[This is an Editorial Note from the upcoming issue of Health & Development on violence from CCHF. It is a publication with an august history, and we are humbled to make some contributions from this blog. More to come.]
So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Initial report of the spies in Canaan, Numbers 13:32-33
I grew up in the suburbs and had never seen or heard a firearm discharged. That changed once I moved into inner city Wilmington. Here, gun violence escalated enough in 2012 to earn the city a top ranking as “worst place to raise your children” by Parenting Magazine. When I first moved in, our block regularly listened to gunfire at night. Neighbors, patients, and friends have told me accounts of being shot in the face, pistol-whipped, and threatened at gunpoint. My most reliable and informative witnesses have been children, a fact that continues to disturb me.
I thought this abrupt transition from suburban tranquility to the urban warzone was simply my own experience in changing geography and socioeconomics. But perhaps these perspective shifts over the past two years also reflect the national one. As the fundamental character of American society has changed, so has the scope of gun violence. Inner cities such as Camden and Detroit implode while small towns like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown wish they could have remained relatively anonymous. Though we are stunned, we are no longer surprised by stories of mass shootings in malls, naval shipyards, elementary schools, or theaters. For better or for worse, our collective experience in gun violence has been diversifying.
While assembling these narratives on violence, there were a number of things I found disturbing. Some of them were to be expected: descriptions of fathers bleeding to death on front doorsteps, of teenagers shooting and being shot, of muggings and mourning mothers, of impromptu first aid hastily applied to street battle victims. What I did not expect was how casual and plentiful these narratives would be. Descriptions of horrific events used plain language and simple wording, typically sounding understated and almost flippant in comparison to how graphic and traumatic the actions themselves were. And I did not have to search far to find these stories; in fact, they were commonplace.
As the reach of gun violence has broadened and deepened, we might have expected to find ourselves unified in thoughtfulness and purpose. Yet somehow, the issue of gun violence remains difficult to talk about in both the national and the personal discourse. Somehow, it remains intrinsically and increasingly polarized and fragmentary.
Gun violence will never become something “normal,” even as our world becomes more saturated with it. As disparate socioeconomic groups are brought into closer proximity through urbanization (and gentrification even), so will the victims of gun violence. Though the narratives here are overwhelmingly about experiences with inner city gun violence, many were written by people who grew up elsewhere. To this extent, they collectively serve as bridging perspectives that contextualize otherwise sensational stories. Donovan Lloyd shares about his experiences growing up in inner city Wilmington, Delaware. Angela Strange describes her life as a “street momma to all the hustlers and gang members” in a particularly violent section of Washington, DC. Deborah M, a healthcare worker in North Philadelphia, writes about the goodness of life while living in a neighborhood rife with community violence. And Joey Patrick relates his own transformation in ministering to both a victim and a perpetrator of gun violence, all from his own front porch.
What is most unifying about these narratives is that they are fiercely and deeply centered on community and Jesus Christ. They are less about guns than they are about people and neighbors and street blocks. They are stories by those who have followed the call of the Lord into these communities plagued by gun violence, drug trafficking, and other “Nephilim” in Canaan, a land filled with threat and intimidation that seems to devour its inhabitants. We might have expected their stories to sound like the Israelites:
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:6-9
And yet the accounts that emerge here are exceedingly good. They are stories of redemption, hope, and purpose even as they are characterized by trauma. They provide a much-needed perspective about what it is like to live in the midst of a violent world and to embrace it lovingly, willingly, and without fear, characteristics that are scarce in the heated political discourse. Please read and share.
And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” – Numbers 14:6-9