Here is the draft of a sermon I am working on for this Sunday for St. Paul’s UCC, Dallastown, PA. The Lections are Psalm 8 and Exodus 20:1-20. The sermon will begin a new nine-month focus on peace in my congregation’s worship life.
I have been so heartbroken over the past few weeks over the news of shooting after shooting. People shot with guns. Death after death. Devastated families. Communities brazen with fear and anger. Reports of funeral after funeral. Embalming fluid and blood. The media selectively reports the details, partially in fear of copycat crimes, partially in fear of being accused of exploiting the facts out of some liberal agenda. I have friends and family who are responsible gun owners, and know a few people who even work in the firearms industry. I also know folks whose lives have been destroyed by gun violence. I have ministered to men in prison whose mistakes and aggressions, usually with a firearm, led them to the situations they now find themselves. I have known too many people who have taken their own lives with a firearm. My own great uncle, John Rodkey, was a nationally known marksman during his life and ran a small gun shop in his retirement. For a short time in Chicago I became friendly with a police officer who introduced me into target shooting, even while I lived in a neighborhood where I would wake up to gun shots fired in the night.
I’m not here to give you my own history with guns but I preface my sermon with these details to say that I’m trying to work out the question of our spiritual sickness of gun violence for myself—and for me it’s not out of some political agenda. I know and have experienced the faces and the stories, the real people, on every side of this issue.
Which is also why I am so sickened by our inability to even talk about the issues surrounding gun violence in our country. One cannot so much as pray a public lament about this problem that we have in our culture without it being politicized. Rational and level-headed discussion are strictly forbidden. We know the lines, and many of them are patently or at least partially false. That access to more guns makes us safer as a nation. That changing laws will change the culture. That mental illness is the root cause of gun violence. That banning guns will make us less violent. That guns don’t kill people. That stricter gun control is an act of aggression by an already oppressive government who wants to enslave us with their guns. That study after study performed by the medical profession, and academics and clergy are part of some big agenda. That a desire to restrict gun access is a slippery slope that will soon lead to the banning of baseball bats, forks, and knives. The debate gets personal, and creates a cultural division between those who are gun owners and those who are not, with the assumption one side wants to take something away from the other.
The debate tinges with sexism, elitism, classism, and racism. Last week while traveling at our church annual conference I had a glimpse of Cable TV news, which I no longer subscribe to at home. No joke: At the very same time one news network was covering a recent school shooting another channel was airing a special on the Nicole Simpson murder. (You remember O.J. Simpson, right?) When we can’t bear the harsh reality of what is going on around us, it would seem that we crawl back into the holes where the race and class divisions reify and hold up our prejudices and worldviews that we think make more sense. The problem is, these safety zones aren’t really safe, and when they are, they’re only safe for some.
But yet, to go even further, at the root of the debate, the chatter, the endless noise of discussion are dead bodies. Bodies of people loved by other people. Of law enforcement agents. Of innocent bystanders. Of children. Cold, without breath. Bodies shot beyond recognition. In closed and open caskets. All lives cut short, all died too soon.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to own firearms for the purpose of being part of a “well-regulated militia.” Over the years this has been interpreted to protect individuals’ rights to own and use guns. Now is not the place to get into the long history of how we went from a well-regulated militia to what we believe our laws protect today. But I want to go back a little farther into history.
Much of our founding documents, and our so-called Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by law that followed anti-Protestant disarmament in England and the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke. John Locke, who is probably best known for his phrase “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of wealth” taught the basic tenets of property ownership and what we might call libertarian or classically liberal political philosophy. To summarize, or to oversimplify, if I catch a fish in a river, that fish is now mine and is now ontologically part of me, because I mixed my labor into that fish. Prior to me catching it, the fish was not part of me, but now it is not just in my possession but it is both the object of my labor and as a result part of my being. So in the same way that someone might come and cut off my arm and steal my arm, if someone comes and tries to steal my fish, I have the right to kill that person because that fish is just as much a part of me as it is my body.
