When I was in high school, my family moved from a Black Chicago Southside neighborhood fraught with gang tensions to a nice, multiracial middle-class community further south. Yet, my mom and dad still drove my brothers everywhere, so they would not get shot walking to the basketball court or to a friend’s home because of their shoes, their coat, or the color of their shirt. It was the ’70s and Marvin Gaye’s anthem asked the question on the minds of a generation: What’s going on?
Decades later, it is still my question. Six Sikhs killed in worship in Wisconsin. Thirty-three shot dead at Virginia Tech. Twelve killed and 58 injured in a movie theater in Aurora. One teacher and 12 students at Columbine. Six women, eight little boys, and 12 little girls in classrooms in Newtown. Those babies still had their baby teeth. What’s going on?
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, cites these stats in her recent Huffington Post blog: 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence in our nation since 1979. It is as though 4,763 classrooms of young people have been killed by guns. Twenty-two times more children and teens have been killed since 1979 than military personnel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. That cracks my heart wide open.
The shootings at Sandy Hook took our breath away. We felt in our hearts, this could happen to my child, to my neighbor’s child, and in my community. Unfortunately, in many communities, like my neighborhood in Chicago, we’ve known for a very long time that our children were in the line of fire.
Last Sunday, as Middle Collegiate Church prepared to celebrate the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we worked with Auburn Theological Seminary, PICO National Network, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns to mobilize faith leaders to combat gun violence through PICO’s Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. About 200 congregations around the nation pledged to pray, preach or act for gun control.
At Middle Church, our multiracial/multicultural community was moved to make a nonviolent case against gun violence with music from many genres: gospel music, spirituals, classical music, and even Marvin Gaye’s Motown hit were prayers on our lips: Mother mother, there’s far too many of you crying. Brother brother brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.
Along with wondering about what’s going on, we asked ourselves in church on Sunday, “What would Martin Luther King, Jr., do?” How tempting it would be to fight fire with fire, to add fuel to the angry hot mess, to pick up sword and shield and gun and grenade and call each other “enemy.” It would be easy to turn our sorrow and anger into rage.
Yet, as we think about the nonviolent legacy of Dr. King, we recall that he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
We’ve got to find a way to put some love in this equation today.
Early in Chapter 2 of his prophecy, Isaiah speaks a vision of peace in which the weapons of war are turned into tools that make life. Rather than beat each other into submission, the faithful people of God are called to beat our swords into ploughshares, our spears into pruning hooks and to “study war no more.” Transformed, these life-giving tools cultivate the barren and dried-out soil of our fear, and ready the planting of seeds of peace.
The vision Isaiah articulates is not reserved for heaven, or the afterlife. He speaks of a time “in days to come,” sometime between now and the end of our days. He speaks of a time sometime in human time when human beings can use human power for healing. I think that time is now. This vision can feel so lofty, we might doubt its veracity, question its viability. But we who believe in the God of Peace must lean forward into the not-yet-here future we are promised, and live as though that day has come. We must use nonviolent means to disarm our nation, and make it safe for our children.
This is not a call for the cautious. This is a call from the strong word of God for the bold people of God. It is not for angels in the sky but for the earthy, imperfect, brokenhearted people of God to pick up their ploughshares and pick up their pruning hooks and get to making peace and making life!
Here is what I want us to do. Each of us knows someone who has been killed at the hot end of a gun. See that face. Think of their name. Whisper it in a prayer. Raphael Ward is a name on my lips — a 16-year-old, who was shot dead two weeks ago here in my East Village community, because of a coat, but also because a gun was there. Trayvon Martin is a name on my lips. Those 20 babies’ names are on my lips. I am praying their names, and my heart is cracked wide open.
I believe at the place of that fissure, God’s power-full presence grows in me, grows in your own heart. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, the Apostle Paul once wrote. With the power of the Holy One growing in our place of vulnerability, I want us to use our words to change the status quo. We do not need to join the cacophony of anger and vitriol in order to speak and write for peace. All of us — writers, and poets; musicians and dancers; teachers and lawyers; clergy and factory workers; artisans and administrators; parents and children — we all have a captive audience to whom we can say, “Enough is enough. Stop the gun violence now!” Write to your congressional leaders. Use Facebook and Twitter to put this sermon out in the universe. Use your own words, and say “Enough!” with passion and compassion. We can shout it or whisper it. Joined together our voices can bring change and healing into this land.
Finally, I want us to get on the bus. I mean that literally and figuratively. There is a March on Washington for Gun Control this Saturday, Jan. 26, on the National Mall. I am going, and so are 30 of my congregants. Get on the bus, and go to Washington in this year that marks the 50th anniversary of King’s historic march for freedom and jobs. And if you can’t get on that bus, get on one for freedom. Get engaged in your faith community and create a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. Mentor a teen. Check out the Children’s Defense Fund website, and find a way to advocate for children. Do something about gun violence.
Faced with the urgency of now, what would The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., do? He would use his voice to remind us that the arc of the moral universe is long, yet it bends toward justice. What’s going on for me is this: I am sure that we each need to jump up and grab that arc and pull it down until it touches earth. I urge us to not be too busy, too sad, too afraid, too overwhelmed or too immobilized to make peace here on earth.
In Isaiah’s vision, the drama of peacemaking is enacted by God, who is mentor, mediator, and judge, and the people, who hammer their weapons into tools for peace. We are our better angels, called by God to boldly make Shalom on earth. Each of us is the one ― gifted, equipped, able to be used in justice-making. Broadway’s Tituss Burgess wrote these lyrics, “You and I are the ones we’ve been waiting for; you and I thought this was somebody else’s war. You and I are the ones, the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Ph.D., is Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church and Executive Director of The Middle Project.