An old joke often told by clergy:
Of course I believe it’s possible for folks to change; I have no choice. (I said it was old; I didn’t say it was good.)
Most, though not all, religious traditions hold that it is possible—yea necessary—for human beings to change. In religious as well as philosophical circles the possibility of change is grounded in something called the doctrine of free will.
This notion though has come in for a rough time of late, as more and more scientific evidence builds up to suggest that decision making is, to a very great degree, an activity undertaken in the unconscious brain, for which our conscious brain then creates ex post facto rationalizations. (A very good book on this topic is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational; for a related discussion see the book I mentioned last week, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.)
One reason it is so hard to change our thinking is that we don’t come to our ideas rationally in the first place. Once an idea forms in the mind we are, more or less, stuck with it. That’s also why it’s so difficult to change activities to which we have grown accustomed, especially if they give us pleasure, are activities at which we excel, and bring us not only self-satisfaction but peer group status. So is it possible to change?
I was eight years old when I first learned to shoot. The day camp I attended had a shooting range set up right near the woodworking hut, and so I spent a good deal of time either shooting 22’s or whittling tikis to the sound of other kids shooting.
And I was a very good shot. I remember the satisfaction when the counselor would pull the paper target in on the wire pulley and you could see up close just how many bulls-eyes, and close-to-bulls-eyes you’d made. It felt good. There was no way you could have told me I wouldn’t always love shooting.
Later at another camp, with BB guns, I continued to excel. I won awards. I was proud of my National Rifle Association certificates; was very happy when I got my Marksman First Class bar (which, if you’re not familiar, was hung between the Marksman bar and the medal itself; a work of art!). Had someone gotten preachy with me about shooting I know I would have turned a deaf ear.
In time my feelings grew ambivalent. Then a friend of mine from summer camp was shot to death in LA and the joy of shooting left me. My brother was accosted with a gun, and moved to another city only to survive a sniper attack on his building there. My feelings about guns darkened. Then I became a rabbi and within a few years a congregant’s beloved mother was gunned down, one of a number of victims in a gruesome mass murder in Binghampton, NY. I strained to find words of solace for the family. And then 20 children and their teachers were massacred in Newtown; multiple wounds to each of the bodies, the body of the youngest riddled with eleven bullets. I felt nauseous; and ashamed that over all of these years I had not done more.
So do I believe change is possible? Yes, I do. But God help us if it takes this much heartache; and God help us if we don’t do something positive now with all of the heartache we’re all feeling.
Again, I want to emphasize that my purpose here is not to demonize—let alone disrespect—law-abiding gun owners. I hope that’s come across. Good people can disagree on many things. But we’re also finding that we agree on much more than we might have previously thought.
Consider: A Quinnipiac University survey released last week reports that 92% of respondents support expanding background checks to all gun sales. And in households with guns? The level of support is virtually the same… 91%.
Pro-Gun Control and Pro-Choice
The topic I’m blogging about is gun control. But the question has arisen, can one be both pro-gun control and also pro-choice? Most Americans would say yes. Nationwide, support for Roe v. Wade is at an all-time high. 70% of Americans now believe Roe v. Wade should stand. And at the same time the majority of Americans also support expanding gun control.
Folks representing many different faiths have come to their pro-choice positions grounded in their respective religious traditions. If you’re interested in learning about pro-choice from those perspectives I recommend you to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Member organizations include: the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist; as well as Judaism’s Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements; as well as caucuses and organizations such as: Catholics for Choice, Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Lutheran Women’s Caucus, Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO), and the YWCA. Click on the RCRC’s Perspectives link to read the perspectives.
Why such widespread support?
One reason perhaps that so many Americans support both the Second Amendment and Roe v. Wade is that neither confers an unlimited right. President Clinton twice vetoed measures passed by Congress, in 1995 and 1997, because they did not “allow women to protect themselves from serious threats to their health.” Many of us supported him, and indeed in 2000 the Supreme Court, in Stenberg v. Carhart, struck down a Nebraska law which had been written using similarly “nebulous language” and deemed insufficiently protective of the mother. A more narrowly re-written version of the bill was signed into law in 2003, and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart, 2007 (although criticized by the Court’s minority for its lack of health exception).
Just as Roe v. Wade does not claim an unlimited right, neither does the Second Amendment under District of Columbia v. Heller. As Justice Scalia wrote:
“Like most rights the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…. [N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Please view (and forward to your friends) this new and moving ad for gun control by Gabby Giffords.
Please contact the White House to express your support for new gun control measures. Here’s the link:
Please read my previous posts on gun control: Repairing the World: The Truth About Ending Gun Violence Now (December 20); There is No God: Continuing Thoughts on Gun Control (December 27); Sabbath to Stop Gun Violence (January 3); Christina’s Letter: More Thoughts on Gun Violence (January 10); Bad News/Good News (January 24); Interfaith Call-In Event to Prevent Gun Violence (February 1); and The Challenge of Reasoned Debate: Addressing the Issue of Gun Violence in America (February 7).
Your comments are welcome.
Rabbi Mark Sameth is the spiritual leader of Joyful Judaism: Pleasantville Community Synagogue an inclusive, progressive synagogue – with members from twenty towns, villages and cities all across Westchester and “A Hebrew School Your Kids Can Love.” Read The New York Timesarticle. Follow Rabbi Mark on Twitter . Weekly meditation at the synagogue every Saturday morning at 9 am is open to the public; everyone – without exception - is welcome and warmly invited. OUR MEMBERSHIP DRIVE IS ON. See “Top Ten Reasons to Join PCS” - as well as service times and events - at www.ShalomPCS.com.