As we near the celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, I am taken by the strange irony of the fact that our country is in the throes of grappling with the response to the tragic deaths of 20 children and six of their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.
It would seem as if this, when combined with the gun violence in a mosque in Wisconsin, the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year, the deaths and near assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona and several other mass murders, would awaken our country to the need to make assault weapons similar to those used in these violent episodes less accessible, if not eliminate their availability altogether. The idea that any of us, public and elected officials, even clergy, consider the 'right' to own killing machines (because after all, that is what all guns are), such a basic human right, that limiting the availability of the most devastating of them an infringement of those rights says much about what is wrong with America now.
On Monday, homage will be paid to life and the work of Dr. King. And rightfully so. And, once again, we will hear, ad infinitum ad nauseum, the clause from his 'I Have a Dream' speech, used and misused by those who appreciate his legacy and those who have co-opted his image to advance an agenda antithetic to his 'dream'. It's the phrase in which we speaks of the day when his children - all children - will be judged by the 'content of their character' and not the color of their skin.
But this should cause us to think: What is the content of the character of those for whom even the mass murder of 5-6 year old children, is not enough to see that we need a radical shift in values. If babies can be brutally massacred, because of these killing machines, then is our 'right' to own them more important than the lives of these and potentially future children? Or their mothers? Or their fathers? Or their teachers?
And what is the content of the character of those who say the answer to the problem is to arm everybody?! So we now go back to the day when when we shoot one another in the streets? Should something like this ever happen again, do we trust teachers, who may have never injured anyone intentionally in their lives, be able to calmly take out someone in battle gear with a semi-automatic assault weapon?
Certainly, we have a right to self-defense. But when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. we celebrate the life of a man of non-violence, which extended even to the idea of self defense.
Take for instance the night during the Montgomery bus boycott when his home was bombed.
A moment to call for self-defense, or vengeance or even a demand for the protection of the public safety officials. But here was his response:
"After the successful beginning of the boycott on Monday, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) came into being that afternoon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the presidency. As MIA leader, King became the focus of white hatred. On January 30, 1956, the King home was bombed."
"King had been speaking at a mass meeting at the First Baptist Church. When he heard the news, he told the crowd what happened, and left the church."
"Nearing his house, King saw blacks brandishing guns and knives, and a barricade of white policemen. King went inside and pushed through the crowd in his house to the back room to make sure Coretta and his ten-week-old baby were okay. Back in the front room of the house, some white reporters were trying to leave to file their stories, but could not get out of the house, which was surrounded by armed, angry blacks."
"Taylor Branch, in Parting the Waters, tells what happened next:
"“King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.’”"
"When the crowd of several hundred was silent, he continued, “I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”"
King's second amendment right certainly included an armed response to this type of violence. But his commitment to something greater than himself suggested a sacrifice of that right in order for true justice to prevail.
Don't the lives of 20 children and six teachers mean that we can sacrifice something of that right? Doesn't the maiming of Gabby Giffords, her pain and suffering and that of her husband, not to mention the child and the adults who died that day last year, mean that we can sacrifice an ill interpreted portion of 'the right to bear arms'.
And if we don't think so, whether common citizen, or politician, or public official, or preacher...what does that say about the content of our character?