It started everywhere: whether in a hymn search, or thumbing through pages to find a prayer for peace; why, I wondered, does the prayer “For Peace” in my Book of Common Prayer assume that in the peaceable kingdom any sword will still be needed and raised?
“Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love …” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 815)
Will perfection require us still to carry? Is there truly no world of God’s creation in which peace may be achieved and maintained without the banners of war, without dominion? I refuse to believe it.
Our language, sacred as well as secular, is saturated with the imagery of war, weaponry, and, particularly in common parlance, the gun.
Active shooter. Armed and dangerous. Bite the bullet. Bullet points. Bullet proof. Bullet train. Calling shotgun. Call the shots. Give it both barrels. Hair trigger. In the crosshairs. In the firing line. In our sights. Jump the gun. Keep your powder dry. Locked and loaded. Loaded for bear. Moving target. Pull the trigger. Quick on the draw. Scattershot. Shoot from the hip. Shotgun wedding. Smoking gun. Straight shooter. Take a potshot. Trigger happy.
I had not heard until recently the apparently popular saying, “If my bullet fits your gun, shoot it.” (I learned this morning its counterpart: “but use your own powder”.) I came across the phrase paraphrased in a conversation about preaching, plagiarism, and shared sources. Much more than the debate about “borrowed” sermons, the image of the life-giving gospel being sprayed like deadly and injurious pellets from the pulpit shocked me.
Shock and awe.
For the love of Jesus, I am trying to disarm my language. And not a moment too soon.
At the time of writing, a little more than halfway through the year, more than 24,000 people have died of gun violence, more than 22,000 have been injured, and there have been 374 mass shootings in the United States, my adopted home, in 2021 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This is a preventable crisis, and a public health hazard, and a tragedy.
Language shapes our thoughts and our prayers, and our prayers have the power to shape our lives.
When Jesus’ disciples raised their arms in the Garden of Gethsemane, he rebuked them and healed the one whose ear they had severed, even as that one was helping to arrest him. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” he warned them then (Matthew 26:52).
“Put away your sword” must be more live-giving than “choose your weapon” (see Matthew 26:52).
“Turn the other cheek” is more powerful than “stand your ground” (see Matthew 5:39)
“Blessed are the meek” is still more profound and more revolutionary than “might makes right” (see Matthew 5:5).
Blessed, he also mentioned, are the merciful, and blessed are the peacemakers (see Matthew 5:3-11).
The other day, I was trying to warn (myself and others) of the grief that awaits in unanticipated places and moments as we return to in-person church: the empty pews, the flourishes that are missing from our common life as the one who used to quietly supply them is no longer with us. My mind kept tripping over phrases like “grief bombs” and “landmines”. Only by an intentional effort to find an nonviolent alternative was I able instead to happen upon the framing of reefs of grief that snag us.
As I did so, I realized that the phrase invited more than shunning violence or destructive rage over all that we have lost (although righteous anger surely has its place in this world). More than avoiding traumatizing language, it opened a pathway to the recognition of a need both for tenderness and tender healing. Immersed in this particular language of lament, a slight turn of vision invited me to contemplate the colourful memory-fish that pass by. Seeing them, I was able even in mourning to give thanks.
I continue consciously and actively to try to disarm my prayers, for the peace of my own spirit and heart, and in hope that peace is as contagious, as communicable, as it is restorative.
The Reverend Rosalind C Hughes is an Episcopal priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. Active in gun violence prevention conversations, her most recent book, Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, published earlier this month. She is also a contributor to the RevGalBlogPals book, There’s A Woman in the Pulpit, and blogs at rosalindchughes.com.
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