What should we do?
As the events from Newtown, CT, rolled through my newsfeed on Twitter on Friday, that was the question many were asking. And there were many answers, of course. It is Twitter, after all. Be silent. Speak out. Call for legislation. Don’t politicize. Pray. Protest. Adopt my agenda. Keep that agenda to yourself. I got sucked into it. I lost some followers. I couldn’t believe some friends. There was much that I wanted to say but didn’t. Finally, before the insanity of it all got the best of me, I walked away my computer. I logged out of social media accounts, got a burrito and watched two hours of Yo Gabba Gabba. That’s about all I had in me. But I still couldn’t shake the question: What should we do?
Professional educators not unlike my wife were dead. Children my daughter’s age were dead. A broken man, probably still a child in the eyes of his mother, did it. He killed her, too. He killed himself. And he did it all with mom’s guns.
What should we do? It’s a question that many of us at Holy Covenant were faced with this summer as the violence escalated beyond imagination in our city. And, as the sun set on Newtown, four more kids were shot here in Chicago. In total this year, 424 people have died from gunshot wounds in this city, and 67 of them were kids. Our children are dying. Our hope is being eroded. Our dreams are becoming vapor.
What should we do?
We could keep asking why. That is something that we could do. I’ve been doing it. Why would God allow this happen? Why would God let someone do this? All the children were between six and seven years old. Why didn’t God intervene? Why did we not see this mighty hand and outstretched arm that the psalms sing about? And, for brief moments, I wonder if maybe God wills this kind of thing. But then I remember that our stories say that God breathed life into us and made us in the image of our holy parent. And those same stories tell of God’s constant reaching out to us in our need … reaching out to us in our brokenness, and even in our rebellion. In those stories, death is never God’s choice for us. God loves us all too much for that. God’s choice for us is life. I believe that God grieves for those children, and their teachers. And God grieves for the perpetrator and his mother. But the why question can never really answered. The why question either strengthens or challenges our faith. And that is a good thing to do, but it doesn’t seem like enough.
We could get into a new arms race … a sidearms cold war. We could point fingers. We could blame those who should be enforcing and upholding the law. But we see how far it has gotten us. This is the 31st school shooting since the one in Columbine. We could accept this is our lot as a nation … that the violence we see all the time has turned us into killers. We could just give up hope.
But what should we do? The violence, it surrounds us. There is blood on the ground. And it just keeps growing.
This is the point in those stories of our faith at which a strange prophet would arise and tell everyone to “Repent, for the end is nigh!”
And, as I say that, I’m sure it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Repent is a loaded word. It is another one of those words that has been mutated to the point where it strikes horror in me. It is a word the guy outside the Old Navy yells at me every time I’d walk by. And there are those out there claiming that we should repent from removing God from our schools and public places; that if we hadn’t done that to begin with, that if we hadn’t made public spaces open to pluralistic possibility … children wouldn’t be dead, nobody would have the urge to shoot each other, and we could all just go on with life concealing our pistols in our pants.
Friends, this is not repentance. This is lunacy. And it certainly isn’t what John was calling for in the scripture we hear in Luke’s Gospel. When the crowd approaches John at the river Jordan with this understanding of repentance, he calls them a bunch of snakes.
Among those who stood at the river’s edge were the pharisees and sadducees … their words and ways would remind you of today’s talk radio hosts. “Our love of the foreigner and the poor, our failure to keep strong moral standards is the reason our nation is failing,” they said. “We’ve got to get back to the basics that made us great so we can get on track.”
There were others, too: the ones who had given up. “We are never going to change this culture,” they said, “so we might as well get in the game.” So they became mercenaries in the roman army and carried out orders against their own families. And they became tax collectors for the roman government, taking a cut above what was required and stealing from their once-friends.
And there were others still: ordinary folk. People who had said for a generation, life like this stinks, but what can we really do about it?
Together, they made life hard for one another. They were resting on their laurels. They were all children of Abraham, and that was gonna have to be good enough. It would all be better in the by-and-by. They said, “To keep ourselves safe, we must control what we can, and protect ourselves.”
