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Banding together to combat gun violence

The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith and the Rt. Rev. William "Chip" Stokes

This piece was published as an op-ed in the Star-Ledger on December 12, 2015.

This weekend marks the third anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It is the second anniversary of the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, organized by Faiths United Against Gun Violence, which invites religious communities across the country to engage in prayer, advocacy and witness against the epidemic of gun violence, which claims 30,000 lives a year in America.

Religious leaders in Jersey City have staged public vigils in the wake of gun deaths – and they have publicly challenged the police department to meet with them to discuss the spate of gun deaths in that city (23 so far in 2015). "We have had enough" has become a rallying cry from the streets. Rallies have been held in Trenton. At Trinity and St. Philip's Cathedral, located at Military Park in Newark, nearly 200 t-shirts will be displayed on the fence surrounding the building, each one bearing the name, birth date and death date of someone in Essex County whose life has been cut short by gun violence. This "Memorial to the Lost," which will be carried out in other religious communities across the state, is a national movement – and it visually and silently bears witness to the tragedy of gun violence.

All these and other activities expose an unholy trinity of poverty, racism and gun violence. Poverty is a manifestation of economic violence; racism is a mindset of enshrining the rights and privileges of one ethnic group over another, which engages psychological or spiritual violence at least, or gun violence at worst. And gun violence is often either a destructive and tragically violent rebellion to the scourge of poverty and racism, or a hateful exercise in reinforcing it.

Too often we have all seen how gun violence tears apart the fabric of a community. Gun violence is the ultimate act of human separation: if gun violence doesn't literally separate life from death, gun violence separates people into silos of fear.

There is an urgency for religious communities to step into this vortex of violence and fear. As gun violence creates separation, by definition religion has the capacity to bring people into community. The Latin root of the word religion – religio – means to bind together. The very purpose of religion is to create and support community.

There is a lot of work to do – on many different levels. More and more people are working to overturn Gov. Chris Christie's veto of S2360, which would provide police departments the discretion to deny a gun permit to someone with a demonstrated history of mental illness. There is a growing movement to reframe the gun violence epidemic from a debate about Constitutional rights to an issue of public health.

"Do Not Stand Idly By" (Leviticus 19:16) is a community organizing campaign involving hundreds of religious communities across the country, which is challenging gun manufacturers to produce weapons with less magazine capacity and more "smart gun" technology; and at the same time is pressuring gun sellers to refrain from selling to "straw buyers" (people who purchase guns for someone who has not been able to pass a criminal background check). And more and more people are advocating for appropriate background checks – which polls indicate an overwhelming majority of Americans support, including a majority of gun owners.

The challenge can seem overwhelming because, as we know, the forces of resistance are organized and well-funded. And as we hear and read, there seems to be no end to the state and federal leaders who pander to fear for their own political gain.

As we consider the daunting task ahead of advocacy, reflection and public witness, we invite people to draw on a definition of hope, offered by Jim Wallis, Christian author and witness for social justice: "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change."

The commitment to reduce gun violence is growing. The partnerships are developing. And as the witness gains momentum, we are seeing the evidence change.

Mark Beckwith is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, covering northern New Jersey. William Stokes is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, covering central and southern New Jersey. They are members of Bishops United Against Gun Violence.