Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon responding to Friday's Sandy Hook mass killing of first graders

Children in Connecticut rampage, all 6 and 7, shot repeatedly

Pray Angrily, Renounce Violence, and Reduce Stigma

A Sermon Response to Friday's Mass Killing of 1st Graders in Connecticut

Sunday, December 16, 2012

When I was a chaplain, the parents of a 5 year old brought him to the emergency room, where he died in front of my eyes as the ER staff worked furiously to revive him. The cause of death was respiratory complications of H1N1 flu.  As the doctors were working to revive the boy, I found myself looking to see the face of my own 5 year old, Evan, on that table.  I wondered to myself why I was so intent in seeing Evan's face on that ER bed, gone forever. I knew it wasn't Evan, but there I was closely focused on the face of that boy wondering how it would feel if it were. I felt sick. 

Then I looked to the parents whom I would soon have to try to offer words of spiritual care.  The boy's mother was sobbing and flushed, the father was ashen, his face drained of blood, mostly keeping his arms folded and regularly turning away from watching the drama of resuscitation.  I was both of those parents inside myself, but was I really?  I felt so wretched for those parents and in doubt as to my abilities. As often happened to me in the ER, adrenaline took hold  and I struggled to slow my breathing in order to calm myself. I don't know if my being a father helped my words or not, but I did my best. I did my job. I stood vigil with the parents as they tried to understand, to accept. It was that moment when I hated my job.  The death of children made me question why God had created this moment, or created the way God did, and why God left me holding the bag to cover for Him/Her.  Is God unable to prevent these deaths?  Does God have that power but just does not choose in this case to apply it?    If the latter, why does she hold his followers up to the anger and ridicule of grieving people: you mean you believe your god could have helped our child but didn't????  So, I find that on the front lines of pastoral care, during family and social crises, when pastors and spiritual care workers are asked to justify God to others, we are tempted to shrink and say something like:

actually, God does not have all that power the Bible says He has. He Himself is limited by the freedom of evil, and He suffers with us, like Jesus suffered on the Cross. Look for God's presence with you and in you. That is the compassion of God who has taken on our flesh to experience what we feel, and maybe to guide us better in our human task of compassion.

But that explanation does not really cut it, does it?  Why worship or put your trust in such?  The reality is that people as they feel the gamut of emotions and anguish at death of children turn to the church for answers, and  yet we can give them very little but our prayers.  And maybe also we give them our "permission" to express their anger that they feel with God in these moments. That permission to express anger at God and our companionship and vigil, rather than our explanation of why God is either powerless or unwilling to prevent the most senseless death of children, is what Christian spiritual leaders may offer.  It's not much, it's very little, but it may be all that is allowed us.  That permission to "lament," to find fault with God, is part of our Biblical tradition in the Psalms of Lament, though I do not offer a quote from the Psalms in the immediacy of such loss. The Talmud notes, "The deeper the sorrow the less tongue it has.”  We keep our prayers brief and angry when children die. For children die senselessly.  They die in wombs because of some horrible failure of nature, they die in warfare as "collateral damage" from aggressive power. They die of neglect, and hunger, and violent abuse.   They die in all the circumstances, innocent of any sin that I can discern, innocent of any provocation to parents, to authority, to their parent's enemies, to God.  And sometimes they die close to home, and that's when we grieve more deeply and demand more explanation. Maybe we shouldn't, but we do.

I read the news reports Friday and the reactions of pundits, religious and political leaders and friends on social media.  The children in Connecticut who were killed were 1st graders, which is the stage of Evan now!  I had that familiar reaction: what if that had been Evan and his classmates?  I found myself cycling through the  dimensions of anguish: anger, sadness, and numbness.  It was not grief, or so I thought, because it really had not happened to me. I watched in the media as the reactions ran the gamut that I felt: fear that it could happen to mine, anger at the gun culture in America, and sorrowful petitions for prayer to all affected.  My colleague Rev. Diana Bell describes my state of mind when she applies Romans 8.26: ."for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

