Claiming Common Ground

In my sermon last Sunday I spoke about the Bishops United Against Gun Violence march that was held during General Convention. I talked about praying and singing and marching to bear witness to an alternative to the violence that wracks our country. I recalled how Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry called us to be part of the Jesus Movement that can end the nightmare of racism and poverty and violence, an unholy trinity that grips our society, and instead wake up to the beloved community in God.

What I did not have time to mention in my sermon was the way I was moved by the witness of the Rev. Gayle Fischer-Stewart to this group. Fischer-Stewart was for 23 years an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. Now retired, and ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, she has long experience with guns and gun violence. And she is quick to say that they are not simply the same. As an officer, she was glad to have her sidearm with her. It was a tool she needed to do her job. She told the crowd that she was grateful she never used that gun to kill someone, but she knew it was important that she had it.

As a retired officer, she still has the right to own and carry a gun. In Washington D.C. all retired police have what amounts to a guaranteed conceal and carry permit. Fischer-Stewart says that many of her retired colleagues choose to carry a gun with them at all times, and feel that it enhances their safety and the safety of those all around them.

Fischer-Stewart, on the other hand, chooses not to carry a gun in retirement. And she makes that choice for exactly the same reason: she cares about safety, and she is convinced both by statistics and by experience that carrying a gun does not increase safety but in fact makes violence more likely.

So far in her speech, I had heard both sides of this argument before. But it was what she said next that really caught my attention. She said that when she talks to her retired colleagues — or, for that matter, to anyone who cares about guns and safety — she chooses to emphasize what they have in common, and not what separates them. Gun control is such a hot-button, highly divisive topic that getting into it as a debate just makes everyone angry. Instead, Fischer-Stewart chooses to remind people that what we all have in common is a desire to be safe. Some people think carrying guns will make them safer. Some people think banning guns will make them safer. What they agree on is wanting to be safe. They may disagree deeply on how best to achieve that, but the basic desire itself is something they share. And if we can all agree that we want to be safe, then we have a common ground from which to work toward that shared safety. We will still disagree, and will have to find a way to work out that disagreement. But if we can start from a common ground of recognizing a common goal, and not simply by dividing and demonizing each other as “the enemy,” then we have a much better hope of working through disagreements and finding ways to be truly safe together.

And I think this is the most hopeful message about gun violence that I have heard in a long time. Fischer-Stewart reminds us that what it will really take to end gun violence is not just a change of laws, either to control or to carry; what it will take is a change of heart. A change of heart like Jesus’ heart, a heart to put people first, a heart to put people’s safety and well-being first, in the way we choose and act and react. Ending violence begins with a transformation of hearts, and it is the heart that guides what we choose to do with tools and arms and laws. And the good news is that we do not have to try to change our hearts all by ourselves, but Jesus dwells within us and brings us to love’s common ground.

Much more than mere protest, this march turned out to be a witness to great hope. I am happy to bring such hope home from General Convention.

To see the Rev. Gayle Fischer-Stewart’s entire speech, go to https://youtu.be/b3kb9cuewQs.