Worship was a little unusual at First Church last Sunday. In addition to musicians and ushers and liturgists we were joined by three TV cameras, a reporter from the local newspaper and a news photographer. In our worship we lit candles and tolled bells as we read the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary victims. My voice choked as I read the ages of each child who’d been killed. After a sermon in which I expressed sadness and frustration and anger about the Newtown shootings of 27 innocent people, I offered our congregation the opportunity to sign letters to the president and our congressional delegation, asking for gun control legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in America.
The response of the congregation was unanimously positive after the services, but then two things happened that gave me pause. First, I made the mistake of reading the nearly 300 online comments that followed the newspaper article. Angry gun owners were sarcastically critical of any attempts at gun control legislation and furious that anyone — especially a “PC liberal pastor who doesn’t believe in real Christianity” — would question any limits on their ability to own any firearm. The comments reminded me of the enormous obstacles that face anyone who dares to ask for meaningful change in our gun laws.
But second, I heard from a member of our church a few days later who shared this revealing comment: “I thought we’d just pray for the victims and I was uncomfortable with a call to action at church.” In one sentence the comment summarizes our theological and spiritual and social and political challenge around the issue of gun violence.
The church is good at weeping and praying. We’re terrible at taking action to solve this problem that is killing us. And we’re not the only group who’s bad at this. It’s our whole society.
Faced with regular and horrific mass shootings in his presidency, some have taken to calling President Obama our “mourner-in-chief.” Even as he’s earned this sad and unfortunate title, others have noted that all the President’s mourning has not resulted in any meaningful initiative toward reducing gun violence.There’s mourning and lamentation and tears, but little action.
Over the last years, as mass shootings have become more commonplace, our societal grief has taken a troubling turn toward hopelessness. We tune in briefly to the identical scenes of ambulances and draped bodies and heartbroken loved ones and grim-faced police chiefs. Then we change the channel. In a few moments we’re back to our normal lives.
Out of fear, some people seem to veer off into an armed-fortress mentality. Gun sales skyrocket as people arms themselves, opting for self-defense rather than societal change. Then the threat actually grows. More guns equal more gun deaths. It’s a proven formula. This is why America — which has 5 percent of the world’s population and 50 percent of its guns — leads the developed world in gun deaths per capita. The guns we purchase for self-defense are the same guns that are used for suicides, crimes of passion, and accidental gun fatalities.
The majority response, though, is a chilling, stone-cold silence. We’re sad. We shed a tear. We’re nervous. And we do nothing. Again and again and again we do nothing.
As we stand on the brink once more of doing nothing, these words of Zechariah call out:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-29 NRSV)
It’s time to call out our peacemakers and our activists and our poets and our dreamers. It’s time to move our society into the way of peace. It’s time to get on the phone or on the Internet or in the streets and to turn our tears into action.
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