Meanwhile, life then and there was terrible for most, especially the poor, elderly and the sick. And John says to all of them, “Not so fast! Who do you think you are coming out here? You had to step over the dead and steer clear of the dying just to get out here. Your selfishness is the catalyst of our trouble. Your disregard for your fellow covenant people is the reason for our struggle. Our community is only as strong as our weakest members, and they sit outside the city walls crying in agony, yet you do not hear them. You think that this can be turned by prayer? Or sitting in the synagogue? Or uttering the name of God as often as you can? That is not repentance. Don’t confuse sitting on a limb with being fruit on the tree.”
Instead, John calls them to something beyond what they’ve already tried. John calls them to give up their plans, and their expectations, and their exhausted acceptance of the status quo. He calls them to be released from those things that they think are in (or out of) their control, so they can embrace the hope that is coming. This is the repentance John called for … to turn themselves over to the cause of humanity … to become an advocate for community … to break the tendency for isolation … to dissolve the power of fear by standing in the river and being baptized into the power of grace.
To repent is to get in line; not with the words attributed to God, but with the ways known of God.
And to take on baptism, the crowd had to be ready to do something practical that God had long called for.
They asked John, “What should we do?”
And he told them, “Do the things that nobody else is. Share your wealth, serve the public, exercise care for those who need it, and be stewards of the community. Act not by what the world does, but what we know God to be doing. And let’s do it together.”
That is something we can do, too. I believe living by what we know God to be doing, and dreaming, and bringing … it will help. It will help us to keep faith. It will help us to grieve. It will help us to act. But there is more to the Christian response than this.
After my brief retreat from social media on Friday, I had a number of offline conversations with friends and acquaintances about the horror of the day. And many of them had given up hope. I said peace was possible. I said we can live together in a world where everyone is afforded safety, and health, and equality.
“You are just too idealistic,” they said. “We’ve been stripping life and dignity from each other since the beginning of time. We’ve been murdering since then, too. We just have to accept this as normal.”
I told them I refused to comply with their normal. I have a responsibility to repent from normal and live in God’s hope. I repented from normal the first time I presented a child for baptism.
Instead of saying, “You will live in a world that is more and more likely to kill you,” I say “I will surround you with a different world … with a community of love and forgiveness.” And I say that not only on behalf of myself and this community, but on behalf of the whole of Christianity. I put water on their heads and say that God lives in them. That they belong to God. How can I say fear and death are normal when I’ve touched their heads? How can I be absolved of my promise? God has made a claim on every life.
“That is normal,” I told them. “How sad your lives must be if you cannot see that.”
“We live in reality,” they all quipped.
And I shook my head and said “No, you live in hell, and you can have it. I’ll keep trying to live in the reign of God.”
What should we do? We should take our baptismal vows seriously. We should take the promises we make to the baptized seriously. We should keep returning to a life that practices and believes peace and love are stronger than hate and fear.
What should we do? Through love, we should live in a way that puts others ahead of ourselves. It is not about me. It is about us. We have a mutual responsibility. Life that is independent of the community is not life at all. It is isolation. Freedom that subjugates others … that makes others live in fear … is not freedom at all. It is oppression.
What should we do? We should stop saying that peace is impossible. We cannot give up hope. And we must not abandon the power of love. Because one who is more powerful than John has come and is coming. Because every life is sacred. Because if even one child dies, that is one too many.
Blessed be the coming Emmanuel who enters into our violence and says “I will show you true liberty.” Blessed be the Christ who draws near to us and says “I will give you new life.” Fear cannot stand in his light. It can only cower in the corner as love floods the world with promise. Hatred cannot stand against him. It falls on its face with the realization, that in the Reign of God, it never had legs to stand on.
God’s day is near. Weapons will turn into tools of service. The factories that made them into museums, dedicated to question “What the crap were we thinking?” And we should pave the way.
We can live in peace. It is possible, because peace came to live with us. Peace is alive. There is much that will fight it. There are many who will go to great lengths to destroy it, but it keeps coming back. Peace was born into this world as an act of love. Fear and hatred did their best, but they could not bury it. Peace is possible.
God, let it begin with us.