Recently, there was an incident at a movie theatre in Florida, in which a man was shot and killed during the previews that were being shown before the feature started. The man, at the movies with his wife, was apparently texting his young daughter when another man in the theatre (a retired police officer) apparently asked him to put away his phone. It seems that words were exchanged, and the retired police officer pulled a gun and shot the man. In a theatre. During movie previews. Over text messaging.
When the issue of gun control is raised, I have often heard it argued by those opposed to gun regulation that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” And that is surely true. The problem is that when guns are readily available, and people allowed to carry them in public places, it is far more likely that incidents like this will occur. And that is because so many of the people who carry these weapons (indeed, so many people in general, armed or not) are not well equipped to handle their own anger, and they react (as the retired police officer in the Florida theatre must have) based on that ill-controlled anger. In this case, as in many others, a moment of anger has resulted in a lifetime of pain for family members of the victim and his shooter. If the man carrying that gun had not been able to carry it, then perhaps that moment of anger would have led to a punch thrown — but everyone involved probably would have survived.
Of course, there’s also another possibility: that the man carrying the gun might have learned to deal with his anger more constructively, and that might have allowed him to choose a path that did not involved pulling his gun. One way of learning to deal with anger in more positive ways is to adopt a consistent spiritual practice involving some kind of contemplative prayer or meditation. Such a practice, if engaged consistently over time, helps to create space between ourselves and our emotions. And in that space is freedom: the freedom to choose a response rather than to instantly react to what we are feeling.
Jesus, I think, understood this well. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus say,
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.
On the surface of it, it seems odd that Jesus would speak so strongly about an emotion. After all, we can’t necessarily help feeling angry. But I don’t think Jesus was really saying that experiencing the emotion is in itself a bad thing. Rather, it is a question of what we do with that emotion. And I think Jesus understood well that when anger arises, if we don’t deal with it in a constructive way, then we are easily led into actions that make us liable to judgment. And, where the last part of this verse is concerned, I think that Jesus understood that when we allow anger to hold onto us, we place ourselves in a kind of fiery hell. We have probably all known someone who seemed as consumed by his or her own anger as a log is consumed in a fire.
So it is, then, that elsewhere, Jesus asks us to show kindness to our enemies — to the people who make us angry. Not just for the sake of the one with whom we are angry, but for our own sakes, as a way of channeling our own angry energy into something that affirms life rather than denies it. And in his own life, we see Jesus regularly placing distance between himself and others, going off alone to pray, a practice that allows that space between anger and response to be created.
We seem to live in a time when a lot of anger and anxiety is out there, sparked by economic challenges, environmental challenges, social challenges. One of the gifts that the world’s spiritual traditions can give to people in an anxious, stressful time is the gift of practices that allow us to create interior spaces that can diffuse that emotional energy, and allow us to choose responses that affirm the life and personhood of ourselves and others, responses that allow us to be in “right relationship” with ourselves, others, and all of creation. We need to arm people with these practices, rather than with guns.