Addressing Guns by Moving Morality
In a public square fractured by debates on moral questions — how can we make space to address them and find common ground?
In my community, back in March, the response to this moment was a request for buses for our congregation to attend the “March for Our Lives” together. My congregants assumed we would act in the name of our tradition. They assumed that political advocacy would be easy for our community, because, like the rest of America, we had sorted ourselves into a homogeneous enough group. They were wrong. Jewish tradition puts plenty of support behind limiting the availability of deadly weapons, but it also supports using violence in self-defense. And this faith community has members on both sides of the gun debate.
As the spiritual leader of our congregation, I felt compelled to advocate with the Parkland students and arrange the buses. But I felt equally compelled to reject the tidal forces of political sorting that might push some members out of my community. I wanted to embrace the Jewish tradition of advocacy, as well as the Jewish value of respecting dissent. On this issue especially, those two values are at odds. Political engagement is a Jewish spiritual imperative, but our political system cannot digest the moral complexity and partisan polarization intertwined on this issue. Regardless of our position on the issue of gun control, we could not rush into the broken politics without harming the moral integrity of my community.
The gun control debate is both an opportunity for greater civic engagement, and another canary in the coal mine of broken politics. If Carl von Clausewitz, the famous military historian, said “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” then politics should be the prevention of war by other means.
Politics should enable us to disagree without killing each other.
But, as we saw in Charlottesville last summer, after local elected officials deliberated and voted on removing a Civil War statue, our toxic national politics actually contributed to violence. So, when we think about addressing gun ownership, we need a healthy politics now, more than ever. We are talking about deadly weapons, after all.
Behind every political issue lie moral questions. When we disagree about taxes, we’re also debating the balance between self and community. When we argue about criminal justice, we’re also grappling with legacies of intolerance, the need for communal safety, the ethics of punishment, and the stewardship of communal resources. And when we dispute the role of guns in society, we are contending with the values of individual liberty, the right to self-defense, the obligation to protect human life, and the duty to restrain violence. Scratch the surface of political discourse and we find that morality is intertwined with complicated policy.
But politics is ill-suited for the task of addressing moral questions.
What matters in politics is who has the power to exert the most influence and achieve the desired results. We might hope that those wielding influence and those feeling its push will prioritize the best interests of the community, but that hope is naïve. To remain in office, a politician needs to amass power, and individual lobbyists, commentators, analysts, and activists exist to exert it. In this environment, respectful moral disagreement gets crushed beneath the necessary wheels of power.
Look at the gun debate. The students have policy aims, but they elevate their cause into a fight “for our lives.” Gun-rights advocates seek not only to shape policy, but also to preserve a beloved “gun culture.” To disagree is to threaten either “lives” or a whole “culture.” The high-stakes emotional language reflects the underlying morality, which attracts and motivates followers, but the container of politics cracks under the pressure.
Uncontained moral rhetoric leaves our communities divided and our political system weakened. While passionate speeches at gigantic marches may motivate civic engagement, they are no time for complicated discussion of morality. Without providing an alternate venue for moral passion, one that encourages nuance and demands respect for dissent, the political system chokes on competing moral demands.
What does this look like in the institutions especially responsible for addressing morality (and by that I mean, faith institutions)? One common solution is to self-sort as a community to one political extreme or the other, giving parishioners with reservations the option to either leave or become a silent minority. This is the most common path for faith institutions seeking to engage in policy advocacy, and while it may inspire tremendous citizen engagement, it exacerbates our national partisan rifts. When faith communities advocate on any given issue, their chosen sides can claim — in addition to any political or economic arguments — divine approval. The volatility this adds to policy discussion, pushes advocates away from the center, and widens our divides.
Other churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples remain politically diverse, but preserve that diversity by avoiding policy altogether, a position somewhat at odds with the imperatives of faith traditions: all religions are concerned not only with the world to come, but also with the world as it is. So complete avoidance of policy within the faith institutions abandons part of our spiritual heritage and religious obligation. For those who believe in God, the divine voice speaks to the workings of the marketplace, the rules of the neighborhood, the ethics of the workplace and the issues in the public square. Therefore, avoidance undermines our integrity.
As the March for Our Lives approached, my community rejected both of these approaches. We did not want to avoid policy altogether, and we also refused to self-sort. Instead, we created a different path by carefully designing a moral space to address this political issue.
Three weeks before the march, 150 of our community members gathered to discuss gun violence. We structured the evening carefully, following guidance from the Better Angels website and other sources. We placed the event in our sanctuary to provide a spiritual context. We included multiple generations as 30 teens, some of whom had experienced actual “false-alarm” lock-downs, participated in the conversation. And we reminded everyone present that we are bound by a covenant of membership in our community. I shared that our tradition spoke clearly to me on the need to address the easy availability of mass-killing weapons in America, and equally clearly on the need to hear dissenting opinions.
We heard from a community member who leads a local Mom’s Demand Action chapter organizing support for the March, and from another member who is an NRA instructor and once had to rely upon her weapon to defend a tenant from her husband, a former Marine who suffered from PTSD. We paused for silence after each testimony. Then, we opened the floor for community members to respond, with the guidance that respondents should avoid attempting to change anyone’s opinion. I was nervous and feared a shouting match, but after every comment, we embraced a spiritual practice to say the Hebrew word shamati which loosely translates to “I heard you,” and the night progressed in peace. At the end of the evening, as most people had left, our two speakers embraced.
The greatest accomplishment of the evening was no great policy breakthrough, but rather the experience of hearing intelligent disagreement while remaining in one community. This ability should be at the core of our democratic process. What else is democracy than my respect for your right to be wrong?
Citizens need moral spaces in addition to political spaces.
In fact, political engagement becomes easier and healthier when the other side’s opinions are respected — especially when we think that they are wrong — because this value builds a faith that my opinions will be respected when the other side prevails and they think I am wrong. In a moral space, we get beneath policy to discover deeply-held values, personal narratives, and aspirational world views, all of which are critical, but not always helpful to finding pragmatic solutions to problems.
Moral spaces can relieve some of the pressurized passion from politics while encouraging greater civic commitment. They exercise our atrophied muscles of healthy dissent and remind us to honor disagreement.
There are hundreds of thousands of houses of worship in America. These are places where we practice ritual, prayer, silence, music, fellowship, deep and careful textual study, covenant, acts of loving-kindness, and often faith in a power separate from humanity. These places have sacred spaces, employ spiritual leaders, welcome all classes and backgrounds, incorporate multiple generations, and place a priority on compassion, service and a belief in truth. These are precisely the assets and skills we need to create moral spaces for rigorous intellectual discussion about hard policy questions, where difference is embraced and not self-sorted. This is what we do well. This is our core purpose.
When we apply our religious skills and assets to public policy conversation, we strengthen both our politics and our faith communities. Failing to do so weakens our political discourse and betrays our faith commitments. So, I ask faith institutions, has not the time come for us to create moral spaces and heal our politics?