I have wrestled with what to say to you all in the wake of the shooting at Michigan State this week. Obviously, our first words may not even be words, but groans of anguish, of long-suffering, of disbelief that it has happened again–and even to some of the students of Sandy Hook and of Oxford who are now studying at Michigan State: it has happened again. Being close to one shooting is more than enough for a lifetime, being pursued and haunted by shootings is another thing entirely. The sentiment with which I most strongly resonate is that we have failed our children, our youth, indeed, we have even failed one another.
But it’s not enough to acknowledge all of that, is it? It doesn’t feel like enough to me. It’s where I have to start–in lament, in prayer, in the depths of my heart to be found by the power of God’s love. I need to start in prayer, because it’s a wound too big for us to heal. The abyss in the heart of God on the cross is big enough to swallow up even our fear of this present moment. And in that groaning prayer we might find ourselves praying with the Psalmist: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget us or ever? How long will you hide your face from us?” (Psalm 13).
But what do we do next? What do we say? Will we, this time, perhaps, find our courage?
I know there are divided opinions in our community regarding guns. I suppose it’s about time I told you what I think about guns. I’m acquainted with guns. I grew up with a couple of guns in the house, responsibly stored. I grew up knowing that guns are not to be trifled with; they are serious, gravely so. I grew up respecting the potential finality of a gun’s discharge. My parents ensured I was properly educated in the handling, cleaning, storage, and use of a gun. I am acquainted with the pleasure of a gun, the power and skill of using one well. I am familiar with the uses of a gun–really, the use of a gun, which is to end life. Guns are not meant just to maim or injure, but to kill–squirrels, deer, big game and small, and human beings. That’s why I think we, as Christians–not as “liberals” or “Americans” or whatever label one might choose, but as followers of Jesus Christ–ought to have as little to do with guns as possible. A gun is an implement of death.
That’s not to say there are not times to take life–hunting is the main exception here. I may be a vegetarian, but I recognize that hunting and the killing of animals for food is basically necessary. So, the use of guns for hunting may be an exception. Notice, I did not mention “self-defense.” In the first place, the efficacy of guns for self-defense is not proven. But even if it were, I have about where we ought to set the limits of self-defense–the best defense is, after all, a good offense. Or, at least the preparedness for a good offense. Right? Except, that’s not the way of Jesus, who did not call down a legion of angels to deal with the mob who stole him away from the Garden of Gethsemane, who healed the sword-wounds of those who came for him, who went to the Cross for our sake–his offense was markedly weak. And yet, there is no power more irresistible, invincible, and enduring than the Love poured out on that Cross.
I know some of you reading this will think that that is an extreme position. After all, most gun owners are responsible. I agree. And yet, the proliferation of guns and gun ownership in this country is simply astonishing. Why do we need all these guns? Certainly, they are not all for hunting, and they are not all “necessary for the security of a free State.” So why are they everywhere? I think the answer is one we would prefer not to admit: fear.
Whenever another senseless shooting occurs in this country, I find myself returning to this piece by Marilynne Robinson, entitled “Fear.” It’s about guns. She begins with a recognition that, on the whole, America remains a Christian nation, but then she states her thesis, in two parts: “First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” What drives our mania for guns? Fear. I think she’s right.
Consider this paragraph:
“I know there are any number of people who collect guns as sculpture, marvels of engineering. When we mount a cross on a wall, we don’t do it with the thought that, in a pinch, we might crucify someone. This seems to be a little different when the icon in question is a gun. A ‘civilian’ Kalashnikov can easily be modified into a weapon that would blast a deer to smithereens. That’s illegal, of course, and unsportsmanlike. I have heard the asymmetry rationalized thus: deer can’t shoot back. Neither can adolescents in a movie theater, of course. Neither can anyone not prepared for mayhem to break loose anywhere, at any time. And, imagining an extremely improbable best case it is very hard to threaten or deter someone who is suicidal, as most of these assailants are. Gun sales stimulate gun sales–a splendid business model, no doubt about that. Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”
And so, maybe the guns will make us safe, even though it’s the guns that have made us unsafe. I don’t think they will. And I think we need to stop letting ourselves be deceived by such logic. Some of you may feel differently. Know that I am open to having frank conversations about the role guns play in our society. But you deserve to know how I look at the matter.
So, what does this mean for us? How will we respond? What will we be willing to give up? What will we be willing to take on? What is the future we want to see? Above all, what is the work Christ is calling us to? That is what lies ahead of us. And in following Christ, perhaps we will learn to let go of our fear.
Some of you have asked what might be done. Bishop Perry has been working with the group End Gun Violence Michigan. You can also learn more about the organization and their work here. Follow the links to sign up to their mailing list or even get involved. There is a Zoom meeting for the membership on February 21 and an event at the capital coming up on March 22. If you are looking to get involved, you might consider signing up. Feel free to talk to me if you want to learn more.
In the meantime we will continue to pray that things change, to lift our voices to God, and fix our eyes on God’s kingdom in which we will beat our swords into plowshares and study war no more. It may be that we will decide that this work of peacemaking is something we are called to take up at St. Mary’s. I invite you to pray for wisdom and to talk to me or members of the Vestry if you feel the Spirit moving you in that way.
On Tuesday night, I met with a couple of our members. We lit candles and prayed for peace and healing. And we prayed for God’s protection. We prayed Psalm 4, which ends with these lines:
Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.
And we prayed this prayer, from the Office of Compline. Perhaps this is a prayer that you will want to hold close:
Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
May God keep us safe, empower us for the work of peace, and help us to live ever before God without fear. And let all God’s people say: Amen.