Furthermore, he wrote, that anyone who attempts to steal anything that belongs to me, by virtue that I bought it with the money from my labor or I caught it or made it from natural resources, should be treated as if they have declared war on my person. Because if I let someone steal a pie cooling from my window, what’s to say they won’t come back and cut off my hands later?
For Locke, we ideally live in a peaceful state, but when one violates what is mine, I have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to act as if I am in a state of war. And it does not matter whether there is a formal declaration of war, if another person acts in such a way where I may rightly say they will take something that belongs to me, I have the right to gun that person down as an animal threatening my life in the wilderness. These rules only apply when we are in a state of war, whether the state of war is openly declared or not, but the problem with this thinking is that if I define my sense of life and being with my belongings and property as ontologically or spiritually part of me, then I can only live in a state of war, and the state of war is all I know.
Following this, it is unpopular to say but we as a nation are founded upon war. From an inability to openly negotiate peace and to simply open fire. We say that we were as a nation founded on “the shot heard ‘round the world.” We are a nation that likes to re-write history, from pretending to forget the horrors of our country’s actions against Native Americans while somehow believing that a football team with a racist name in our capital city is about “tradition.” We hide behind terminology like “tradition,” “state’s rights” and “northern aggression” when we’re talking about slavery, and we act as if we north of the Mason –Dixon Line didn’t own slaves. We forget that racial division in our country was here from the very beginnings of our country between Germans and Catholic immigrants, before corporate interests taught whites to play nice and to focus on blacks as the scapegoat. After gunning down our first and only Catholic president in 1963, we should note, we haven’t elected a Catholic since.
The history of our country is often based on our wars and assassinations. Except we don’t like to talk about the wars and assassinations which don’t prop up our own worldviews and prejudices. Even our national anthem is a war song from a war we refuse to talk about. The point is that we are nation rooted in violence, we are a violent people, and we as a culture glorify violence and aggression as our default ways of being in the world.
And as a result, to go back to my discussion about John Locke and his influence on the Second Amendment, again, we are a culture who is believed to be in a state of war perpetually. It would seem that we are nothing if we’re not in a state of violence. We even believe that our country thrives on war and violence, economically and politically, and the controversy about our recent prisoner exchange and the real possibility of closing our prison in Guantanamo is indicative of our inability to grasp with a reality that is post-war, post-conflict, post-violence.
When we speak about the rights given to us, or given to us through interpretation, of our country’s Constitution, the language we employ and the dispositions we invoke about those rights operate under the assumption and of living in a perpetual despotic state, of constantly living in a state of war. When The War is not in front of us directly, we believe that there is always someone ready to take what is ours away from us. We live in such a culture that thrives and relies upon indebtedness that we secretly know that even what is ours is not really ours, and we need to be ready to aggressively defend what we might pretend is really ours. When Charlton Heston said that we needed our guns to protect ourselves from an impending race war, we see very clearly that when we are not in a state of direct conflict, we conceive of The War to be against scapegoat whoever we can find to blame that are coming after what we have, whether it is through crime, through taxes, through gentrification, or through new ideas or the presence of persons who challenge us out of our comfort zones. All political sides do this, scapegoating the other side, all part of a process that allows all sides to play the victim.
As a result, to return to my opening point, we cannot look past this sense of perpetual war so that we have no real language to move past the talking points we always hear about gun violence and our violent culture. We can’t even report news of slain children or police officers bleeding in the streets without it being politicized, or the very reporting of the news accused of politicization. But this is because we are a culture always at war, where The War perpetuates a constant fear of theft. Because of our bankruptcy of language, we cannot move past our political talking points. Because of our lack of language to move past the stumbling blocks, stumbling blocks often reified and affirmed by religion, we cannot move forward. And like the blood pouring out of Abel, the victim of the first family, it screams out to the ground, and the noise of our talk drowns it all out as background noise.
