Preparing for Violence, Working for Peace

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The Kingston Trio released a song in 1959 by the name of The Merry Little Minuet. A reflection of both the concerns of the atomic age generation and global strife occurring at the time, the song injects humor into a fraught social reality in a manner that speaks to the truth of a summation of fears that people were experiencing. Two decades later, friends of mine and I would sing this song as part of a Girl Scout sketch at camp. We understood the humor and the serious social statements behind it. You can listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVUh5OaiADc

Throughout our elementary school years in Ohio, my friends and I participated in regular school drills intended to respond to the threats of nuclear bomb strikes, earthquakes, building fires, and tornados. Depending on the drill, the three basic responses were: 1) crouch under one’s classroom desk and interlace one’s hands behind head/neck, 2) go out into the hallways and assume a fetal position against a wall, and 3) exit down the stairwells to the outside and walk away from the building.

Though teachers and school administrators never asked for our thoughts or feedback on these drills, after every single one, my friends and I would discuss among ourselves how effective these responses would be in the event of an actual emergency. We concluded that in reality we would probably be turned into radioactive dust, be crushed under tons of bricks and concrete, become burnt toast, or be shredded into debris. We harbored no illusions about potential death and destruction in light of potential catastrophic events, but it seemed to us that the adults certainly did. Perhaps they believed that they were protecting us from anxiety or that we were too young to contemplate the possibility of our death. They didn’t want to scare us or themselves, which is why these various disaster drills were always conducted in silence and with no opportunity for discussion or reflection. The idea of trying to simulate bomb blasts, earthquakes, fires, or tornados would not have occurred to any of those planning the drills.

Two more decades into the future Columbine High School would be among the first schools to experience the violent phenomenon of attempted bombing and active shooters. The shooting inspired dozens of copycat killings, dubbed the Columbine effect, including many deadlier shootings across the world. The Washington Post, which keeps an updated count of school shootings, reports that to date of this blog post there have been 373 school mass shooting in the United States. Across all such incidents, The Post has found that at least 192 children, educators and others have been killed, with an additional 421 victims who have been injured.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/interactive/school-shootings-database/

The response in school safety drills in most schools today include Lock-Down drills and Active Shooter Simulations. The organization of Sandy Hook Promise has raised a serious concern about the impact of active shooter drills, in that many of these drills have morphed into active shooter simulations.

The Sandy Hook Promise website states:

Without a doubt, many of us might think active shooter drills are like fire drills. They should help educate and train students on how to take a crisis seriously. Certainly without putting them in harm’s way. Instead, many of these drills have become live-action simulations of fatal shootings. Rather than empowering students, these simulations can include shooting pellet guns at teachers and spreading fake blood to mimic the scene of a shooting. Sometimes, students aren’t even aware the exercise is just a drill. Moreover, these tactics hurt students and do not help prevent school shootings. Without the right guidance, state legislatures may pass laws that add simulations to the list of approved active shooter exercises. Simulations are not the same as active shooter drills and they must be kept separate. Students should never have to participate in anything that mimics a real-life shooting.

In light of the separation of types of drill (helpful v. harmful), the website provides a link to a petition to sign for to support the organization in putting a stop to traumatizing active shooter simulations. https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/blog/advocacy/active-shooter-drills-harmful-or-helpful/

The distinction between types of drills is an important difference to note, especially as more and more faith communities (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian) are turning towards creating active shooter drills in response to rising domestic terrorism concerns related to white supremacist groups and racism. Our faith communities probably need helpful instruction and guidance related to active shooter drills, and the Department of Homeland Security has developed safety resources for Faith-Based Events and Houses of Worship: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/17_0531_NSI_SAR-Faith-Based-Events-Houses-Worship.pdf

Churches are considered “soft targets” for active shooters.  The Episcopal Church has a Safety and Insurance Handbook available online that includes a section (Chapter 3) on insurance coverage for Malicious Attack and encourages the development of Violence Preparedness Plans. If you were not previously aware of the availability of such coverage through Church Insurance, now you are: https://www.cpg.org/globalassets/documents/publications/safety–insurance-handbook-for-churches.pdf

