It started just a few days after the Paris attacks. There was an awareness of how vulnerable I was and how vulnerable we all were.
For the first time in several years, I found myself staring at the door of my seminary classroom, imagining a man in a hood bursting through the door with guns blazing. My experiences in Iraq may have something to do with this feeling. I don't fully know. What I do know is that the classrooms I sit in are on the edge of the University of Texas, a school which will soon allow the concealed carry of handguns in classrooms, dormitories and other buildings. This law piggybacked the law authorizing the open carry of handguns. This one became legal in Texas on January 1, 2016. In the week between Christmas and the New Year, PSA videos by police departments told us not to panic and call 911 if we see holstered guns everywhere we go. I agree with proponents of Open Carry who insist that terrorists like to shoot people in gun-free zones.
Part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can feel like the loss of the illusion of safety. Coming face to face with raw violence changes a person's vision of the world. In this new, unsafe world, threats are everywhere and hyper-vigilance is the new normal. Can carrying a gun help a person feel safer? Can it, at least, give us back our illusion of safety?
I carried a concealed weapon when I lived in Pennsylvania, around the time I began to transition out of the Marine Corps Reserve. I had carried a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a light, belt-fed, machine gun in the Marines as well as the standard M16 rifle. Having a pistol in my pocket helped me feel like I was in control, like I was safe. It gave me that feeling I got on the last day of boot camp when I marched across the parade deck as a Marine. I carried it for a few years before I moved.
I grew up around guns and I know how fun and dangerous they can be. I had one accidental discharge in all those years of recreational shooting. Just one, but it was one too many. I had been through Marine weapons training, I had qualified as an "expert" on the rifle range, yet I still made a mistake. I was embarrassed when the gun went off and shot a bullet in the patio bricks between my feet. I asked my two friends' forgiveness for my negligence. I'm glad I didn't kill anyone that day.
A couple years later I went to Iraq as an army chaplain. I didn't carry a gun over there, although everyone around me did. When I came home, people asked me if the Iraqis "liked us being there." My first thought was always, Yeah, they were real nice to us. Most people are nice to people who are carrying guns. Sometimes I said it out loud and only received confused looks.
In my experience, people carrying guns openly are communicating some pretty serious messages. One of them is that they can easily kill you. Immediately, the presence of open weapons creates an asymmetrical power relationship where you're never quite sure how people feel about you--if you're the one with the gun. Most people are nice to people who are carrying guns.
In Iraq at least, most people were rarely completely honest to people who were carrying guns. The handshake--one of the oldest signs of peace--is a way of showing that you are unarmed. Can human relationships flourish in a world where no one can truly shake hands?
Now I'm a parish priest in the Episcopal Church and I think about an active shooter stomping into my church's school or worship service constantly. So I do sprints. I do pushups. I wonder if I'll be able to tackle the guy in time. What if there are two of them?
So I started to Open Carry--beads not bullets. I found the box with the old stuff from my Army days as a deployed chaplain. I pulled out a set of Anglican rosary beads. They were made for me by parishioners of Trinity Episcopal Church, in Mount Vernon, Illinois. I'd only used them a few times.
Even though I was an Episcopal priest, I had little training with the beads. I had used them in Mount Vernon on the night they were given to me and twice in Texas at a contemplative service at a church next to the Fort Hood Army base. In my entire life, I've spent more times holding guns than prayer beads. I was an enlisted Marine, after all.
I googled Anglican rosary and printed the prayers that go with the beads. I picked the "Jesus Prayer", mainly because I could remember it and because the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of my Church, recently mentioned it in a talk. He said the Jesus prayer was a great way to deal with anxiety. According to Wikipedia, Anthony the Great was the first Christian to use prayer beads in the early Church. I have a picture of him glued on the inside cover of the prayer book I've used since my ordination. He's being assaulted by a dozen demons while he serenely prays. It always reminds me things could be worse.
I picked out a few other phrases from the website, grabbed my beads, and headed out to the street. As I walked, I thumbed through the beads, one after the other. Soon, the prayers merged with my breathing, as my thumb kept time. In class, when I would glance toward the door, I pulled them out and started working through them. I touched them every time I felt anxious, much like I had touched my M16 during my days in the Marines.
I know this is a controversial issue for Americans, and especially Texans. We live in anxious times and I'm thankful for 2,000 years of Christian reflection on the issues surrounding self-defense. These questions are not new. The venerable Saints Ambrose and Augustine thought it good for Christians to serve in the Army, however they denounced killing in self-defense for a number of reasons. Ambrose cited Jesus' command to "Put up thy sword, for every one that taketh the sword shall perish with the sword." He goes on to point to Christ's example of not defending himself against his enemies so he could heal the world through his wounds. Since then, most Christians have not been pure pacifists. I'm certainly not.
Like Ambrose and Augustine I see a need for soldiers and police officers to carry weapons. They are responsible to the community and act on our behalf. They are uniformed, set apart visibly for their duty to the community. Recent acts of injustice by police officers have highlighted the growing separation between the police and the community they work in. The Open Carry of guns, however, has very little to do with the community. Open Carry is centered in our modern worship of the individual. "I grew up with guns. I can handle it. I deserve to carry." What if my fellow Christians who endorse Open Carry took the time to reflect on whether their individualism is truly Christian, or merely American. Should a group so certain about the resurrection of the dead be so worried about dying?
Jesus did tell his disciples in the Gospel of Luke to buy a sword. It says he did this so Jesus could fulfil a prophecy that "He would be numbered among the transgressors." It's a cryptic statement, and if you interpret this verse to rubber stamp carrying a pistol in your purse while you go to Chipotle, I think you may have missed Luke's point.
I'm not trying to set out some kind of universal argument for or against the open carry of weapons. What I am saying is that there are other ways of dealing with our anxiety about violent death than carrying a firearm. Try some of them. Ask God for help with this. Get an Anglican or Roman Catholic rosary, an Orthodox chokti, an Islamic misbaha, a Buddhist or Hindu mala, or a set from another religious tradition and join me as I open carry.