Confronting Violence with Nonviolence

I cut across the edge of my next-door neighbor’s newly seeded front lawn, on my way to cross the street to see a friend.  I was about nine years old.  About twenty feet into my trespass, the father of the family charged out of his house:  “If you don’t get off my lawn, I will beat the hell out of you”, he yelled.  Twice.

I got off his lawn.  I could tell he meant what he said. I was more surprised than scared; and I made sure I didn’t venture onto his property again.

About four years later, after a move to another neighborhood in another state, we trick-or- treaters on Halloween carefully avoided approaching the house at the end of the block on top of the hill.  The elderly owner of the house, who nobody knew except by reputation, kept vigil on his front steps with a high-powered flashlight, which he pointed into the face of every ghost, goblin, princess and cowboy who walked by, to make sure no one would try and toilet paper, egg or shaving cream his house.

I am brought back to those two rather innocent but threatening memories as we all continue to react to the shootings in Kansas City and upstate New York, which wounded one and killed another.  The incidents happened within days of each other; and in each case the victims innocently ventured onto someone’s private property.  A key difference between my childhood memories and these two recent events is that the latter both occurred around ten pm, and each homeowner had a gun.

My childhood neighbors didn’t have guns, as far as I know.  But what if they did?  One neighbor was angry enough, and the other was scared enough, to use a  firearm.  I don’t want to imagine what might have happened if I had crossed (or nearly crossed, in the second case) their property later at night two weeks ago. 

America is awash in guns.  And as restrictions on gun ownership and gun use ease up in certain states, the law of averages suggest that more incidents like what happened in Kansas City and upstate New York will take place.

The shooters have been arrested and will be prosecuted.  At the very least, we can presume that they each will have their weapons taken away.  But prior to their literal outbursts they each had the right to keep a firearm in their home.  No doubt they were safely stored, properly registered – and each shooter knew their way around guns.  No red flag law, background check, semi-automatic weapons ban – all of which we need, would change the circumstances of what happened.

That said, guns are a convenient vehicle for violence.  And the impulse to commit violence lies closer to the surface these days.  We live in a country that has a long and deep history of violence.  From slavery to the Trail of Tears to vicious video games to nasty neighbors who threaten to beat the hell out of us if we step on their lawn, we remember, depict –and have come to expect, a certain level of violence.  There are forces and voices in the public arena who wantonly – and shamelessly, commit verbal violence, which results in rising emotional temperatures and quicker triggers.

Yes, we need to do all we can to restrict the manufacture, ownership and use of guns.  AND we also need to confront the human impulse to violence, which has the lowest threshold of any time I can remember.  A commitment to non-violence, so brilliantly and powerfully demonstrated by the life and work of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandi, and Desmond Tutu are examples we would do well to follow.

One way to embrace nonviolence is to challenge the growing number of attempts to edit America’s story, particularly our country’s story of violence.  To my mind, taking aim at critical race theory, which is happening in so many jurisdictions (and which has been incorrectly ascribed to nearly any and every effort to explore America’s racial history) is a way to truncate, if not erase, the violence that is foundational to our history of racial oppression.  Denying the violence ends up promoting it.  That which we resist, persists.

Commitments to and practices of nonviolence can have an impact.  It won’t necessarily reduce the number of guns stored in our homes.  But it will limit the impulse to use them.




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