taking the words of Jesus seriously

Rev. Michael McBride, known simply as “, ” is the Director of Urban Strategies and Lifelines to Healing Campaign for the PICO National Network. The Lifelines to Healing Campaign is a national effort committed to addressing gun violence and mass incarceration of young people of color. Pastor Mike is deeply committed to empowering urban communities, families, and youth using the principles of a relevant and liberating Gospel message that transforms lives.



Lifelines’ ultimate goal is to achieve policy reform around guns and incarceration: fewer guns and less incarceration. Some would argue that more guns and more jail time is the answer to reducing violence. How is it that Christians—who share the same faith and the same Bible—can have such startling different views on guns and incarceration?


Well, let me say that our ultimate goal is to use Proclamation, Policies and Programs to create communities where people can live free from the fear of gun violence, mass incarceration and lack of opportunity. We believe the church has a unique role to play in this call, which makes your question so profound and challenging.


It should be no surprise that Christians who share the same faith and Bible have different perspectives on these matters. There has not been a monolithic expression of faith and belief in the history of the church on many matters of ultimate concern like doctrine, practices nor worship. Our Christian tradition seems to support the observation that experience and social location have just as much to do with our biblical interpretation and practice as the written text. Adding to this complexity is the recognition that we all drink from the same postmodern wells of radical individuality that deeply skew our ability to see one another rightly, as created in the image of God.


It is precisely this reality that makes Christian discipleship such an important contemporary enterprise. Because even in the face of such difference, how we read the text and how we practice our faith—dare I say how we follow Jesus—requires community and proximity. Discipleship must be a deeply relational and communal practice, which forces us to not simply double down on our views and beliefs that have often been packaged and handed down to us by political parties, human-constructed documents or even individual experience. What does it mean to do life with one another in such a way that it produces shared empathy and common understanding? This ever-elusive empathetic space is the most troubling reality in my mind for the American Christian, not divergent views on guns and incarceration. And I really believe it’s destroying our public witness in a post-Christian culture.


Do you see a way that our factious law-making bodies can actually reach an agreement on how to address the problems facing urban youth today? Where can opposing viewpoints find a common ground that might lead to impactful solutions?
We must never forget that our law-making bodies are a reflection of the people they represent. So in some sense, unlocking the awareness and power of people to powerfully influence these bodies is really what our campaign is all about. The hyper-politicized and partisan perspectives that frame issues like guns (gun rights vs. gun control) or incarceration (soft on crime vs. hard on crime) rob us all of our humanity and soul. Because we are not talking about human beings in those frames, we are talking in political terms that are not meant to unify, but rather to divide. This again is where I see an opportunity for the church to lead on finding common ground.


We are an institution with power and the potential to be a champion for the poor. We are a called out people who should heed the words of Jesus when he tells the disciples to “allow the children to come to me.” What would it look like if we had open arms to receive our distressed youth and their families in the very same ways Jesus did? Urban youth are our youth. Suburban youth are our youth. Rural youth are our youth. They belong to us all. They don’t just belong to urban families, suburban neighborhoods, or rural churches. They are not the responsibility of just Democrats or Republicans, Libertarians or Independents. They are children…young babies…sons and daughters…and they belong to THE CHURCH! We have a responsibility to fight for their well being, regardless of where they live or who their parents are. This common ground should force us to ask different questions about our shared responsibility in solving problems for the many vulnerable and hurting youth in America, whether urban, suburban or rural.


One of my mentors and colleagues, Jeff Brown, says it best: the children caught in cycles of violence and incarceration are the children and grandchildren of the young people we kicked out of our churches in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We have a task to recover, repair and restore these broken relationships. Through this process of recovery, I believe we build consensus and power that serves as a counterbalance to the intractability of law-making bodies. By collecting stories of triumph, pain, struggle, resilience and healing, we defeat the lie that perpetuates a dehumanizing and simplistic view of one another that can be used as a tool for our destruction rather than our construction.


Given the high level and persistent nature of violence in some urban areas, it seems almost unbelievable that changes in Washington could translate to changes on the street, at least in our lifetimes. How do you see policy impacting what has become a way of life for so many, and in what time frame?

I can see how some would believe that, but policies are moral documents that make concrete our words, values and aspirations. Rhetoric and narratives fade away long before policy does. We cannot surrender policy to a small number of elite, uber wealthy individuals who are overrun by lobbyists, corporate interests and blood money. Policies structure resources and power that need to be brought to bear on behalf of the poor. So, we must embrace policy as a tool for justice.


In our lifetime, if there was a policy framework that incentivized restorative justice and rehabilitation, rather than punitiveness and incarceration, we would have profoundly better public safety and social services for poor and impacted communities. We’re gonna’ pay for it either way, on the front end or the back end. So let’s push for the investments on the front end.

Since the cost of gun violence is between $2M-$5M per homicide, can we imagine structuring a formula that allows us to incentivize the reduction of homicides by investing in people and not prisons? Can we end the failed drug war that criminalized a whole group of individuals and use the savings to reinvest in those same communities most in need? Ted Heinrich, a US Attorney from the Department of Justice, explains that with $500M committed over 5 years to the top 25 most violent cities to fully implement strategies like Ceasefire and other targeted group violence strategies, we can cut the number of homicides by as much as 60%, save money that can then be invested in neighborhood services, jobs and education, and, most importantly, keep folks alive. This is a worthwhile policy remedy and the church should be at the front of the line amplifying such strategies and investments.


Lifelines has a large focus on providing opportunities to urban youth. What is the correlation between lack of opportunity and increased levels of violence?