Psalm 8 proclaims that “out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark,” or protection, “because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger” (v. 2). The words of children, the words of babies not even yet born, call upon us to address our violence, and not just the scapegoated criminal, or perceived criminal, the “enemy,” but also “the avenger.” This is a problem where we have to move to a point of cultural repentance, where we need to transcend the either/or of “enemies” and “avengers,” not just because one person’s enemy is another person’s avenger, and vice-versa, but because the justice of God demands that we prioritize life.
But this is difficult precisely because we do not believe others will follow, largely because our perceptions are mirrored reflections of ourselves, our own desires and wants. Are we really ready to put down ourselves, and the false images of ourselves that we project onto each other, and our ideological and political conflation and inflation of those we conceive as the other, the enemies, in The War in which we always believe we engage? For when we do not, we violate the second commandments, “thou shalt not have any other gods before me,” “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” Our inability to speak, our inability to loosen our tongues is an admission that we have placed ourselves and our ideologies, and our own protection of personal “rights,” as false gods before the divine who calls us to life, to a sanctuary so big to reform and accept the silenced enemy and the silenced avenger.
On Pentecost, just a few weeks ago, we celebrate the initiation of the Holy Spirit descending upon All Flesh. And with the Holy Spirit’s enfleshment upon the world and all of its divisions is a reversal of the mythology of the Tower of Babel, where as an act of unity, and as a preparation for the final consummation in Jesus which is our Christian hope, the early church spoke in tongues of fire. They were speaking in fired tongues so directly that those around them thought that they were drunk.
Today we need to reclaim our Pentecost of speaking in tongues. We need to speak with firey breath, a breath firing out like dragons the ruach or divine breath of God breathed into us, to speak the truth that melts away the wax that covers our real ability to lust after life, to prioritize and treasure human life as a faith practice of honoring the divine. We need to speak devastating truths, and tell devastating stories to tear down and collapse the structures around us that hold humanity back.
How many more mouths of babes will be silenced by our silence? How many of the unborn are we willing to whisper in amni that they are being born to die for our own idolatry? That they are the sacrificial victims for my own sense of sanctuary, my own chasing after the wind of searching for sanctuary anywhere but in the divine? That we only speak one language, a language willing to parade our ten commandments as the epitome of morality chiseled in stone but never willing to really practice them? To speak this language is what we are challenged and dared to do in the church, when will be accept this task?
* * *
When I came to this church as the pastor at the end of November, 2012, in my third week here, on December 14, twenty children and six adults were gunned down in an event today known as the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. Those of you here might remember that we extinguished the candles of our candelabras as an act of lament over the deaths.
In the discussions about gun violence in the past few weeks, I kept hearing a few people remark that the Sandy Hook shootings were not real, or they were orchestrated by the White House to scare the public into a more anti-gun political position. So I went and did some reading about the event and its aftermath.
There is a lot to say about it, but one of the most stunning interviews after the massacre was Veronique Pozner, the mother of a slain boy at Sandy Hook named Noah Pozner. She said, “It takes nine months to create a human being…and it takes seconds for an AR-15 to take that away from the surface of this earth.”
My challenge today is this. We all have work to do on the outside of the walls of this church on this issue. I am calling for us in this church to initiate a drive toward new transformation of ourselves through repentance, prayer, and confession. We will have as part of our worship every Sunday for the next nine months a prayer and discernment for our church and our community to speak in tongues of fire, for a new language, to give birth to a new perspective as we travel through this season of Pentecost, into Advent and Christmas and Epiphany of next year.
Witnessing the lighting of candles is not enough, and nor is protest against a group of people or calling politicians. We are a culture in need of deep repentance and confession as we move forward. Allow this time to be inspiring, challenging, transfiguring, purging, and a smashing of the idols that come between ourselves and embracing the lives of those in this world, to those coming into this world.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.