We demand explanation of God and it doesn't come, so we in civil society and in the church offer explanation.  It's the ease of gun access, it's the pervasiveness of gun culture, the program of 2nd Amendment zealots, it's the failure of the mental health profession, it's the failure of politics that de-funds social programs as it seems to structurally limit opportunities for universal human welfare. It's a problem within ourselves, the forces of violence and life-negating sin that infects humanity due to our estrangement from God.  I believe the explanation for what happened to those children at Sandy Hook involves all of those things and more. Because the church knows that it must offer more than prayer and some scripture reading on Sunday, the church gets involved in offering solutions based on some amalgam of these explanations.  On the conservative side, the church identifies systemic sin in the people that God is punishing as an explanation for the death, so its solution is to get back on God's good side as a nation and as an individual. On the liberal side, the solution is more government services for individuals who are mentally ill to cure, isolate, or otherwise pacify urges to violence and killing. Or more gun control.  Then there are the solutions that gun violence is only stopped by more guns in the hands of citizens, but I'd like to think,  naively perhaps, that particular option is beyond the pale in a religion of peace.

Since the news reports of Sandy Hook, I've been spending most of my weekend with my children.  We've been spending time singing Christmas Carols. Part of that sharing is to cement my bond with these gifts from God as their safety and welfare is risked by such a violent and sick culture of death making.  I also took them to the movie, "Rise of the Guardians."  I did so with trepidation. Beforehand, I checked  parental movie review sites to determine the spiritual message of the movie for children who  believe in Santa, but have been raised (at my insistence) without the Easter Bunny. The movie had both characters acting as peers in their protective role of children in the world.  

The "Christian parents' movie review site" offered relatively little warning about the movie. It was almost wholly positive of the movie's suitability for Christian children.  Yet, as the movie was concluded, the "protection" offered by the guardian Santa and Easter Bunny was revealed to be little but a more violent, forceful power than the bad spirit's power.  Is that a spiritual message for my children?  

I asked them, "Do you think that Santa would protect you by punching the Boogey Man harder than the Boogey Man punches him?"  My kids know a loaded question from their minister dad when they hear it. They answered, No.  Well, what is the protective power of Santa?  That one was a bit more difficult, but they've heard enough from me to finally propose, "love."  So then I asked them about the climactic scene when the children in the movie restored power to the guardians after they had lost it.  What had the children in the movie done?  My children could not remember, but I did. I recalled for them that the children stood firm, afraid but steadfast and non-assertive to the threatening dark clouds of power.  It was the children's steadfastness and non-provocation which saved the day.  That was a Christmas message, I suggested.  My boys seemed to understand, but I often wonder if we in the church believe our message of the power of non-violent steadfastness? Or do we instead adopt the culture's view that goodness just has more firepower than evil, like America against its enemies, or the white hats' transcendentally better aim than the black hats', or like Santa and the Easter Bunny's muscular force that vanquishes the boogey man in "Rise of the Guardians."  I don't know for a fact that my message that doubts these fundamentally American myths is what will keep my children, your children, or any other people safe from assault and death, but it's the message of hope that we've been given as an alternative to intensifying the arming and violence in our society, which is clearly not working.

So that's my first part of a message regarding the threat that our children and all of society is under: the church needs a consistent though realistic message of non-violence while it acknowledges the cost and eruptions of fear that reliance on non-violence entails. Fear is adaptive and natural, we need more intensively to acknowledge, and contrast it with the message of the armed-to-the-teeth, "shock and awe" practicing American hero.  We need to name the bluff that culture portrays as the ideal--violence and threat without a trace of fear. Yet there has to be a real acknowledgement of the certainty of blow back and the cycle of retributive violence that history demonstrates over and over again, in ever evolving historical and social contexts.  

Bravery based on non- violent faith risks, knowing the fear of uncertainty. This accords with my understanding of what God requires of us: steadfastness in the force of good, even knowing fully the reality of human history, where martyrs died and that good does not always triumph in the short term.  But the risk, the cost, the steadfastness, the fear, and yet the bravery of non-violence, solidarity, and prayer seems is all that God gives us to reform the guns and oppression of the world. 

