The man was one among the many who had come to baptize children one Saturday morning at the church I was pastoring a couple of years ago. The fifty-something year old was serving as godfather to one of the babies, and, as was the custom, about midway through the rite he was asked to stand and profess his faith.
Part of this profession was a promise to “renounce Satan, and all his works.” The man most likely made the promise (I don’t remember anyone, ever, while standing in a church, refuse to denounce Satan). I would bet, though, that the fellow hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the ins and outs of such a promise. Like so many others that afternoon, he was there to fulfill a social obligation.
Soon after the baptism ceremony, the new godfather began drinking beer. Later, on the afternoon of the same day, he showed up at the party that the parents of his godchild were having. He parked his truck in the middle of the street, opened the glove compartment, pulled out a pistol, got out of the truck, and, shouting incoherently, began firing the gun into the crowd.
No one was hit by his shots. He wasn’t using a semi-automatic weapon, and only had five bullets loaded into his gun. He was arrested shortly afterward.
On the Monday morning after all of this, I added a new requirement to those who would wish to baptize a baby in our parish--in addition to being members of the parish, and a promise to attend some classes about baptism, neither the families who wished to baptize their children, nor those who wished to accept the responsibility for being a godparent, could have a handgun in their home.
The new rule angered many parishioners. Several of the south Texans protested that I was violating their 2nd amendment rights; others, after a few minutes’ conversation, and especially after I showed them the article about the newly-minted godfather shooting up the baptism party, were more open to dialogue.
In the months following the new rule, there were many, many conversations. The parish secretary received the most grief for the new stance. She would hand the families a fact sheet that I had developed using material from the Brady gun campaign (the one that shows that having a handgun in the home ramps up the possibility of suicide, homicide and accidental death). The secretary would then explain that the parish wasn’t interested in leaving the family defenseless, that, to the contrary, we wanted to be sure that they were safe. Not many of the folks seeking to baptize their children were convinced by the science, but at least there was a conversation.
Some time has passed since that little church experiment. The conversations about the right to possess arms in the USA and the right to public safety functionally ended, both in the parish community, as people who wanted to baptize had learned to answer “no” when asked about their guns as well as across the nation, even as the numbers of the murders by semi-automatic weapons continued to grow. In Geneva County, Alabama, a man killed ten people in less than an hour; in Fort Hood, a soldier killed twelve fellow soldiers and a physician’s assistant. 2011 began with the shooting of Congressional Representative Gabby Giffords and the murder of six others who were standing around her.
But these shootings, as horrific as they were, paled in comparison to what was happening on the Mexican side of our border. In December of 2006, the newly-elected Mexican president Felipe Calderon had declared a war on drug traffickers.
By the end of his term, in 2012, best estimates were that more than 120,000 civilians had been murdered, (see The Spiral of Violence in Mexico) many, many of them with guns that been easily purchased in the United States, at gun shows, at gun shops, and at department stores.
The gun blasts literally drowned out any conversation about how best to take control of the situation. On the Mexican side of our border, the “bad guys” did seem to have all of the guns. They ran off the police. The army took to the streets, engaging in firefights with cartel members in city parks, around schools, and on highways. Close friends of mine, brave to the point of foolishness, left Matamoros. One of them told me that the sight of 18 year olds driving down the streets in golf carts with assault rifles was too much to bear.
On the US side of our border, gun sales sky-rocketed, and, with profits running as high as our fears, there seemed to be little willingness to talk about change.
Last spring, Peter Hinde, a Carmelite priest and an advocate for justice in Latin America, got in touch with me about a new project that he was working on. Fr. Peter and his colleagues had created a project they called “Borderlands Heeding God's Call.” They had the idea that a way to at least slow down the sales of guns to people who would most likely pass the weapons to the narco assassins in Mexico would be to start a conversation with those who sold the guns. “I think,” he said, “That we just ask them to follow the rules. We appeal to their consciences.”
I thought at the time that this was the first bad idea that Peter Hinde had ever had. What possible conscience could someone have who had already made so much money selling these products? Just how much “target practice” did the stores think was going on in a region as poor as ours?
But perhaps Peter and his team were right--that the way out of this loop of tragedy is by means of that most common although little-used tool--a conversation. Maybe I should not assume that department store managers have taken the time to consider what happens with the weapons that they sell. Perhaps they themselves are godparents, and they too, took an oath to renounce the works of Satan, but, just like the fool that shot up his own baptism party, hadn’t thought much about just what “the works of Satan” means.
I know that I need that conversation, for I do not understand the ins and the outs of the fear that seems to rule so many people’s lives. I can’t imagine that I would ever change my own sensibilities about gun control, but I do know that I need to at least have a better appreciation about what folks who want to arm teachers and shopping mall clerks are thinking.
And I would want them to know what it means when an entire society is armed to the teeth, and what it is like to live on a street where eighteen year olds drive golf carts and carry assault weapons.
Several ancient traditions maintain that Satan is happiest when confounding people, when he wraps us up in such passionate self-defenses of ourselves that we become lost in ourselves, and our rages and our fears blind us. We end up no longer recognizing ourselves in each other.
And we begin to babble, as we end up talking to ourselves about ourselves. We stop up our ears. We become incapable of conversation.
Satan delights in this, his finest work.
It is high time for some conversation. Thank you, Peter Hinde and friends.