We need to DO something

June 15th, 2016

After the carnage at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston (which brought our tally of mass shootings to something like a dozen), James Howell (Pastor, Myers Park UMC, Charlotte and Western N.C. nominee for Bishop), got a text from a parishioner: “Pray if you want, but we need to do something. We need to pray, but we need to do something.”

Howell began his sermon that Sunday with that text. He told his congregation not only that America’s ways with guns and race is an “assault upon God” but that this sin requires resourceful Christian reaction:

We need to pray, but we need to do something. Over and over again in this country when something happens — Ferguson, Baltimore — we pray, but we never change anything …

When you bring up guns and race, white people don’t want to talk about it. People say ‘It’s too political” … It’s not just political and personal, it’s theological … what we say about God. If we get that wrong, then this country has no hope. But if we can say something true about God in all this, then this country may have some hope …

In his sermon Howell made pleas and proposals for specific changes in American gun laws and challenged his congregation to engage in specific acts of contact and conversation with African-Americans.

Let’s do something. God is eager for us to do something, to have a different kind of community … I think God wants us to look take a look at our world and say, ‘We could do this. With God’s help we could do this.’

Howell, the eloquent preacher, dared to become Howell the risky instigator.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed grave disappointment with “white moderate” churches and their clergy (my sort of church) who showed some of the right attitudes and voiced some of the right words but who lacked “persistent and determined action.”

I had hoped that the white moderate would see … Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearning of the oppressed…, still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Since the attack upon the gay, Latino club in Orlando, there has been an outpouring of response — contributions for victims and their families, prayer meetings, silent vigils, candlelight demonstrations.

Good. But not good enough for Christians.

It was nice that at a baseball game there was a moment of silence to honor the victims. In the face of such a horror, such outrageous evil as what happened in Orlando, numbed, sad, silence is an appropriate response.

But when is the response of silence a lack of response? As Christians we can thank God that we have more to offer than respectful silence in the face of tragedy. God gives us something to say. For one thing, we can preach. We can testify, condemn, speak up and speak out, and we can organize and act.

I just heard from a United Methodist who said that at her church on the Sunday of the shooting there was only one mention of the crime in the service — a vague intercession for the “victims.” She was indignant. “Does the church have nothing to say at such a moment that the world needs to hear? Does God expect nothing more?”

Her Wesleyan Christianity was showing. Methodists are those Christians who believe that God should not only be loved but also served, not only respected but also obeyed, that evil must not only be noted but also actively confronted by the risk of righteous deeds in Christ’s name.

We have seen some touching photos of law enforcement officers handing out candles at vigils. The Sheriff in Orlando asked for blood donations and prayers.

Good, but not good enough. Christians are big on candles and prayers. However, at this time in our national life we need more from our law enforcement officials. Donald Trump speaks as if American law enforcement supports him in his servility to the NRA. We therefore need more police officers to stand up and to speak out against our epidemic of gun violence. The FBI is busy seeking the motives and any collaborators with the killer in Orlando, as if it’s a great mystery why our nation has more mass shootings than any country in the world. Why doesn’t the FBI have the courage not merely to investigate after the incident but to say that we already have many of the means to keep such carnage from occurring?

One man, one man walked into a gun store and legally bought a Sig Sauer assault weapon, and thereby forced the entire Orlando law enforcement to take three hours of extreme, risky, heroic measures in order to stop his killing rampage. If the killer had not been wielding an assault weapon, would the police have taken so long and used such deadly force to end his murdering?

Our law enforcement officers need to tell us how horrible it is to witness that a sad, hate-filled loser can walk into a store and buy the means to wreak carnage on a scale that once was reserved for military. Who cares if the shooter was related to ISIS or some hostile foreign government? (Turns out he’s just one of us.) Now, because of our lack of gun laws, because of our cowardly, compromised Congress, and because of the silence of too many of us, one sorry individual can literally declare war on our entire country.

I know a church where, after another street murder of another child, organized and went to every law enforcement official, every elected office holder in town and said, “How can we help you better protect our town? We know that you share our grief over this situation. How can our church help you to do some of the work needed to make our town more closely resemble what God wants?”

Maybe now is the time for the church to stand up and say that candles, moments of silence and makeshift memorials are not enough. Even prayers to God are insufficient. God did not create the most violent society on earth — we did.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, a commentator said, “Once America decided killing children was bearable, the gun debate was over.”

When the church of Jesus Christ is known only for its prayers and its limp expressions of sympathy for the oppressed rather than its speaking up and acting out in Jesus’ name, we have decided to be a bit of honey to sweeten the world’s evil rather than to be what Jesus commanded us to be: salt, light and agents of a new age.

Is this a Kairos moment for the church to show a violent culture that, because of Jesus Christ, there is another way? It’s high time for us preachers and our congregations to show that Jesus Christ makes possible a people who can do what nine-out-of-ten average Americans appear to be unable to do: speak the truth and then love our neighbor through acts of love.

This is awfully Wesleyan of me, but I remind you that Jesus did not say, “Light a candle for me,” or “Every now and then when there’s a spectacular criminal act, pray to me.” You know what Jesus said. “Follow me.

Will Willimon is Professor of Christian Ministry, Duke University and a United Methodist Bishop, retired. His book, Fear of the Other, confronts xenophobia from a Christian perspective and offers some specific proposals for pastors and congregations.

comments powered by Disqus