I think it goes without saying that where there is a lack of hope and opportunity, there is a cesspool of misery and trauma. Providing opportunities for young people and their families to achieve their highest calling is a critical solution. As a country we must take seriously the legacy and continued reality of structural oppression that is largely racialized. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahisi Coates has recently written a powerful and thought-provoking essay entitled In the essay, Coates attempts to make the argument that it is indeed policy structures that systematically block black people from opportunity, thus making the call for reparations not just a remedy for our past sins of slavery, but our continued complicity in reinforcing its destructive and damaging effects.


I encourage every one to read this essay and come to your own conclusion, but I believe the historical reflections laid out by Coates reinforces the correlation between the lack of opportunity and presence of violence. Father Greg Boyle, a priest in Los Angeles who started Homeboy Industries, coined the phrase, “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” William Julius Wilson writes a powerful and exhaustive book called When Work Disappears that further makes the argument about the correlation between lack of opportunity and levels of violence. I commission these sources to the readers to gather more information that can demonstrate these truths. We must resist the implicit biases and unconscious racial anxieties fed to us that would have us believe that criminality and violence is equated with what it means to be poor and a person of color. The most definitive indicator of violence is lack of opportunity. We can and should change that.  


Gun violence does not impact all communities equally. Do you think Newtown awoke more affluent Americans to the issue and has lead to a greater belief that guns are a collective societal problem?


I would like to push back against this premise just a little bit. Certainly there is a daily reality of gun-related homicides in our country largely concentrated in poor neighborhoods where people of color are often confined to live. And yet if you look at the data, you see that gun related suicides is the highest gun-related death category in the country, with the largest number of casualties being white males between the ages of 18-35. Domestic violence incidents are also a significant category pertaining to gun-related homicides.


This means gun violence is an issue that impacts us all and requires a unified response. Certainly, no one can deny the impact of Newtown on people’s consciousness related to gun violence. And yet, we see this was not sufficient to move enough people to make sure Congress enacted common sense policies that over 90% of Americans agree with. This leads me to believe that there is something more than awareness that needs to be raised. I am convinced that Christians need a conversion to the peaceful ways of Jesus, that calls into question the need for us to feel like guns are a solution for solving problems or engaging in pleasure and sport.


Given the overwhelming evidence in other countries where gun-related deaths, whether by suicide, homicide, or accidents are so low, what does it mean for Christians to lead the charge in ushering in a new era where we all can Live Free from gun violence. I say it often: “how can people who follow the Prince of Peace be so obsessed about owning a piece?” I know it’s a constitutional right, yet there are ways to get to common sense gun laws that do not infringe these constitutional rights. How do we as Christians challenge one another to not be driven by the fear-based, marketing ploys of NRA executives and gun manufacturers in other countries who sell Americans guns they would not even allow to be sold in their own country? It’s an opportunity to be on the right side of history. I pray we will be faithful to the call to be peacemakers.


Obviously there were no guns in the Bible. What analogy can you draw between then and now to demonstrate a “what would Jesus do?” solution to the issue of gun violence and mass incarceration?


Well, a couple of examples jump to mind that can be instructive and helpful. Pertaining to gun violence, I recall the incident when Jesus was being taken into custody by the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter attempts to defend him with violence. Jesus told him to put his sword away, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword.


We see that our country is awash in guns, thus making us a prime candidate for one who seems to live by the sword. And the numbers are bearing out that we are indeed dying by this sword. I believe the solution lies in the ability of Jesus followers to really become disciples of the non-violent ways of Jesus. To challenge ourselves to disciple and be discipled in such a way that our trust lies in the power of God to take good care of us. This does not mean violence will not visit our life. At the same time, I find that our best efforts to arm ourselves for purposes of protection are resulting in more deaths of those closest to us we love and hold dear. I think we must become less afraid of loss, so we can gain that which continues to allude us: peace!


Now I speak to you as someone who lives in what is called “The Kill Zone” of Oakland, CA; someone who has had to bury many teenagers; someone who has experienced a home invasion while family members have been present. And even in all of this, God has been there to carry me and my loved ones through every moment of loss, violation and worry. These situations have forced me to be reminded of the fallen world we live in and ask God for more mercy, justice and compassion. And thankfully, while experiencing these situations, we did no physical harm. Could it be that our greatest solution to the issue of gun violence lay in the follower of Jesus to respond in our present context with the same response Jesus did to Peter? Put your sword away!


Regarding mass incarceration, Jesus tells a parable about the prodigal son who left his father’s home in pursuit of rebellious and riotous living. After hitting rock bottom, the prodigal son humbly returns to his father’s house in search of restoration. Despite the prodigal son’s insistence on returning as a lowly servant, the father welcomes him with open arms and restores him to a place of honor and dignity within the family. The brother of the prodigal son, who never left the father’s home and always lived according to his father’s rules, expresses his displeasure and bitterness at how compassionately his brother is received. As we consider how and when to allow hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals in our country to return back home to our communities, we must ask ourselves whether we want to resemble the son or the father in this parable. Will we stand with open arms, opportunity, restoration and joy? Or will we be driven by fear, resentment, unforgiveness and rejection?


To follow Jesus and his red letter admonitions is impossible without continual reflection, humility, prayer and endowment by the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray we will move with great care to not just be hearers of his words, but also doers.

About The Author


Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer, editor, and semi-retired attorney currently working on her Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Religion Newswriters Association, as well as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Jamie is currently working on her first full-length book, The Telling Ground.

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