Beauty and Ugliness in a Shooting’s Aftermathby Shane Claiborne 02-26-2010
Something sort of mystical and magical happened after a 19-year-old kid named Papito was killed on our block a few weeks ago. As our neighborhood ached and grieved and cried with his family, we began to create a memorial for Papito where he died – a familiar ritual in the inner city. Those who knew and loved him brought photos and flowers. Kids on our block brought stuffed animals or whatever they had and laid them on the sidewalk memorial. And everyone brought candles. But here’s where the magic happened. It was the next day that the east coast was to be hammered with one of the worst snowstorms since we’ve kept records. As the snow showered down, I thought the little candles, sheltered only beneath a little shanty of soggy cardboard, would not stand a chance in the blizzard. But on they burned. Hour after hour, even through the night they burned. And the warmth of the fire melted down the snow as it fell. Flake by flake melted from the warmth of the fire. The next morning I went out to find the candles still burning, on a little patch of wet sidewalk like an oasis of warmth glowing in the middle of 2 feet of snow encroaching on all sides.
The next week we held a prayer vigil at the local gun shop, praying for an end to violence … and specifically asking and praying that the owner of “The Shooter Shop” would agree to a voluntary “Code of Conduct” drafted by Mayors from all over the country who agree that these ten simple steps would prevent deaths like Papito’s. So on February 13, we walked in silence with friends and neighbors from the candle memorial where Papito died three blocks to The Shooter Shop down the street. And we carried candles. It was there that I remembered the candles gentle warmth as it faced the coldness of a winter storm.
As we gathered with dozens of other Christians from around Philadelphia to pray for peace, we were met by a counter-demonstration that had been organized by gun-rights groups. They shouted some of the meanest things I have ever heard. I didn’t mind them calling me a “scumbag”, and I even concede on the “you need a shower” comment … but then the insults shot like bullets – racial, economic, angry insults … some of them to kids from our block, some of them whispered just loud enough to hear, such as, “stupid immigrant.” As we started a sacred moment of silence to remember Papito and the other kids killed with illegal guns … the silence was pierced with insults and meanness. As we prayed the Lord’s Prayer it was interrupted with the singing of “God Bless America.” A deep theological cage match was happening in the heavens, it seems:
While I do not believe the folks we met reflect the character or views of most gun owners or even NRA members (heck, I’ve shot some squirrels for dinner back in Tennessee) … the ugly counter-protest was organized by folks who started off by saying things like this:
Be advised that Shooter’s Shop is located in a dicey neighborhood. You should have no problem in daylight, and I doubt the local neighborhood folks are going to mess with a bunch of NRA members, but carry your gun with you. Do not leave it unattended in a vehicle if you go where someone could break into your car and steal it!
–from the Web site, “Snowflakes in Hell” (which, incidentally, may flaw with my candle metaphor!)
So the fact that they are not from the neighborhood may explain some of the behavior we saw and their inability to lament the bloodshed we see on these streets from guns sold to straw buyers at gun shops like the Shooter Shop (not many folks are buying hunting rifles from a gun shop in Kensington … we don’t have many deer here).
There is no doubt that my grandmother was right when she used to say, “God doesn’t like ugly.” And the Scriptures speak clearly: We are not fighting against people but against principalities and powers – ugly, filthy, sick principalities and powers. When we look at Jesus’ cross we see what love looks like when it stares evil in the face. It is non-violent, it is forgiving, it is steady and courageous. It is this courageous love that exposes evil by making it so uncomfortable that it has to be dealt with. Colossians is correct when it says that as Jesus rose from the dead he made a spectacle of the cross. As he listened to insults, had people spit in his face, curse him, and kill him he knew full well that he was exposing the ugliness … and in the end, love wins over hatred.
When we came back to the house we got a chance to unpack things with some of the teenagers from the block who were at the vigil. They shared about how powerful it was to see us return meanness with kindness. We remembered how Martin Luther King said to those who were so mean to him: “To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you … but be ye assured that we will wear you down with our love.” As the early Christian martyrs said: “Grace dulls even the sharpest sword.”
We will continue to hold vigil and to pray for a conversion of heart from the gun shop owner. In fact, the steady witness is growing … more than 100 pastors and church leaders have drafted letters (like this one) to the gun shop owner urging him to seize this opportunity to lead with integrity and show irresponsible gun shop owners a better way. Please light your candle and send your letter to Mr. Haney. When he signs the Code of Conduct we will alert the press and have a huge celebration outside The Shooter Shop (I might even buy a new bb-gun from him).
This morning I woke up and saw the snow falling again, and the candles still burning (they’ve been burning for almost three weeks now) … they are still melting the snow. As I thought about the vigil last week, I had once thought we were sheep among wolves … but now I’m thinking we were just candles in the middle of a blizzard. And snow melts, but the light keeps glowing. We are to be the light, to be the salt … both of which can melt the toughest ice or the coldest heart.
Shane Claiborne is a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.