The following remarks were delivered by Executive Director, Jennifer Copeland, during one of the four gun violence prevention vigils that occurred across North Carolina on April 24, 2022. The following vigil took place at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC.
God knows we are violent people. It’s been this way since Cain killed Abel because Cain was jealous and afraid. If you don’t recall all the details of the story you can find it in the fourth chapter of Genesis. The story features the deep human passions of jealousy and fear. Cain is jealous because Abel always seems to get it right. Cain is also fearful that he, the older brother, will be relegated to secondary status. “His countenance fell,” the writer tells us. You know what that looks like—somebody who is striving to be noticed, the one on the playground who tries so hard and still strikes out every time. On the playground, effort doesn’t count. Only homeruns. Abel is hitting homeruns and Cain is sick of it.
He kills Abel and when the Lord comes along asking a question for which the Lord already knows the answer, you’d expect the Lord to kill Cain. That’s not what happens. There is retribution. The land that Cain loves so dearly that produces “fruit of the ground” for him, now will “no longer yield to [Cain] its strength.” But the Lord won’t let anyone lift a hand against Cain and by all accounts Cain does well. He builds a city and names it for his firstborn, Enoch.
But by the end of chapter four, Cain’s great-great-great grandchild, Lamech laments that since the days of Cain, violence has increased seventy-seven fold—that’s bible-speak for, “we can’t count it.” I’m not telling you this story to convince you we should be nicer. I’m telling you this story to convince you that we are not nice. It takes energy to be kind. It takes effort to be nice. And it takes a lot of practice to respond non-violently to things that trigger our anger and our jealousy. We are more inclined to haul off and hit someone unless we have developed incredible self-control. Most of us haven’t. And because of this human reality, we need guard rails.
Jealousy, whose sibling is greed, and fear, which spawns anger, drive most of our violence.
When you hear people talking about guns as a way to stay safe—they’re afraid. So, they keep a gun—an idol of safety that will not actually keep them safe. Statistics show that guns in the home are 4 times more likely to be used against someone in the home than to protect those in the home. Never mind all the gun related accidents that occur when guns are not properly stored. And most are not.
That’s how idols work. They promise something they are incapable of producing. About four years ago, the North Carolina Council of Churches paid for a billboard on I-85 between Durham and Greensboro. It had a huge picture of a huge pile of guns on one side and on the other side this quote that you may recognize from the Decalogue, also known as the Ten Commandments. Commandment 2, as recorded in Exodus 20 says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Clearly, we struck a chord. I did more interviews in the week the billboard went up than I did for the entire remainder of the year. We got calls from as far away as The Chicago Tribune and CNN, along with all the local stations. But it wasn’t all good. I’ve still got some voicemails saved on my phone that I can’t quote for you in this environment.
But the idolatry label rings true, doesn’t it? Safety has become a preeminent need and guns are marketed as the way to stay safe. The truth is, we’re safer now than humanity has ever been since we stood up straight and started walking on two legs. But you wouldn’t know it based on our daily routines and the constant information fed to us. We walk through metal detectors to get into ball games, the legislative building, and even some schools. We install alarm systems in our homes and places of worship. And many people carry guns everywhere they go—even to church. Metal detectors and alarm systems can be helpful, but their pervasiveness in our lives reinforces the notion we are never safe, when in reality, we usually are. Guns may even be necessary under certain conditions, but their preponderance in our communities actually makes us less safe. Guns have become the idol we worship in the misguided pursuit of safety.
Instead of believing the propaganda about safety, we should learn the truth about gun deaths in this country. Mass shootings make the headlines. Schools, worship spaces, military bases are all places the media love to report on. The truth about gun violence is actually very different. Gun violence happens every day in our homes and in our neighborhoods—one death at a time, few of which become news worthy. If the same number of people were dying from a communicable disease—say Covid, we’d marshal all the resources at our disposal to stop that epidemic. But we don’t do that with gun violence because guns are the Golden Calf. We dance around the guns as if they are talismans of protection when all they are is another hunk of metal fashioned into an inert image that can do nothing to protect us or save us.
Guns are a public health issue because we are violent people. It’s only gotten worse since Lamech’s lament. To be otherwise we must practice non-violence and be trained in self-restraint. In the meantime, while we are still practicing not to be afraid and learning to get over our jealousies, we need a way to remain safe from ourselves and sometimes even from our own best intentions.
If it’s true that guns don’t kill people, people do, then we should take extra care with the people who can have guns. We ask people to pass a test before we allow them to drive; we have standards for the seat a baby must have to ride in a car; and we don’t allow people to jump in the deep end of the pool until they show us they can swim all the way across it. Why wouldn’t we want tests and standards, even laws, that regulate gun safety?
In our tradition, scripture has a lot to say about putting our trust in false idols, about pledging our allegiance to corrupt promises, about relying on weapons of war to promote peace. There’s a lot in there to help us navigate the truth that we are violent people. It’s time we tell the truth. Thank you.