Like most people who deplore the tactics of the NRA and are working for a measure of gunsense in this country, I have my models: the late James Brady of the Brady Campaign, Ladd Everitt and Josh Horwitz at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Andy Pelosi at Gun Free Kids, Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Michael Bloomberg at Everytown, Dante Barry, deputy director at Million Hoodies for Justice, and Scarlett Lewis who established The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, in honor of her son who died at Newtown.
I learn from these folks on a daily basis. They, and others like them, stand on the front lines of gun-violence prevention in this country, and I respect their work immensely.
My own efforts to prevent gun-violence have been largely limited to the campus where I teach, and that started in January 2013, when I initiated a petition to prohibit faculty and staff with CCW permits from bringing their weapons on campus. Other faculty members joined in, or had already been working in that particular vineyard, and a compromise was reached with our legislators: each year, our Board of Directors must vote to opt out of the law that would allow campus-carry. The Board has voted twice on this initiative, and twice they have unanimously rejected guns on campus. You can read the history of this campaign here.
But as I approach January 2015 and mark the second year of my involvement with gun-safety, I find myself, as always, a reluctant activist—someone who's far more comfortable with a book in his lap than he is at a political forum with slack-jawed NRA minions in his face.
In other words, I'm not really a social activist. Not like those folks I catalogued at the beginning of this posting.
I do read a lot, though, and my reading conditions my work in the world, so I guess I'm a
biblio-activist, which means that if I don't find it in a book, I might not find it at all.
But with gun-violence, the world came and found me, behind my wall of books, and I responded as best I could, with what I'd learned from my reading. For better or for worse, that's who I am.
I teach classes that arise from some of this obsessive reading, and I count myself lucky to be a teacher, and even luckier to find that there are still students who want to read what I have read, and hear what I have to say about the things that we read together.
I don't emphasize a single perspective in the classroom; but I insist that my students understand the conflicts and ideas that I've encountered in my reading—the ones that have survived and engaged me over the years—and I try to give them the tools they need to resolve those conflicts in a responsible way. Like every other good teacher on the planet, I try to prepare them to think for themselves.
For two decades, I've been increasingly spending my time with the literature of nonviolence and the philosophy that undergirds Tibetan Buddhism. What I have read has had a powerful influence on how I define a problem, and on how I plot my varied courses to solve it. Gun-violence is no exception. But a lot of this influence has occurred quietly, without my really being aware of it, and so I want to take a minute to excavate some of that influence, and reduce it to a series of assumptions—there are ten of them, as it turns out—that identify my position in this movement and guide my thinking about it.
- Violence exists along a spectrum, from the subtle and nearly unrecognizable forms—jealousy, greed, irritation— that lie deep within us to the obvious forms that occupy the headlines and cable news shows—beheadings, mass shootings, rape.
- Many of my Tibetan teachers argue that once a violent impulse has erupted at the far end of that spectrum—beheadings, mass shootings, rape—there is very little that we can do in the momement but limit the damage that is being done. Put out the bonfire that is raging. But remember: the bonfire at the far end of the spectrum began as a spark at the near end. My teachers are very clear about that too, and in my own experience, they are correct.
- Gun-violence in America is now a bonfire—the statistics convince me, at least—and the folks that I mentioned earlier are doing everthing possible to respond to the fire. They are on the front lines of this struggle. They are the first-responders, their energy is apparently limitless, and their dedication complete. Just what our country needs in its first-responders.
- But my teachers always remind me that putting out the bonfires—necessary and vital—does little to prevent the next bonfire from arising because the conditions that gave rise to the bonfire haven't been addressed. And so our first responders need help. My teachers have told me that as well. (And from their perspective, to be fully human is to be a first-responder, but I'm not quite there yet.)
- Our first responders need others who are working the opposite end of the spectrum, teaching those who will listen how to recognize the spark, the tiny flame that, if left alone and unnoticed, will slowly grow into a full inferno, bringing a lot of suffering to a lot of people.
- So, our meditation instructors, our counselors, our therapists, our teachers, our social workers, and our gun-violence prevention activists are all hoeing the same row or, to return to the original metaphor, working along the same spectrum of violence, albeit at different ends and at different places along that spectrum.
- And while there are powerful movements in this country that are fruitfully embracing the entire spectrum in their activities—from practicing compassion to confronting Congress—I have found it helpful continually to remind myself that lessening violence in our country demands every conceivable approach that we can reasonably muster, from the most subtle spiritual training to the most effective legislative action and social protest; no effort, rightly intended, is wasted. While my work is situated largely on the less visible end of the spectrum, I discovered that my commitment to it is increased exponentially by knowing what the first-responders are doing on a daily basis, entrenched in the public space, situated in the forum, ensconced in the agora. By supporting them, whenever I can, through the increasingly powerful tools offered by social media, a network begins to articulate itself across the entire spectrum. Connections are made. Sometimes invisibly, but always dynamically.
- It is a powerful network, often with unidentified allies, that influences and reforms whatever it encounters, all along the spectrum of violence.
- To increase the power of this network, we have only to expand our recognition of one another, realizing that we are all, from the monk in retreat to the mayor-mogul, standing arm-in-arm against the epidemic of violence that currently afflicts our country. I have found that great energy arises from this simple exercise: we acknowedge the general problem of violence, while each addressing the specific outbreaks that concern us, and we draw strength from one another simply through the act of recognition, through the process of acknowledging the extensive network aligned against violence. Without doing this, the work can get lonely, and then the work suffers. Recognition and acknowledgment of others in the field—I find that esssential.
- And we should also remember, as Steven Pinker discovered and demonstrated in The Better Angels of Our Nature—that we are winning. Violence around the globe, when viewed from the long historical perspective, is waning.
The great advocates for social justice in my pantheon—in everyone's pantheon, I suspect—have always worked the spirit as strenuously as they worked the picket line: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Sister Helen Prejean.
Daily, I make it my business to contemplate their energy, their insight, their sacrifice. And daily, I bring myself to understand, each time as if for the first time, that such energy is always available and, once tapped, difficult to divert.
Anyone can undertake this act of homage—it helps us to locate the energy for social reform that lives within every one of us—because all of us are learning that this energy nowadays is the only one that gives us a shot at realizing our dream of a common humanity.