The Common Good

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul

The Sunday after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, my husband's family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

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My husband's family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

That would be a mistake.

Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party's violent rhetoric and "Second Amendment solutions." Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

But who will speak of the soul?

Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest "someone get hurt." Well, someone is hurt -- and people have died -- most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons this Sunday will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans -- how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January 9 was the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: "When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'" (Matthew 3:16-17) Jesus' baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, "All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood." Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God's love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.

If we don't speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.

portrait-diana-butler-bassDiana Butler Bass blogs at Christianity for the Rest of Us and The Huffington Post, and is the author of A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. This article is cross-posted from Beliefnet.

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