What do we do about guns and violence in America?

One approach is to learn from those whose family members are taken from them through violence

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Natalie Chaney via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Malcolm Graham, who represents District 2 on the Charlotte City Council, is as qualified as anyone to speak on a panel discussing gun violence, as Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation offered Tuesday. Listen to “What Do We Do About Guns and Violence in America?” an hour-long discussion hosted and moderated by Dr. Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., Associate Professor of Bible and the center’s director, by going here.

Graham’s sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of nine people killed on June 17, 2015, during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylan Roof.

“When the Bible study was done and heads were bowed and the benediction was being recited, [Roof] shot 77 times, killing everyone there, including my sister, who was shot 11 times,” Graham told Sadler and the other panelist, Dr. Biko Mandela Gray, Assistant Professor of Religion, African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University. “She was killed simply because she was there and she was Black … Their biographies, their backgrounds and their pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were altered by this gunman.”

As a lawmaker in one of the nation’s largest cities, Graham said he awakens every day to news of a shooting in Charlotte. “Young people have taken up arms to show they are hip or cool,” he said. Often they’re people “who have no negotiating skills except picking up a gun, who feel they have nothing to lose.”

“We’ve got hard work to do and heavy loads to lift” to curb gun violence, Graham said, adding the task includes fighting racism and discrimination and enacting “commonsense gun legislation” and making sure “people know there’s a different way than picking up a gun and ending your life or someone else’s.”

Malcolm Graham

“You would have thought Charleston would have been an isolated issue,” Graham said. “This type of hatred of people of color and easy access to guns is a deadly combination.”

“Black people are not called to bear arms in this way,” Gray said, adding that the Black Panthers “turned Ronald Reagan into a gun control advocate.”

“Black people shoot each other because they are in close proximity,” Gray said. “White folks do the same thing.”

Sadler pointed out this double standard: in the Black community, “we hear the notion of Black on Black crime” explained as “a problematic nature that makes people want to fight each other.” In the white community, it’s explained as a mental health issue. He asked: “What’s the basis for this?”

Referencing comments made by Sadler on how many Americans view the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, as sacred texts handed down from godly sources, Gray said that in the Western tradition, “God is beyond reproach, inherently and always good.” But in the United States, “whiteness and white people have been elevated to that level of divinity.” When the person responsible for a mass shooting is white, “we must find a way to get whiteness off the hook.” In the case of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting, “What do we celebrate? That the families forgave [Roof].”

Graham remembered his sister as “a librarian and researcher who believed in healthy tensions, that questions needed to be asked” and that accountability was also required.

When Gray hears talk of Roof and others being “troubled young men,” it “boggles the mind how illogical this line of reasoning is after mass shootings.” Some try to explain white mass shooters as “bullied, pushed back or outcast,” but “if the shooter was Black there would have been none of this discourse,” Gray said.

“I think it’s important to be honest: This nation isn’t a Christian nation. It’s a white supremacist nation,” Gray said. “It’s not faithful to the God who died on the cross, but instead to some weird notion of whiteness that cannot do wrong.”

Sadler wondered: Is there a deeply spiritual problem as well? Have we devalued humanity?

“We continue to discount Black humanity in a variety of ways,” Graham said, including through voting access and healthcare disparities, in the criminal justice system and through disparate educational and employment opportunities. The victims of mass shootings in Charleston and Buffalo “were sought out because of their color. Their humanity was just discounted. People couldn’t see beyond their Blackness.”

Dr. Biko Mandela Gray

Gray, who’s not an ordained minister but holds a graduate degree from the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, connected the Greek word “pneuma,” or “breath,” with the discussion. For Black people “the capacity to breathe” has been limited since being brought as enslaved people to North American shores. “So, we breathe shallow breaths and we oftentimes live shorter lives,” he said. “When it comes to Blackness, this question of breathing is an expression of Ruach [the Hebrew word for “spirit,” “breath” or “wind”].” There’s a “profound split,” Gray said, between those who are able to breathe deeply and those who aren’t.

The term Graham used, “discounted,” is “striking” for Gray.

“It’s not denial. It’s disregard for one’s humanity,” Gray said. “This is not a question of ignorance for white supremacy. It’s that our humanity does not matter in the same way they think their humanity does matter.” He listed the names of several BIPOC people who died at the hands of police because they couldn’t breathe, including Eric Garner and George Floyd. “We are denied what God gave us in the Book of Genesis, and that’s hard,” Gray said.

While Gray says he appreciates passages including 1 John 4:8, “I will also say there is a prophetic tone to the Hebrew Bible,” especially in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah. “They had no problem critiquing those who enacted injustice in the name of the Lord and then went about dispossessing folks. Jeremiah is my guy. He was constantly talking about widows and orphans.”

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.

The gospel writers are “clear on what Jesus’ mission was,” Gray said. From the very beginning as recorded in Luke 4:18-20, “the Savior tells us his call is a call to justice … We don’t preach that gospel. He lived a life of feeding and healing” and he “constantly criticized the religious authorities and was killed by the cops because he was a revolutionary who was insurgent. We tell the story of a guy who was nice and loved everyone, but that’s not my guy, my Jesus.”

Stemming gun violence “is not simple,” Sadler said as the hour came to an end. “It’s tied to a misinterpretation of an amendment we have made sacred because we deified those who created it.”

“We are going to have to change some of these core values. No one’s life can be underrated or undervalued,” Sadler said. “Isn’t it worth making that change to transform the way we deal with race in America?”

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