In the fourth chapter of Genesis, after the proverbial “fall” of humanity, two brothers stand in a field. Cain is a farmer — Abel, a herdsman. Both bring offerings from their labor to God, but Abel brings his first fruits, so God looks on Abel’s offering with delight. In a jealous rage Cain rises up against Abel and kills him. This is the first recorded murder in the Bible.
I will never forget walking onto the National Mall early on the morning of April 11, 2013. As I approached a mass of people and television cameras between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building I was overcome by the sight of more than 3,300 crosses and other religious symbols rising from the heart of our capital city. They represented the graves of all the people who have died by gunfire since the December 14, 2012 shooting massacre at Newtown, Conn. It was profound. It was overwhelming.
I hear it over and over again both during my conversations on the road, and as I skim the headlines each day, that we are in a battle for the common good.
I learned about the Boston bombings as my plane landed in Portland, Ore., traveling for an 18-city book tour to spark a conversation on “the common good.” As I read and watched more about the tragedy, there unfolded such a stark and brutal contrast between the explicit intent to kill, hurt, and maim others, and the actions of those who rushed toward the blast, risking their own lives to help the wounded. One act of vicious violence was aimed to destroy the common good and create a society based on fear. The others displayed the highest commitment to redeem the common good and insist that we will not become a nation based on fear, but on mutual service and support.
When real or imagined grievances combine with rage, religious fundamentalism, political extremism, mental illness, or emotional instability, we lose the common good to dangerous violence, fear, and deep distrust in the social environment. But when grievances lead to civil discourse, moral engagement, and even love and forgiveness, different outcomes are possible.
Guns are dangerous idols. While mass shootings are happening at an alarming rate and an epidemic of gun violence plagues our nation’s cities, our society’s fanatical devotion to weapons prevents us from enacting solutions to curb the violence. The cost of worshipping these false idols continues to rise, as firearms kill more than 80 people a day.
Since the Dec. 14 shooting in Newton, Conn., nearly 3,500 people have died because of a gun. Some of them were suicides. Some were gang-related gun deaths. Many use these facts to insinuate that the deaths somehow aren't equally tragic. But as Christians we know that all of them were children of God created in the Divine image.
While the idolatry rages on, prophets are beginning to speak out.
Last week, the Senate began a floor debate on gun control that brought to mind an earlier “floor debate” several months ago in Chaska, Minn.
Ever since our Community Dialogue on “Gun Violence in America,” I’ve searched for answers to what happened.
A crowd of 138 people came out on a Tuesday night to chime in following the tragedy at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn.
As the night wore on, it became clear that there would be no real dialogue, no moderated discussion. No give-and-take. A series of monologues, without interruption and with a time limit, was the best we could expect.
Fear, anger, hostility, and suspicion were in the room. The room was hot.
The months following have been a personal search for understanding of what happened that night, and how we in America move forward together on such a divisive issue.
Today, on the National Mall, I stood with fellow faith leaders, including clergy from Newtown, to remember lives lost at Sandy Hook elementary school and the 3,364 gun deaths that have happened since.
We stood in front of a field of crosses, Stars of David, and other grave markers, and it broke my heart to think that each one stood for a life ended too soon. It doesn’t have to be this way. Commonsense steps to reduce gun violence are within our reach. Just today the Senate voted to begin the debate. But there is much work to do. Lawmakers need to hear from you.
This is one of the clearest examples of a stark democratic choice: the old politics of guns or the morality of the common good. The clergy are here today for the common good.
I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions.
Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from “scratch.” Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a “loss” in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.
In these days, what are the sources of such life-altering “new knowledge?” There are many places for us to turn. Though I grew up without guns, I was surrounded by plenty of gun violence in my inner city neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the tragic losses of our children and educators in Newtown, Conn., I wonder if we have gained any new knowledge. Apparently, we live in a country that values the freedom to own guns, even overly powerful ones like assault rifles. “Second Amendment rights” are invoked as if our founders could predict the kinds of weapons that would be available to regular Americans today, even with the “militia” (local police forces) that we also have available to us.
Over the weekend I joined more than 6,000 people in a march for common sense gun control legislation.
The ground was covered in snow and ice, air so cold we could see our breath, on Saturday morning as we marched silently from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument. In front of me, 100 residents from Newtown Conn., carried signs that read, “We Are Sandy Hook.” By my side stood an elderly woman with a sign reading, “Guns kill people. People kill people. Let’s work on both TOGETHER.”
Behind me, beside me, and scattered throughout the crowd of silent marchers more than 1,000 simple white signs were also displayed — carrying the names of victims of gun violence who have been permanently silenced.
They were names like Charlotte Colton, a mother of three who was gunned down along with seven other people at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Goleta, Calif.
Names like Laura Webb, who was shot and killed in a salon while styling her mother’s hair in a massacre that killed eight people.
Names like Vanessa Quinn, 29, one of four victims gunned down in a mall in Utah while she was picking out her wedding ring.