From the Rev | Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, Son

As a mother to a son, I want to have him read this when he is older. More importantly, I want to teach this to my boy.

Another great email from our Pastor, Wayne Curry.

Dear Friends,


     I was going to avoid this topic today but I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. Maybe if I turned off the television and stopped reading the newspaper I could.   Yet, maybe it’s something I shouldn’t try to get out of my mind.  


     This past Saturday evening, a jury of six women declared George Zimmerman “not guilty” of second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. As those words were spoken, the echo reverberates across our nation in the form of protests, opinions, and debates. In the midst of all this noise, one man’s words have kept reverberating in my head–the words of Johnny Cash.


      Cash released a single called “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” way back in 1958. In it, he sings of a young cowboy named Billy Joe who heads into town for some fun. Before he leaves, his mother begs, “Don’t take your guns to town, son,” but he assures her that he’s

“a man” and that he would never harm anyone. Once in town, the inevitable happens; another cowboy mocks his manhood, and filled with rage, Billy Joe reaches for his gun. But the stranger fires first; and young Billy Joe falls to the ground.


A young cowboy named Billy Joe grew restless on the farm

A boy filled with wonderlust who really meant no harm

He changed his clothes and shined his boots

And combed his dark hair down

And his mother cried as he walked out



Don’t take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home Bill

Don’t take your guns to town


He laughed and kissed his mom

And said your Billy Joe’s a man

I can shoot as quick and straight as anybody can

But I wouldn’t shoot without a cause

I’d gun nobody down

But she cried again as he rode away



Don’t take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home Bill

Don’t take your guns to town


He sang a song as on he rode

His guns hung at his hips

He rode into a cattle town

A smile upon his lips

He stopped and walked into a bar

And laid his money down

But his mother’s words echoed again



Don’t take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home Bill

Don’t take your guns to town


He drank his first strong liquor then to calm his shaking hand

And tried to tell himself he had become a man

A dusty cowpoke at his side began to laugh him down

And he heard again his mothers words



Don’t take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home Bill

Don’t take your guns to town


Filled with rage then

Billy Joe reached for his gun to draw

But the stranger drew his gun and fired

Before he even saw

As Billy Joe fell to the floor

The crowd all gathered ’round

And wondered at his final words



Don’t take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home Bill

Don’t take your guns to town

            Despite the title, Cash isn’t singing about concealed carry laws; he’s singing about the swagger of young manhood. He’s singing about how often young men feel the need to be respected and how quickly that can turn violent. He’s also singing about a mother who knows the danger and pleads with her son to stay away from it.

            I hesitate to write about this case because I am white. And if I offer any other narrative than one of racial inequity, I am immediately suspect. So let me saw this first:

            I believe there is systemic racism in our society. When we subjugated an entire class of people, no amount of constitutional amendments or civil rights movements could be enough to reverse it. Only repentance and forgiveness can. I also believe that African-American men are disproportionately profiled and incarcerated. And when whites point a finger to the breakdown of the black family, we have three fingers pointing back at us because for hundreds of years we tore these same families apart. We tore babies from mothers, wives from husbands, and sons from fathers. And we sold them, telling them that their family was worth little more than a few coins in our pockets.

            But I also believe that what happened on that rainy night involved a lot more than race. And I think to reduce it to race alone threatens to blind us to the actual tragedy-the violence that ultimately resulted in the loss of a human life. Because whatever may have contributed, it is not sufficient to explain the fact that two people actively engaged in a physical confrontation and only one walked away. If we all are made in the image of God, then taking a person’s life is a serious issue in all cases.

      So I cringe when folks hail Zimmerman’s acquittal as a victory for the right of self-defense because self-defense that leads to death is never a victory. But I also cringe when parents of African-American children claim greater ownership of this tragedy. This was not an African-American tragedy; this was a human tragedy. Because as much as you see your son in Trayvon Martin, I want you to know I see my sons in him as well, (even though they are now grown up adults). And what few of us are willing to admit is that we must also see our sons in George Zimmerman.

      A telling thing happened during Zimmerman’s trial. Both prosecution and defense played a 911 call that recorded clear cries of help followed by a gunshot. When played to Sybrina Fulton, she was certain that it was her son Trayvon crying out for help. When played to Gladys Zimmerman, she was certain that it was her son George crying out for help. What neither mother could imagine was that her son might have been the one causing another human being to cry out in fear of his life.

      And friends, until we reach that point, until we are able to recognize the potential for violence in our own hearts, we will get nowhere. Even as we pursue the equality of all people as children of God, we must also recognize the propensity for evil in all people. We must recognize that we–our sons included–are each capable of ending the life of another human being.


      We will never know exactly what happened that night. But we do know this:   Two people met. There was an altercation. Both resorted to force to solve it. One died.  One took a life.


       And when I look at it this way, my heart aches, not because of what could possibly happen to my own sons, but because of what they could possibly do to another person…especially growing up in a culture that equates manhood with mixed martial arts, the ability to carry a gun, and the inability to retreat.


      It seems as if our sons come to us factory set to resolve problems physically. And while I believe that God gives them their physical strength to protect the vulnerable, their selfish tendency is to use it to vent their own emotions–their fear, their anger, their anxiety. Case in point: I was watching two brothers play together recently when the eight-year-old brother lost a game to his younger six-year-old brother. His frustration boiled over and in typical male fashion he promised (and I quote), “I’m going to kick your butt.”


      And it’s moments like this when I am most thankful for fathers who step in to teach their sons what it means to be men…fathers who step in to teach them about the necessity of self-control…fathers who step in to teach them how and when to use their power.  Because if we do not do this–if we do not teach our boys to use their strength to pursue peace–all the racial equality in the world will mean nothing.

            Because racism does not create violence; it only tells us where to direct the violence that is already in our hearts.

            What we must not miss in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict is how quickly we rely on force to solve our problems. And part of that means teaching our boys when to step away from a fight. It means teaching them that there is such a thing as “false valor.”       

           In C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, King Tirian is preparing to head into enemy territory with Jill and Eustace. He warns them not to take unnecessary risks, saying, “If I cry ‘Home,’ then fly for the Tower both of you. And let none try to fight on-not even one strike-after I have given the retreat: such false valor has spoiled many.”

            And so sons-whether you are red or yellow or black or white-learn when to step down. Learn that there is no honor in bravado. There is no honor in violence. There is no honor in proving your manhood. There is only death.

            Please, sons, don’t take your guns to town.

            Let us all pray that we as a nation can find some middle ground, and the talk of peace can truly begin.


You are loved,