James Atwood was in a meeting with church elders after the Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 people when he asked what the group was doing about gun violence.
The church was offering counseling and opening for prayer. The answer did not satisfy the theologian, but he didn’t argue. He’d objected before when he thought a church should do more, only to be told the church’s role was to deal with spiritual matters, not political.
“Why is it a political problem when each person that was killed (at Virginia Tech) was born in the image of God?” Atwood asked Saturday. “And each had a body that according to the New Testament was a living temple of the spirit of God?”
“How did gun violence become a political issue?” he asked.
More than 200 people explored that question at “Beyond Gun Violence,” a weekend conference at United Church of Chapel Hill sponsored by area churches, the N.C. Council of Churches and other groups.
Keynote speaker the Rev. Matthew Crebbin is senior minister of Newtown Congregational Church in Connecticut where a man killed his mother, then fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
He said the Christian church – especially predominantly white, middle- and upper-class, and rural congregations – has been silent too long.
That silence has allowed the myth to perpetuate that having a gun makes you safer and for “a perverse theology to take hold of American society,” he said.
“People are afraid of ‘the other,’” Crebbin said.
“This fear (leads to the belief) that the other – ‘stranger danger’ – is going to harm me and I’m going to keep myself safe by having this gun,” he said.
But in most cases it is not a stranger who inflicts harm but a loved one or one’s self, he said.
More Americans have been killed by gun violence since 1968 than on all the battlefields of all the wars the country has fought, including the Civil War, Crebbin said.
But he and others said gun control has been thwarted by “biblical literalists,” who cite portions of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution to fight all efforts to rein guns in.
“The right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed,” Crebbin said, citing the Second Amendment.
“I like the Constitution too,” he continued. “I like that other part. Do you know what that part says? A well-regulated militia being necessary to a free state.”
Guns and suicide
Groups Saturday broke into sessions to learn more about legislation, guns and suicide, and to hear from family members who had lost a loved one to gun violence.
Jodi Flick, a professor in the UNC School of Social Work noted that two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States are suicides and one-third homicides.
Suicide is rare, she said, but still over 43,000 people kill themselves each year. About 85 percent of them are male, and half of those are over 50. One in five are veterans, she said.
Experts now know that in up to 95 percent of suicides, people have one of four brain illnesses: depression or bipolar disorder, substance abuse, schizophrenia or a handful of disorders: anxiety; post traumatic stress disorder; anorexia; and borderline personality disorder, often caused by child abuse or another trauma.
Flick’s father-in-law shot himself in the head in his backyard, she said. Researchers continue looking for ways to prevent suicide, she said, but limiting access to lethal weapons obviously helps.
“Yes, we talk about locking up your pills,” she said. “But it’s really about access to guns.”
‘Local arms race’
Police Chiefs Chris Blue and Walter Horton of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, respectively, said they are concerned about legislation that allows guns on college campuses and proposed expansions in the right to carry concealed weapons.
It’s harder than ever to recruit police officers, they said.
Blue worries about a “local arms race” as criminals arm themselves with more powerful weapons.
“If someone has a 30-round magazine (aimed at you) we want to have that same capability to help you,” he said. “And we talk about where does it end?”
Speaking to a group in the sanctuary, Atwood compared the “gundamentalists” who cite the Constitution to religious leaders who once cited the Bible to justify slavery.
“They call it a divine right to keep and bear arms,” the theologian said. “When did God say they have a divine right to have guns? I don’t know. I can’t find it.”
“We don’t as American people know what’s going on,” he said. “We don’t have a clue.”