The Day After Another Shooting – The Rev. Benedict Varnum
Thursday, February 15, 2018
You have surely heard that yesterday another shooting took place in a school – I’m told the 18th time that has happened so far in the 45 days of 2018, or one every 2 ½ days. The emerging story seems to indicate that a young white man about 19 years old legally purchased an AR-15 and quite a bit of ammunition, went to his former school, pulled a fire alarm, and began firing. Actions on the ground may have prevented a worse catastrophe: a janitor redirected fleeing students to safety; a teacher literally took bullets for his students; “lock-down” procedures were used to shelter in place and lock doors. The alleged perpetrator temporarily fled by removing a gas mask and blending in with fleeing students before being arrested.
How does our faith respond?
Friends, since arriving here, I have written about shootings in my weekly reflections at least three times, and preached after several of the larger occasions. If I wanted to, I could find an example each week. Some colleagues in urban ministries name the victims each week in their Prayers of the People. It’s raw, and takes them time. Priests I know have suggested sermons to try to shock us from complacency with such acts as placing an AR-15 on the altar beside the Gospel book and asking which we shall worship. Organized groups in Chicago – a city often cited as a “failure of local gun control” – plead with elected officials for common federal rules and better inter-state enforcement, as an open-secret trade of un-background-checked handguns are bought at gun shows in Indiana, then sold from the trunks of cars to gangs in impoverished neighborhoods, continuing a cycle of violence, no matter how many guns real police work removes from the streets. The companies turn their profits, and turn a blind eye. They lobby elected officials to do the same, and match large campaign donations to that voice.
I am not anti-gun. Many of our members, and certainly many neighbors throughout this and other states, own weapons, and I have every reason to believe the majority of them do so responsibly. (And if you do own firearms and are not taking simple steps of registering them with the police, and securing them in a gun safe or with a trigger lock, so that they couldn’t be used in anger or by an overwhelmed young person who finds it, please take yesterday’s events for what they might always be: the final warning before it is your gun that is misused.)
How does our faith respond?
God has given us minds and the will to use them. When I think of these shootings, I’m aware of the criminology formula, “Opportunity + Motive + Means = Crime.” The opportunity seems constant: people will never cease gathering together, whether in schools or concerts or churches or baseball practice or campaign rallies outside shopping malls.
Part 2, Motive, is a common bogeyman: “Well, that was just one bad apple.” Or “That one was just ‘mentally ill.’” This is a frustrating pairing for the majority of those who manage mental illness perfectly reasonably, but even so, if mental illness is one part of the cause, let us address it, and support mental health research and treatment, especially for adolescents. If isolation is one cause, let us address it, and support school counselors and campaigns like the DARE officers, this time reminding our young people that they all need one another, and encouraging bonds of fellowship and respect. If you believe that motive was the deepest problem here, please call on your representatives to address it.
And let us also, finally, turn to part 3: “Means.”
Over and over again, the means is a gun. Polls show 80 or even 90% of Americans supporting universal background checks, but political officials balk, afraid they’ll lose funding or votes, or that this will be a “slippery slope” that might thereafter ban bump stocks or the AR-15 the way that tommy-guns were banned in the 1930’s. Other objections are raised: that a knife or a bomb or a car can kill. But we license drivers, and regulate fertilizer and monitor bomb-info websites, and a knife doesn’t kill 17 at a time. There are a number of things that can be done, all without preventing responsible gun ownership, which will also make a meaningful reduction in this national sin that has frozen us into inaction. You can educate yourself through Moms Against Gun Violence or Mother Jones or any number of groups, and call your representatives there, as well.
How else does our faith respond?
We pray. But if our prayer is that God will help us forget, so that we don’t experience the pain of these children who have died, or that we put out of our hearts and our minds the truth that our negligence has set a course such that our country is careening steadily towards the next dozen children who will be killed at school, the next score of concert-goers that will be shot from a window, the next domestic abuse that turns lethal because an angry man grabs the gun that his restraining order hasn’t prevented him from legally buying – then we are praying the wrong prayer.
Prayer is supposed to convict and convert us. Not to be “democrats” or “bleeding hearts” or “republicans.” Prayer is supposed to convert us to be better followers of Jesus.
Jesus said “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.” Jesus said “Two swords are enough” when Peter wanted to arm the disciples. Jesus did not call for angels to rescue him from the cross. When Roman soldiers taunted him, and a thief dared him, “Save yourself, and us!” Jesus instead offered a prayer: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But the suffering of Jesus is not there to tell us that we should seek a world full of suffering.
The suffering of Jesus is there to show us how terrible the consequences of sin are, when we do nothing to stop its advance. We who behold the crucifixion of Jesus are called to make the Resurrection of the world the calling of our lives. Today, that means repenting of the sins of negligence and indifference, and taking up the unpopular, courageous work of confronting the resistance to change.
The line doesn’t need to move dramatically: we don’t have to throw every gun into the ocean. But we need to stop this literal bleeding. And the God who calls us through Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves is calling us to join in this work, however carefully, on whichever front.
Pray, and hear what God asks of you, and go forth to do the work that you have been given to do.
The Reverend Benedict Varnum
Priest and Rector
St Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Elkhorn, NE