Guns, God, and a Gift from My New Friend, M.

[Image: Writing I found on the bathroom wall at the Peaceful World Cafe at the Red Victorian, SF.]

Earlier this summer, I got onto a bit of a blogging roll: pissing off hard core photographers, musing on same-sex marriage and taking on the issue of gun violence. There was spirited interaction on all of the posts, but the comments and tone that surrounded the gun violence post were the most disheartening. Most of the comments argued strongly against what I was saying, were often laced with profanity and did nothing to give anyone much hope that open discernment about difficult issues would win the day. Occasionally a supporter would chime in, but I suspect opening oneself up to the school-yard bullying tactics was not all that inviting. Personally, I received threatening emails, was called a tyrant and too lazy to read, commanded to do things to myself that I  am sure are anatomically impossible and, wait for it . . . told to go back to my country!

So . . . I guess I’m moving back to Stockton 😉

I am usually pretty good about seeing the big picture when it comes to blog comments. I know that many commentors use the comment section to share their own ideas and and may or may not be interested in genuine interaction or even addressing anything actually written in the original post. I generally don’t mind and of this, but for some reason, this batch of comments started to get to me. It might have been that, after losing a family member to gun violence, any phrases or words that were construed as a threat became very real or it might have simply been the level of disrespect and nastiness that seemed to drive many of the comments. Whatever the reason, on more than one occasion, as I scrolled through the comment threads, I found myself whispering to my computer, “People suck.”

Then I had this email interaction, instigated by M. It is edited to mask M’s identity and to correct minor typos.

Dear Pastor Reyes-Chow – I must totally disagree with your post.  I agree there is too much gun violence in our country but the worst way to combat it is to disarm law-abiding citizens.  We, under our Constitution, have the God-given right to protect ourselves and our families. When faced with physical violence and guns, we MUST be able to respond in kind. That means anyone who is not convicted of crime should be freely allowed to own means of self-protection. Yes, I agree they should be trained in the use of deadly force but how they get it is up to them. Many of us grew up hunting or in the military and already know gun safety. There are lots of classes for others.  But the right to be self-protected is guaranteed by our country.  GOD BLESS AMERICA !!! – Sincerely, M.

M. – Thanks for taking the time to write.  It is interesting that I never said that people should not have guns, but only that we should be better about who gets them. I can certainly be challenged on many things, but can’t really combat being challenged on something that I did not say. – Bruce

Pastor – You may be correct.  I might have mis-interpreted your comments and if so, I am sorry. I am a very strong believer in the US Constitution and the beliefs of our founding fathers. – M.

M. – All good!  Have a great 4th! – Bruce

In the mean time, I posted Puppies, Butterflies and Kum Bah Ya, a post meant allow myself a time to step back from the passion of the comment threads and take a breath or two or three. My conversation with M. continued.

Hi Pastor – Sorry if my e-mail was one of the ones that bothered you. Guns, and the right to own them are a big issue with me!! Puppies and Butterflies are a real easy issue, who could not love them? Actually for me these days it is kittens. Thanks for explaining “Kum Bah Yah,” always knew the song from way back in the 60’s but never knew what it meant. Glad to know, after forty some years, that it is a call to heavenly Father to be with us!! – Thank You, M.

M. – No . . . I am always up for respectful conversations, you were indeed not. Unfortunately, one had a very threatening tone with iffy language and I am thinking about reporting it to the authorities. – Bruce

Pastor – As well you should. Differences of opinion are fine, good dialogue is fine but threats must be taken seriously.  We all have different views, and our God-given right to them, but we cannot allow violence or the threat of it to cloud our lives. – Thanks, M.

M. – On another note . . . would you mind of I shared conversation (totally anonymously) as a way to illustrate how two people can engage in healthy conversations. WE didn’t solve anything, but feel like we might both be in a better place because of our interaction. Again . . . I will not share your name, but am hoping to post something about our society’s need to be different in our common yearnings for the common good. If not I totally understand, but I have been moved by your responses. – Thanks, Bruce

Pastor – Yes, I would be happy to engage in this dialogue so long as you keep my name out of it. Don’t want to invite any problems. I like your writing and although we don’t share all the same ideas, I feel we are both good Christians that want to do good.  Just to give you a bit of background.  I was born in Xxxxxx and raised Episcopalian, baptized and confirmed, but admit I am not much of a church attendant.  I have a long time relationship with a Mormon lady and go to her church more often because they are more friendly and family oriented.  – Keep in touch, M.

This conversation speaks for itself, but here’s why it was particularly meaningful to me. This kind of open interaction is what I believe needs to occur more often if we are going to build community amidst great disagreement in theology, ideology and politics. Rather than take the default position that anyone who disagrees with me must be fueled by stupidity, fear or malice, why not begin with the assumption that there is a common yearning to seek truth for the individual and community. Yes, we may be proven wrong more than right, but we must give ourselves the chance to find common ground and build up the common good.

