Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Dear Senator": Addressing Gun Violence through the Lens of Taizé

A day after returning from the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust in St. Louis, I received an email from the Wisconsin Council of Churches asking me, with other religious leaders, to write relevant state senators to oppose a bill, currently in committee, that would remove the legal requirement for a permit in order to carry a concealed firearm. I find it particularly challenging to make space to articulate distinctively Christian positions on legislative proposals like this one succinctly. Isn't it enough, some  would say, to simply register your voice as for or against? Of course the answer is "No, that is not enough. In and by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have come to believe that more is possible. Come and see." Additionally, abandoning the public articulation of how faith informs these issues, like gun violence, only serves to underwrite the prevailing public assumption that faith is at the heart of problems like violence, an assumption that serves the interests of the State so well that the State would be foolish to question the assumption's veracity without prompting. This is my attempt to write my senator on the relevant bill and provide such a prompting through the lens of the Christian resources that shaped our time with the brothers of Taizé. 

Dear Senator Risser,

Grace and peace! 

My name is the Rev. Jonathan Melton. I am an Episcopal priest and the chaplain director of a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, St. Francis House, a ministry with a long and active history of civic engagement. As your constituent and a person of faith, I want you to know how grateful I am for your service to the common life of this country and its people. I thank God for you, and I look for God in you.(1) 

I want you to know you and your work are daily in my prayers, especially at a time in which tensions across differences make dialogue and decisions that transcend the binary and reactive difficult. In such a time, claiming thoughtfulness and nuance that the soundbite cannot convey requires uncommon courage. I believe each of us is loved by a God who can call us into and sustain us in uncommon ways of being in this world, as reflections of God's love and for the good of one another. 

To that end, I am writing today to let you know that I oppose SB 169, the permitless concealed carry bill. Will you join me, and so many others, in opposing this bill? 

My colleagues have sent me talking points that they encourage me to include here. I'll include them at the end, in case they are right that statistics like this one - "since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws" - are new to you. But I suspect these statistics are not new to you. 

I trust my colleagues who have been at this work longer than I have to know which statistics will command your attention, but I think we all - they, you, and me - long to set our sights higher. After all, what is a concealed weapon except an accessory of fear and mistrust against another person? As a person of faith, confident in the power of liturgical rituals to shape persons, people, and communities, I grieve the daily formation our communities undergo as bearers of concealed mistrust and fear. Every cleaning of such a gun, locking of such a gun, remembering to carry such a gun reinforces a posture of mistrust for one another. Yes, we should oppose this bill, but we should also engage every local and political opportunity to call out our habituated hates and suspicions and invite us into spaces of developing trust. 

Obviously, such a call is beyond the scope of this bill, and yet you cannot credibly call for such opportunities later after having supported this bill. What I am asking is that you consider your opposition to this bill as a first step in claiming trust as an essential part of the common good. 

I realize that naming a particular and positive vision of the common good requires uncommon courage. We're not just talking freedom from but freedom for - positive freedom(2) - and we are talking about the hard and patient work of building trust in our communities. And so I pray for you to the God of uncommon courage, who is worthy of our trust, and I offer my support as one committed to walk and work with you and our neighbors as you risk speaking a vision of communities of trust. 

In the joy of the risen Jesus, 



This bill would endanger the public by removing the common-sense protections that the Wisconsin Legislature put into place when it decided to allow people to carry concealed weapons. We should not remove reasonable requirements for background checks, training, and licensing for persons to carry concealed, loaded firearms in public places. 

Surveys show that most people, including gun owners, believe that a person should need to pass a background check and have training in order to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. 

Without permitting requirements, dangerous, irresponsible, and untrained people would be allowed to carry hidden, loaded weapons in public. 

Since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws. 

Educators and safety experts agree that allowing civilians to carry weapons in schools is not a good security practice. 

Please oppose SB 169 as a dangerous bill that would weaken the public safety protections that are already in place in Wisconsin's conceal carry permitting law.


(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p299

(2) William Cavanaugh on freedom (short video).

