On January 21, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year old, African-American high school student was in Washington D.C., performing with her school's band at arguably one of the most symbolic Presidential Inaugurations in history. Not only was Barack Obama, a man of color, being sworn in for a second term, he was doing it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Both his re-election and Hadiya's participation were a poignant coda to the slain civil rights leader's legacy.
One week later, more than 80 clergy leaders representing ministers, Catholic clergy, rabbis, and imams, were also in Washington to advocate for more aggressive interventions in urban areas where gun violence is more prevalent. While this group was petitioning for greater support, Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead on a playground in Chicago. She was the 42nd victim of gun violence in Chicago since Jan. 1.
Elie Weisel, the noted Holocaust-chronicler, says during that era, there were three kinds of people: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. As a human-rights activist, he suggests this formula be considered whenever we discuss a large scale, life-threatening crisis. Gun violence in America is a large scale, life-threatening crisis. Until we are able to recognize that Hadiya Pendleton's death requires the same amount of outrage and action as the recent horrific mass shootings, we are all, at best, simply bystanders.
Who are the victims? They are the innocent people in cities, in suburbs, and in rural areas that die because of a culture of violence that promotes guns as the solution to any scale crisis. They are the people whose cries for help turn deadly because ill-regulated firearms are always close at hand. The victims are also the walking wounded who sustained permanent injury, and the children who live in areas where they are more likely to be killed by a gun than they are to graduate high school.
And who are the perpetrators? Not law-abiding, responsible gun owners and not individuals who support the 2nd amendment. The real perpetrators, beyond the violent criminals who commit the crimes, are those who make money on the gun industry and prevent regulation because of greed. They are the ones who believe weapons designed for the theater of war can and should be modified to be used for "sport." The perpetrators are the lawmakers who block legislation that would allow records to be shared, records that could prevent guns ending up in the hands of criminals. They are the ones who interpret the right to bear arms as the right to be above the law and need for regulation.
And we are the bystanders: those of us who are horrified when the rare, mass-killing happens -- wracking our brains about why -- but failing to bring the same concern to the daily individual shootings. We are the ones who believe that gun violence is only about gangs and cities, not about abusive husbands and suicidal children. Bystanders see the problem but believe nothing can be done about it.
I would like to add one more category of people to Weisel's formulation: the Actor. The actor is the citizen who supports comprehensive gun control reform. The actors are the family members who speak out at funerals and rallies, sharing their pain and their loss and asking that the violence ends with their dead children. Local lawmakers who push for better education, better healthcare, and better services are the actors who know that gun violence is only a symptom of a deeply broken society. The Hebrew word for peace is Shalom and shares the same root as the word for wholeness. No one can be at peace in a world where wholeness is denied.
The clergy who gathered in Washington are also actors. We came from places like Chicago and Baton Rouge, Oakland, and even Sunbury because we share the belief that violence against an individual is violence against our Creator. Because ministers are tired of presiding over five, 10, and more funerals a month for people killed by guns. To that end, we created a statement (available in full at lifelinestohealing.org) and delivered it to the vice president's office, asserting that "We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our Creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland. We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation. We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living."
Rabbi Nina H. Mandel
Congregation Beth El