through his or her flesh, we cannot let fear overcome us. It is fear that creates the anger, aggression and anxiety that motivated the violence in these stories. It would be an injustice to all those names and stories we now carry to participate in that which hurt or killed them.
As disciples of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, we live in hope for, and not fear of, our neighbors. Jesus called his followers to pray for, not arm themselves against, their enemies. As Christians, we are invited to reject the fear and anger that dominate so many aspects of our lives, and open ourselves to the grace and peace that comes from the truth that in body and soul and in life and in death, we belong, not to ourselves, but to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
After you have had a chance to read through some of these stories, I would love to hear what you think. I would love to hear where you find hope conquering fear in your life. Leave a comment below, because I would love to spend the month of July flooding my feed with stories of HOPE.
Drew Stockstill (’12) now serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, PA. At the time of this post, he was Minister of Young Adults & Adult Education at Morningside Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, who spent half his week leading and nurturing students for the Emory Campus Ministry. A native of Thomasville, GA, Drew did his undergraduate studies at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, majoring in philosophy and theater. Among Drew’s experiences, he served as senior-class president at Columbia Seminary and received national recognition for the quality of his preaching. He has also completed several sojourns in Nairobi, Kenya, as a volunteer for The Outreach Foundation and in ministry.
Photo: This statue sits outside the United Nations in New York City with an engraving, “We shall beat our swords into plowshares.”