Last week I was in Washington DC with a group of bishops, clergy and laypeople to witness and strategize about our work in gun violence prevention (referred to as GVP). Organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, which I helped form after the Newtown, Connecticut murders in December 2012, our focus at this gathering was on how to reduce urban gun violence. We did some lobbying on Capitol Hill. We heard testimony from some grass roots organizing efforts in Washington DC; from researchers who demonstrated that “greening and cleaning” neighborhoods, as well as lowering the lead level in communities, reduces gun violence; and lots of stories of trauma, survival, courage and hope.
One presenter suggested that if we think there is one way to bring about an end to gun violence, we are sorely mistaken. I have long sensed this, but data and clarity helped bring it home to me even more. Most of us, myself included, begin our efforts with policy and politics. That is where many people start – and it is necessary; but it is also where a lot of people stop. Because policy is complicated; politics is polarized, with legislatures at the state and federal level being increasingly dug in – and seem to be more interested in fighting each other than addressing the issue. Writing letters and making phone calls and visits can feel like misplaced energy.
And then there are stories. We heard a lot of stories. Not of policy or politics, but of trauma. Stories of people who have been shot, stories of survivors of family members who had been shot – and killed. Stories of programs for kids who are provided safe environments so they can engage in art and other activities that enable them to heal from losses caused by guns. As I heard these stories, I began to draw a distinction between fear and trauma. Fear is generated by the anxiety of what might happen. Trauma is the emotional, spiritual and physical response to a stressful event that has happened.
Much of the gun debate in this country is framed in fear. Fear of what might happen if guns are restricted. Fear of what might happen if someone breaks into your home, school or house of worship.At a press conference outside the Capitol organized by Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia (and a Baptist minister), a gun owner and survivor remarked that it made no sense that the growing number of parents and school boards who want to protect their children from the perceived trauma of certain books don’t extend that desire to protect their children from gun violence, except to get more guns.
So many of the activists I have met who are working in the GVP space are survivors. They know trauma. And their advocacy and witness are integral parts of their journey toward healing, as well as a demonstrated commitment of compassion to do whatever they can so others don’t suffer the same painful fate.
I am more and more convinced that telling and listening to stories are an important ingredient in reducing gun violence. Unfortunately, given the climate of fear that is being promoted by well-funded forces and voices, these stories are often dismissed or denied. According to their view, trauma is to be avoided, if not disallowed.
As the trauma from gun violence escalates across the country – with gun violence now being the leading cause of death in children, and gun deaths now exceeding 40,000 lives a year (that is 110 a day), trauma will be harder to ignore.
“Fear not” and “be not afraid” are foundational phrases in scripture. They are mentioned over 100 times. Jesus often admonished his followers to not be afraid, often when – especially when, he walked into situations of trauma. He faced trauma. He comforted people who experienced trauma. He witnessed to a hope that would minimize trauma. And he suffered horrific trauma by a group of religious and political leaders who wanted to stamp out fear.
The ancient and contemporary stories of trauma need to be told – and heard. So we can heal.