(RNS) — So, here I am, sitting in a public meeting with an elected official.
The topic: guns.
There are police chiefs, mayors of Florida cities, teachers union representatives, mental health professionals, a few other clergy members — and a guy sitting next to me who looks like Clint Eastwood.
We all have those tent name cards — with mine proclaiming my name and my title.
His place card proclaims his name and title — “sportsman.”
So, I ask him: “What do you do?”
“I’m a businessman — and a lifelong member of the NRA.”
Because, here’s the deal: I think that the National Rifle Association is, to say the least, one scary organization. And if I didn’t believe that, then their now infamous ad would convince me.
I mean — seriously, folks.
How many times have you seen “The Wizard of Oz?” That part where the Wicked Witch of the West turns over the hourglass? Wasn’t that meant as a threat to the life of poor Dorothy?
Is there any other way to interpret the overturned hourglass in the NRA ad?
Like I said, this is one scary organization.
So, that’s what is filling my brain and my stomach when this gentleman reveals his passion to me.
Except, during the news conference that follows, this gentleman takes the microphone.
He introduces himself as, yes, a sportsman.
And as a man who has a second home in Montana. And as a man who owns multiple firearms.
And as a man who likes to hunt.
Then, he goes ballistic (sorry) on …
“They are a bunch of liars!” he yells. “The NRA gets money from the gun companies! That is what keeps them afloat. That money goes directly to politicians! I have criticized Wayne LaPierre (executive vice president of the NRA) to his face!”
He then goes on to explain the different kinds of guns that are available, and the nuances in assault weapons, semi-automatic weapons, and the like.
Even though I have declared myself allergic to this kind of “mansplaining” about guns, this was different.
Because he wasn’t defending the use of those guns.
He wanted us to know what we are up against.
I went over to him, and I shook his hand.
“Would you come speak at services at my congregation?” I asked him.
“Like, when? On a Sunday morning? I’m not in town that much on weekends.”
As the sages of the Talmud said: “Mai nafka mina?” What do we learn from this?
First: “Do not judge your neighbor, until you have come to his place.”
Which can only mean: Yes, he’s a member of the NRA. And he told me the vast majority of NRA members are actually in favor of more extensive background checks.
Of course, I had not known that.
As much as I revile the NRA and its stranglehold on too many politicians, and its worship of the Second Amendment over every other amendment, I relearned a lesson that I learned a long time ago: You never know what the members of an organization believe, simply because you know what the organization stands for.
When we demonize our opponents; when we think that we know our opponents — we cannot speak with them, and we cannot learn from them.
Look — don’t we know that, for example, about the Palestinians?
Isn’t that why some Jews are eager to speak to Palestinian leaders, and to open up dialogue?
To learn their “narrative” (one of the most overused clichés of our time)?
Um — don’t members of the NRA have a “narrative” as well?
Can we hear it? Not that we must agree with it. Can we at least hear their narrative?
Second: Let’s get out of our bubbles.
We have so devolved into a collection of tribes — ethnic, religious, class, and moral — that we have lost any kind of common language.
The NRA gentleman taught me: Don’t assume that you know what people think, or believe — simply based on their tribe.
By the way: that gentleman was so locked in his own social/religious tribe, that he didn’t know that we Jews observe Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) on Saturday, not Sunday.
The late, lamented Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, wrote:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
I live according to the axiom: “Your mind should never be so open that everything falls out.”
I am not open to every opinion, every pseudo-truth, every way of seeing the world.
But, I might meet people who will help me see the world differently.
Third: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.”
That gentleman with the gun hobby — he had something to teach me.
And perhaps all of us.
Because if we are going to defeat the scourge of guns — we will need him, and his like-minded friends, to be our allies.
For only they can speak truth to power — the power that is, tragically, the National Rifle Association.