The NRA is Fighting a War It Will Lose

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Walking down the long, broad hallways of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center today, where the NRA Convention is being held, I felt extremely out of place.

For one, I was wearing my clergy collar, which is unusual for me. I don’t normally wear it in my daily work.

Often, I get mistaken for a “priest” or “father” while wearing my collar, and this crowd was decidedly not Catholic, and likely not Episcopalian either. I can only imagine what they thought I was doing there.

And, of course, I don’t connect with these people politically. I find some of their positions downright dangerous and wacky. So it felt strange to be wandering among them, listening in to their conversations and showing interest at their booths. 

However, there is an even deeper dissonance, which finally dawned on me while I was sitting through the long speeches of Vice President Pence and President Trump, and the NRA’s own Chris Cox and Wayne LaPierre.

The NRA is successfully and unashamedly waging a culture war.

This war is the same one that was fought between “true patriots” and “dirty Irish Catholics,” Negroes, Jews, “Chinamen,” Japanese-Americans, anarchists, Communists, “illegal immigrants,” and Muslims. The war is always portrayed as a fight between good, Protestant Christian, freedom-loving Americans and those who aren’t. 

Pence plays along magnificently by talking openly about his evangelical Christian faith. When I say “evangelical Christian,” I mean that it is quite implicitly anti-Catholic (except when it comes to abortion), anti-mainline denomination, and anti-any-other-religion. In fact, not one speaker referenced the existence of any other religion.

LaPierre plainly addressed the membership of the NRA as inhabitants of the country’s “heartland,” people who are decent, hard-working, honest, “law-abiding citizens.” And he contrasted these patriots with their enemies, and there are many enemies: the mainstream media elites, the political class, university professors, and the cities of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and Hollywood. These are broad-brushed stereotypes, but they are resonate deeply with the people who make up the bulk of NRA membership.

The crowd booed and hissed at any and every mention of these “enemies.” But I could understand why. Because most of them can’t possibly relate to what it’s like to live in a big, urban, multicultural city, and most have likely never met a Muslim, much less a Sikh, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, or Buddhist. These are folks who have had much of their impressions of life elsewhere framed by television or Facebook. And yes, these are the people who get their news from Fox. 

Not once did I hear the words “tolerance” or “diversity” mentioned. That’s because these are dirty words in the culture wars. There is right and wrong, law and order, borders and boundaries. They must be respected, no matter who you are and where you’re from. You shouldn’t “tolerate” what is wrong, and nobody needs “diversity” when it’s so crystal clear what is best and right.

Seen from that simple perspective, NRA members make sense. America is for Americans first — naturally. The only threat to good Americans are bad folks with guns, and the only way to stop them is with your own guns. 

But the world is so much more complex than that. This planet is full of diversity, beautiful in its variety, but also confusing in its chaos. There are real problems that we have to solve together, and we cannot simply retreat into a “what’s-best-for-us” mentality.

NRA members represent a certain way of life, which they understandably want to preserve. However, times have changed — and are changing.

The crowd was largely, overwhelmingly, impossibly white. And it is aging.

I looked around the room and thought, “This isn’t what America looks like.” It never has, but it certainly won’t be in a few years when minorities will outnumber whites. There were no refugees present, no DACA young people, no Indians or Pakistanis. The people who are changing the future of America with their genius, their courage, their gun-transcending solutions, were not represented. 

The NRA can’t win this culture war because culture is a slippery matter, and can’t be contained by wishful thinking. Eventually, Americans will decide that the NRA is a vestige of white supremacy and will settle on more rational, common-sense gun policies.

Until then, there may be many more victims of this war.

 

The True Meaning of Trump's Favorite Song

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Earlier today, President Trump appeared at the CPAC. He gave a long, winding speech, full of his “greatest hits,” including a recap of his 2016 election win, the promise to build a wall, chants of “Lock her up!”, and surprisingly, another reading of “The Snake.”

Reading the lyrics of the old soul classic by Al Wilson had been a staple on Trump’s campaign. He implored the crowds to hear it as a warning about immigration, which he did again this morning at CPAC.

The song is straightforward. It tells the story of a “tender hearted woman” who finds a “poor half frozen snake,” and moved by compassion, takes the snake home, where she warms and feeds the creature. After the snake recovers, he takes a vicious bite out of the woman. As she screams, “I saved you, and now you’ve bitten me, but why?”

The snake hisses, “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

The moral of the story is straightforward — some people simply can’t be trusted, or once a snake, always a snake.

As Trump uses the story, however, there is a sinister twist. He means to say that you can’t trust the people you let into a country, whether migrants, asylees, Muslims, or refugees. In fact, the song seems to say, these kinds of people are quite dangerous. Welcoming the stranger is a mortal threat to the safety of a country.

I could write volumes about why this view of immigration is cynical, misinformed, and downright evil.

Instead, I would like to suggest that “The Snake,” unbeknownst to Trump, is actually the story of the gospel. It’s not a preposterous concept — the woman and the snake immediately conjure the well-known tale of the Garden of Eden. In that story, the serpent tempts Eve into disobeying God’s command, which unleashes sin and death upon humanity. At the end of the tale, God says to the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This has traditionally been read by Christians as an early prophecy of Christ; he will “strike the head” of Satan and reverse the curse, bringing an end to the sin and death.

We Christians believe that this is precisely what Jesus did. But how? What did Jesus do to bring this result about?

Well, he did something strikingly similar to what the woman in the song did. He loved the snake!

In story after story in the gospels, we see Jesus giving love, compassion, and healing to criminals, sinners, and illegals. He loved his enemies. He spoke truth and justice in the streets and in the marketplace. And when evil came for him, like the suddenly-revived snake, he gave himself up for the vicious bite!

He didn’t fight the snake; he didn’t regret taking the snake in. Instead, it is through receiving the bite itself, that Jesus won victory. That’s what Christians claim every time we say that Jesus was crucified and resurrected for our sins. We are making the paradoxical assertion that Jesus defeated evil and death by dying.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know. But that’s the beautiful mystery of the Jesus story. Love is stronger than evil, stronger even than death.

The conclusion to be drawn from this awareness is that we must be unafraid to take in snakes. We must engage in the radical trust of agape love. We must not “return evil for evil,” as Saint Paul put it (Romans 12:17). We must not draw the sword, for “he who takes the sword dies by the sword,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 26:52).

The only way to true life, abundant and free, is to risk warming, feeding, and caring for the stranger, for the immigrant, and yes, indeed, even for the enemy.

I don't think that's exactly the message Trump was going for ...