M. and I came to no profound agreement about gun violence, we are not now best friends and I am sure that there are even more things that we disagree about. But, what we did do was to approach the conversation with a sense that the other was discerning God’s calling just as faithfully as the other.  At a time when I was girding up the ol’ loins for battle, M. reminded me that it is important to be open to meeting “the other” somewhere in that very gray, but lovely middle . . . a place that, for a brief time, I was beginning to believe was no longer worth seeking.

Thank you M. for showing and reminding me that the hard work of being community is worth it.

Lastly, here is a great comic  strip  on the topic from Angry Little Girls creator Lela Lee.


  • Patrick Laney  

    You did not change God. The God that you once believed no longer exists as you learned, but the breadth and depth of God is much greater than that limited view. The wideness of God’s mercy is reflected in scriptures beyond the narrow scope presented early in your faith. Maybe you just believe in a bigger or greater God than you did before. One who has the power to put hell–both on earth and beyond–in its place. 🙂

    • JW  

      The god I once believed in no longer exists… so what happened? I changed my mind, and now he did too? Therefore… I changed god. The god you worship seems quite far removed from the westboro baptist church… why would god allow this misunderstanding of what he/she/it is?

      The things that were presented to me in my youth are things in the ancient book. Hell is for non believers and people that don’t ask for forgiveness, or people that displease god.
      It’s a threat of violence. It’s there in the bible.

      • Patrick Laney  

        I read a Bible where a Creator said that Adam and Eve would be killed if they ate the fruit, but chose to let them live. I read a Bible where Jesus Christ dies on the cross for all sin and descended into hell so that there would be no place God would not go for us–even Sheol. I read a Bible where God is revealed through a Holy Spirit that allows diverse people to speak one language. I read a Bible where violence was exercised in the absence of justice, because without justice there is no peace. I would wish the Westboro Baptist Church to burn in hell, but I believe that with their limited view of God’s love and embrace of hate is hell.

        I also believe in a God whose mind was changed by Moses and whom I do not limit to my view of what God must be. I wish God was more involved in the world’s misunderstandings, but then again there was a time I was homophobic, self-righteous, and ignorant in my pursuit of faith. I would not trade the beauty of an ever-changing journey for a God who was more of a puppeteer. I thank God that the God you and I both knew at one time never existed and the one I know now may not exist either for I imagine that the Creator is far greater than anyone I might imagine.

        Hell is not where God puts people to punish them. God gives us a law to help us avoid ending up in the hell. God permits hell to be created, but does not relish its existence any more than relishing a world where the name of Christ is traded by by assholes and hypocrites.

        • JW  

          God permits hell?!? even if he doesn’t like it?? That makes no sense at all. Why have it at all? It doesn’t make sense.

          • Patrick Laney  

            God does not like the choices I make, but allows me to continue to exist–even when my life is hell. The truth is Scripture says very little about hell–a lot about sin–but very little about hell. We frankly do not know much and what we do know does not include how hell came to exist. Most of our beliefs about hell have either been gathered from culture or perverted by pulpit guilt. For every biblical reference that speaks of fearing (which also means to be in awe in the Greek) God’s authority to cast in hell there is one that speaks of God going to hell to redeem us or standing there in our place.

            “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit (Psalm 16:10).”
            “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Psalm 139:8).”
            “Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has not covering (Job 26:6).” [Job advocates that hell is nothing to God.]
            “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (hell)…(1 Peter 3:18-20).”

            I have come to believe that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. I am not certain in the existence of God and am not attempting to convince you as such. However, in the places of emptiness in my life where sin and hell have come to swallow me, I still feel and illogical, non-sensical tug from within that calls me to love. I find that tugging to be consistent with what I read of the life of Jesus and reflected in a Creator who is intolerant of evil, yet still chooses grace from the beginning.

            BTW, I was once told that I was going to hell for voting for REM over Michael W. Smith as the senior class song. The truth is as dumb as it was, it still hurt. I cannot imagine such pain for someone confronting the truth of who God created them to be. I can only imagine that it would make me hate hell and whoever could allow such a thing to exist. I have hated God at various periods of my life, but I could never stop praying even if it was screaming at times. One thing has not changed since my childhood: “I am weak and he is strong.”

          • Jw  

            I don’t “hate” god, I just don’t think that a deity actually exists. The whole thing does not make sense. It does however make sense when you imagine bronze age man, collecting a bunch of different myths and origin stories, throwing them together, and trying to explain their world. Homosexuality would be a potentially bad thing if you were a nomadic tribe, the tribe needed babies, eating pork would be a bad thing if you didn’t understand hygiene and stuff…

            Hating god would mean that I believed he was there to hate.

            A lot of terrible things have happened because of religion, and I would say it’s because of the whole hell/punishment construct. Why not drop bombs on muslims? they are going to hell anyway right? Why not fly planes into buildings? I’m going to heaven to meet a bunch of virgins right? Why not pick on gays? God things they are an abomination right? 

            The violence at religions core makes those kinds of statements logical for certain believers, and it makes the world a worse place for us all.