Monday, May 8, 2017

What the Beard Remembers:
Our Miscarriage & Making Room for 'Real'

In just less than two months, on July 7, 2017, my beard will turn one year old. That I'm two months out of a "yeard" means it has been about six months since Rebekah and I learned she had suffered a miscarriage. The realization, at the time, that my newbie beard would become a yeard about the time we would have met our child became an important personal part of my beard journey. I don't know what has led me to mark the time in beards, but it doesn't make less sense than the loss itself.

I say "about six months" not because I don't remember the details, but because the miscarriage was excruciatingly and unexpectedly protracted. Rebekah began spotting on November 11, her birthday, and it wasn't until a week later on November 18, my birthday, that a doctor's test results confirmed our fear. Even now it's hard to find words for the hell of a week of not knowing and the visceral, physical, wildly embodied grief that followed for months.

Research shows that between 10 and 25% of all pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Before November I wouldn't have been able to tell you that statistic, but Bek and I have never taken pregnancies for granted. We have walked with and prayed for many dear friends whose courage, vulnerability, steadfastness, and love through miscarriages, infertility, and other struggles have inspired us and challenged us to new imaginations for what holy friendship looks like. We have made a practice of sharing pregnancy news with certain people early on, partly to keep us accountable for needing them and not walking alone should something happen. After November, the love of friends kept us standing.

As we told family and close friends about the miscarriage, a significant number of them shared that they had also suffered miscarriages. Many times, this news was shared in loving ways that sought to honor and not diminish the particular pain Rebekah and I felt. The kinship of suffering opened existing friendships to new conversations in ways that nourished the souls of both parties. Other times,  people told us their stories in ways that felt like invitations to suck it up, get back to being a person who didn't cry in meetings, and join them in the good and noble practice of carrying pain in secret. Even now, I'm not sure what made the difference in how I heard the invitations.

For my hearing the invitations differently, I don't fault any of our friends. God knows we needed them all. I especially don't judge anyone for not having the words they wanted to have. God knows I didn't. More than anything, I think our society's culture of concealing hard things became the context for how I received the words differently on some days than others.

I don't think The Culture of Concealing Hard Things thinks too hard about perpetuating itself, because it has the benefit of occupying the default position. Instead, it takes thoughtfulness and courage to make room for real in the land of the scripted. Here's the closest thing, then, this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real.
"Here's the closest thing this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real."
In advocating for the real, I want to say that no one should feel an obligation to share their story or their suffering out of turn, before they are ready. That said, as a Christian, I do think it is a tragic mistake to presume that I can know when I am ready, much less to know my self and my story, by myself. In any case, it has taken me six months to sit down and write this and, I'm not sure what makes this day different than the ones on which I did not sit down and write. I think I write in part out of trust and gratitude for others who have blessed me by sharing their hearts. I know I write in part because every experience of suffering, my own or another's, leaves me holding the question for which I have no good answer: "Why do we spend so much of our waking hours pretending that our lives are less vulnerable, fragile, and beautiful than they are?"

When we do not feel like real life has the bandwidth to carry the suffering of others or our own - in other words, when we experience another's burden as an interruption to be overcome - we must ask ourselves, "Of what do we imagine the uninterrupted life consists?" You know, after all the real is gone.

We carry lots of things that fill the real: the challenges of parenthood, the challenges of being parented in unsatisfactory ways, alcoholism,  poverty, sexual assault, racism, discrimination of general and very particular kinds, God's presence, God's absence, depression, the unique burden of PTSD on men and women of the U.S. military, the three big things you would add next, and a million others, and every corresponding emotion and experience of it. For most of us, we share so little of what we feel. But I for one am not convinced that a world in which people don't cry in meetings is a good or worthy goal.

There are clearly political dimensions to each of these realities, with corresponding actions we can and should take to improve the situation of people in pain. But/and/also, there is also so much good to come from being present to one another even when we cannot resolve each other's pain. I thank God for so many friends who were present to us in this way. I marvel that among the many things it means to be called God's friends are bearing others' burdens and having burdens borne by others, too. The gift of presence that walks with, bears hard things, listens well, and makes room for even our pain to be a publicly admissible part of ourselves is a gift that communicates as little else can the unsurpassable love of God made known in Jesus Christ.

Thank you for showing up in the vulnerable space of love that walks with. Thank you for risking love without a script, where neither of us claims to know what comes next and so we relent and trust God together. Maybe improvisation like this is what it is to love without fear.

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