For me, we in the church need to remove ourselves as a justifying organ of the guns and national security argument to focus mainly on chaplaincy and pastoral care to those recovering from the front lines of violent conflict and collateral trauma, and we need to promote a message against the taking up of guns in support of the  self. The children at Sandy Hook weren't protected from slaughter by this ethic of non-violence and refusal to bear arms, I fully understand. But I submit that we do not protect our children with a culture that proposes that the forces of good are just better armed than the forces of darkness and dysfunction, because this supports the endless violence of escalating culture of deadly force, "standing one's ground" laws, and preemptive violence. "Turn the other cheek" means something real and political.  It is not pie in the sky: it entails risk, cost, and sometimes injury, confinement, and death. Sometimes tragic death of innocent children. We don't go to pieces when a child in a foreign land is killed by an American drone (though there should be much more of our protest).  There is no other way than breaking the cycle of violence than with non-violence. Bull Connor will turn his fire-hose on some of us, Richard Daley will swing his blackjacks against some of our heads, and some people like Bradley Manning and Nelson Mandela will know the isolation of probably decades of prison for ripping away the veil of secrecy, lies and corruption that enable and excuse violence done in our names. Some individuals will lose, but we can be steadfast if not sure of our task and of God's ultimate power. 

Associated with removing arms and guns from society, we the church need to turn off the violence in our culture by refusing to economically support ever more graphic violent commerce in art and entertainment--enough is enough--including by getting our youth and young adults off of what looks to me like addiction (compulsion) to violent video games.  Political, economic, and social action will be necessary and may indeed fail in the short term, but even that failed social action might save lives. Action may require that Christians make pragmatic political alliances with people who think like Bill Maher, who tweeted in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook murder spree: "Sorry but prayers and giving your kids hugs fix nothing; only having the balls to stand up to our insane selfish gun culture will."  I disagree with the first half of that statement, but I take Maher's point that hugs and prayers aren't sufficient (though I affirm they are necessary).  I can make common ground with Maher's point of view, offensive as it is, if it results in meaningful gun control and a less overt culture of violence and killing.

As the questions and anger evolve today, the media and my friends are now beginning the expected refocusing on mental illness as the unaddressed problem within society which in part explains this tragedy.  Yet, notwithstanding that most mentally ill people are not violent, including those who are in active psychotic states, it is a fact that mental illness is stigmatized by incidents like these.  This stigma makes it less likely that people will seek treatment from the mental health field.  Stigma thus has some real effect on the recurrence of tragic violence and of the epidemic of suicide.  I cannot see how increasing firepower in our private homes and streets by arming citizens makes either epidemic from getting worse.

I will offer one specific, concrete suggestion for the church in the crisis of mental health in America. And that is, the church and its leaders need to take risks to open up about their own struggles with mental illness. According to the anecdotal and personal stories that I hear, depression is represented in pastoral leadership and in the congregations. Yet pastoral leaders feel they might pay a professional and economic price were they to open up to their congregations and to society with their struggles and their insights, even their triumphs.  Church members with the same struggle might move to support their leaders if they hear these stories, thus reducing the fear and stigma in the congregation. That is the role and task of pastoral leaders and our congregations, to take risks to change stigmas, fears, and dysfunctions of the times.  Stigma of the "abnormal" drives people with mental health issues away from treatment and the church. Where else but the church can challenge spiritual stigmatization and taboo?  Like every thing else that testifies to God's love, it will take our courage and commitment. May it be so.

To sum up the message of my sermon today: we the church have more to offer this crisis of mass violence against our children and our vulnerable that erupt in society.  It has more to offer than short, angry prayer, psalms, and pragmatic alliances for political change.  Those are necessary, but not sufficient.   The church is not a political movement, but rather an institution from our Lord Jesus Christ to offer testimony to the truth of God's entering our lives for the better, and the difficult, though that sometimes entails struggle and pain. If we offer our testimony to our own angry struggles with God and our debilitating struggles with mental illness, then our coming out the other side, we speak authentically and deeply to those who look to us for guidance in times of senseless crisis. And this is a message to all who struggle with mental illness: find ways to reduce stigma. Tell your story, understand that the vast majority of people who are in despair and in psychosis are moral agents, not inhuman monsters that we should be afraid of.  Telling our story requires risk. But risk is the price for social change, the change that we all want.  

Stop the cycle in every act of faith and love we can muster, for God takes on the ultimate responsibility for the cycle of violence when God says, "I will repay" (Romans 12.19). This sums up my understanding of God's awesome creative power: it acts gently now through love, but something is in abeyance. Something awesome, as the Prophet Amos (5.24) details of God's spoken words, like a prayer but certain: "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."  

Come Lord Jesus!  Amen.

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