          • Patrick Laney  

            Undoubtedly Christianity has brought its share of violence to the world. There is no way to run from that, but to tie it to the hell/punishment construct is a stretch to me. Makes sense with the crusades, but for the last 500 years it is an absence of fear of God that has led to most hate. People kill because they are scared of people, not because of some command or fear of hell. If people really believed in hell and actually read scripture, they would be more careful in throwing their stones. I agree with much (if not all) of what you are saying except that it is a condemnation of misplaced religion, not God.

            Re-reading my earlier post, I could have articulated the last paragraph better. Would it be fair to say your hatred of violence in religion (personal or otherwise) led you to conclude God does not exist? I could probably say that it was my efforts to resist God that eventually led me to a new space.

          • Jw  

            What I was trying to say is that the hell construct makes it easy to rationalize violence against the other. The deity already is promising ETERNAL violence against ‘different’ people anyway. It makes it a logical choice.

            What led me to atheism was that the whole deity thing doesn’t really make sense on so many levels. 

          • Patrick Laney  

            Maybe so. I have always been concerned and haunted by the connection between religion and violence, but have never considered eternal damnation as the primary culprit. I will have to reflect on that some more. I do not believe God is promising eternal violence, so my whole view of religion/God is dramatically different than what you propose.

            Thanks for engaging. I hope we have illustrated Bruce’s point.

        • Jw  

          So god didn’t create hell as a place to punish people, but that can happen if you don’t follow his law? So why did he create hell? If he is all powerful, then why does this situation exist at all?

  • Robert Braxton  

    This is important. I like to participate when comments are positive and constructive.

    • Breyeschow  

      Sometimes I will engage with folks if for not other reason to call them on behavior that I may think is unacceptable – you know, ’cause I get to judge – but that does get tiring.  It was great to have some grace extended my way when I might have not been willing to do the same.

  • JW  

    After losing a family member to gun violence, I can see where any phrases or words that could constitute a threat would be taken very seriously. But this leads to one of the contradictions that led me to be an atheist. Christianity is ultimately presented as a sort of protection racket. Do what god wants or be tormented in hell FOREVER. (you’re here on earth to be tested, if you fail…damnation, etc….etc…) This is sort of the ultimate threat of violence, you die but the violence against you goes on for eternity.

    If the christian faith was more like, everyone went to heaven, because you know, god forgives people without having to be asked (like most people on the planet actually do but god can’t?) there wouldn’t be the threat of violence that christianity implies and often outright says. 

    As a gay man that has been told he’d going to hell (by people that claim to “love” me) I get that angry words have consequences. Most people bashed for being gay, well, perhaps it’s not religions “fault”, but why not beat up gays if god is gonna torture them forever anyway right?

    ok, off topic a bit there.

    The hell concept is the ultimate threat of violence, and it makes most faiths morally messed up.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am in full agreement that the “you are going to hell” version of Christianity has been destructive to many.  But, trust that there are many Christians who do not hold this view, in fact have the hope that all will go to heaven AND have absolutely no yearning or place in that decision. It’s all God’s

      • JW  

        Except all that hell and brimstone and gnashing of teeth stuff is in the book which the faith is based on. Children are taught all around the world that they are looked over by a vengeful god that will hurt them if they don’t follow his way. I find this to be a tangible threat of violence. Now I know most churches are fairly mellow about this stuff. I was raised united methodist and was highly involved… but this issue always gets to me. So many christians are totally OK thinking people that don’t think like them are going to “hell”. I always had a problem with that. When my own morality said that the hell thing was highly immoral, I then figured god must feel the same, (likewise when I came out and dealt with being gay, I figured god must be OK with the gays…) so basically I just changed God. Which doesn’t make sense.

      • JW  

        I know this is somewhat veering off from your original post… I just thought that, yes, violence is bad, and threats are bad… but the christian faith is underlined by the threat of eternal violence… 

    • Patrick Laney  

      I do not find hell to be the problem with faith. The problem is when people use hell authoritatively as if it is ours to control. There are a great many Christians, myself included, who do not hold God as a punitive smiter ready to bring hell. And because it should be said–especially from a Southern boy like me who used to think differently–God loves you for who you were created to be. The failure of Christians to reflect that love may empower you to be irreligious or agnostic, but not an atheist.

      Many Christians uphold your view that Jesus Christ died for ALL to go to heaven (universalism). I believe that to be a possibility, but I am not God. I will let God save whom God chooses. Anyway, please forgive my self-righteousness or misplaced condescension, but it was all meant to say that I believe God loves you and calls me to love you, too.

      • JW  

        Well, the issue is that the concept of hell even exists. If god can just choose who gets tortured forever (doesn’t eternity seem a bit much?), don’t you see a problem with that? There are many reasons I consider myself atheist, but this issue is the big one for me. If hell exists, then god really isn’t all forgiving. If you have to ask, that’s a condition you must meet to receive his love.

        It doesn’t make sense.

      • JW  

        Also, it’s not a failure of any christians that made me atheist, it’s a failure of the belief system. I could list the confusing and strange aspects of it that led me to not to believe in a deity (also what kind of god wants to be worshipped?? do you want people worshipping you? it seems narcissistic), but that’s not the point I was bringing up.

        Christianity, as it is usually defined, by most churches and the bible, has an underlying threat of ultra violence.

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