However, the process of developing an effective violence preparedness plan requires consultation with a local commercial security company, the local FBI office, or other professional resources that can provide training. Additionally consulting with local law enforcement is highly encouraged. In January of 2022, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said security training at his suburban Fort Worth congregation over the years is what allowed him and the other three hostages to make it through the 10-hour ordeal, which he described as traumatic:

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said in a statement. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.” https://spectrumlocalnews.com/tx/south-texas-el-paso/news/2022/01/17/texas-rabbi–security-training-paid-off-in-hostage-standoff

As a rector of a congregation, I have attempted to balance the values of our faith with the recognized need to be prepared in the event of a variety of disasters, including malicious attack/active shooter training/drills. The value of being a welcoming community for all people bumps up against the practical need for safety of those gathered and for preparedness. The words of advice that Jesus gives to his disciples often runs through my thoughts, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” {Matthew 10:16).

Among products available through Church Publishing are sets of Weapon-Free Zone stickers: https://dev.churchpublishing.org/products/w/weapon-free-zone-episcopal-church-sticker

The publishing company also has available an important resource for proclaiming the Gospel of peace in the face of the epidemic of gun violence: https://www.churchpublishing.org/reclaimingthegospelofpeace

Leaders who are tasked with preparedness plans cannot be silent about the culture of violence that we currently inhabit in the United States. Escalating gun violence and the reality of mass shootings, the uptick in white supremacy group activities, domestic violence in the home, and suicide by gun – all of these topics require our attention. Our response as faith communities must include actions that both protect our faith communities and engage in social justice actions that make a difference. Whatever form of active shooter training or drills we create must additionally not traumatize those who participate in them but rather educate, listen to, and empower our members and leadership.

The organization of Bishops Against Gun Violence is a network of nearly 100 Episcopal Church bishops, urges our cities, states and nation to adopt policies and pass legislation that will reduce the number of people in the United States killed and wounded by gunfire. Their website includes educational and liturgical resources for use in congregations to help provide opportunities for discussion and planning, for lament and for action. https://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/about-us/

Additionally, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship is a network dedicated to non-violence and meaningful action to create peace, even with those with whom we may disagree. The organization has several action groups with which to become involved, including the Gun Violence Prevention action group. There are multiple resources available through their webpage and the opportunity to join in membership. Their site includes education materials, liturgies, and sermons, as well as peace building online: https://epfnational.org/

As my congregation launches our Safety Team and develops drills for various potential disasters, we will need to evaluate everything from our current church insurance coverage to what local professional agencies should be a part of our training and planning processes. At every step, we will need to provide intentional consultation and listening sessions with our members – bearing in mind that we have educators and students, gun owners, military personnel and security professionals among our own ranks.

The reign of God, as Jesus presents it, is a journey away from living within an empire built on violence towards a community of peace. The ends may not always justify the means in the face of a messiah who practiced and taught non-violence and who was crucified by violence, whose apostles suffered terrible deaths, and whose followers were martyred in Roman arenas until Constantine I enrobed the faith in the trappings of empire – establishing core beliefs that would later justify the Crusades and the Doctrine of Discovery.

Perhaps, then, our first step as Christians is to examine the tenets of culture that inform the violence in our faith tradition, tenets alive and well in today’s Christian Nationalism and in the ways we continue to grapple with diversity (racism, sexism, LGBTQIA discrimination) in the church today. Decolonizing our faith probably needs to be included in whatever safety plans we develop to protect our communities from the harm we ourselves may be perpetuating and justifying in society and in the world.

As the Gospel of Luke (6:41-46) reminds us,

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

May God preserve us, instruct us, and inspire us all as we strive to become people who live in peace with God and with one another.

In Christ’s Peace,

Rachel+