A Compassionate Debate on the Gun Issue

Last week's Senate decision to begin debate on legislation to prevent gun violence was a crucial step toward enacting laws that will protect lives. The compromise amendment authored by Senators Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) requiring background checks for gun purchases should advance the common-sense gun violence prevention measures, which many American faith leaders have come to understand as vital to our nation's well-being in the wake of the Newtown massacre.

Now we need to make sure that the background checks are meaningful, and we have to get an assault weapons ban back on the table as well -- yet neither of these measures on their own will be enough. No legislative debate nor amendments, nor even an actual law requiring universal background checks, however, are enough.

We need to fundamentally change not just the laws in America, but the culture in America. We need to move away from a culture of violence and toward a culture of compassion -- to change not just laws but also hearts. This is a task uniquely suited to communities of faith, a task on which people of faith must take a lead role.

Whether we think of evil as caused by cosmic or human activity, the problem of innocent human suffering -- the kind of suffering that happens every day on the streets of America -- is an essential religious question. Every religious tradition attempts to explain (or at least respond to) suffering.

The Hebrew Scriptures give us the story of Job and the Christian tradition carries at its core the crucifixion of Jesus. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always found the meaning of suffering less in speculating about its cause, and more in the response it elicits from the faithful.

Our scriptures may not speak with one voice about why human suffering occurs, but they are unanimous in their insistence that suffering demands an active response -- the struggle for love and justice is a religious tenet shared by all the Abrahamic faiths. It is with compassion for our neighbors that we must act as faithful believers and call for an end to gun violence, and to take steps to move our nation ever closer to that goal.

Though I am the leader of Washington National Cathedral -- where we seek to be the spiritual home for the nation -- I do not presume to speak for all members of our community, much less for all people of faith, in calling for common-sense gun prevention legislation. I do try, however, to articulate what I hear God calling us to do, and I believe that God is calling on Americans to have a serious religious and political debate, to make real changes.

The only way that humans can address large-scale questions of love and justice is in the public arena, and when we enter the public arena, we have to deal with politics. In a democracy, our laws are enacted not from above but by means of political organizing and "politics" need not be a dirty word. It's how human beings organize our lives in society and how our public leaders conduct business, debate and pass laws, interpret and enforce them. To engage with politicians on the issue of gun violence is to do the work that God calls us to do.

Reducing gun violence and taking the necessary political steps to do so are, at base, profoundly spiritual concerns. However we define evil -- whether it's caused by the devil, or by the acts of madmen -- faithfulness to God demands that we respond to it with compassion.

The upcoming debate surrounding the Senate bill will provide a nearly unprecedented opportunity to work with activists across the spectrum of religious tradition (as well as Americans who have none) and alongside our elected representatives to improve the bill and ensure it is an effective law, serving as the starting point of a larger cultural shift.

It is our civic and moral duty as Americans, and as people of faith, to reach out to our fellow citizens and to call on our Senators to act. Compassion is not a passive virtue; the pursuit of love and justice is an active choice. We are called on by God to give voice to all who have lost loved ones to gun violence; we are called to act.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall is tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral.