O God as we pause today to remember those in the military who have given their lives for freedoms we enjoy, and all those who have died in war in every home and nation, we also lift up all who have died from the plague of gun violence in our land. We remember those who have taken their own lives with a gun, those who have died in school shootings and other mass shootings, those who have died by a gun in the course of an argument or from abuse or by accident or during the commission of a crime. We lift our voices in sorrow and frustration knowing that every life is infinitely valuable to you. Receive all who have died into the arms of your mercy, bless those who mourn with the hope of eternal life, and strengthen all of our hearts and our arms to bring an end to this scourge. This we pray in the name of the one who overcame the power of death, your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Too Many Angels
The news from Uvalde, Texas this week sits heavy on our hearts. The loss in a school shooting of nineteen 4th graders and their two teachers — and the wounding of 17 others — is, sadly, only the latest in a too-long list of tragedies. In some of the litanies for gun violence distributed by the Bishops Against Gun Violence, I counted 64 mass shootings, without mentioning Columbine.
The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, President Jed Bartlet memorably said in a speech after a 2006 mass shooting in the television drama The West Wing. We are all victims of gun violence — not just the innocent school children, shoppers, concert goers, office workers, or worshipers who lose their lives to violence — and all those who loved and mourn them. Our nation’s gun crisis with guns also affects police officers and other first responders, emergency medical teams, all those who help, provide training for and counseling after mass shootings, all those who dive under desks in active shooter drills, and all of us who come to think that this kind of threat is just part of life. We are ALL held as its prisoners — in fear, in mourning, in preparation, and in drills for horrific events we should never have to anticipate.
Calls for Change
The news and social media have been full of calls for change — for gun control legislation, confiscation, or elimination. And the lobbying interests that support gun ownership, and the many politicians and citizens they influence, have been equally vocal that the other side’s gun control suggestions will not work, one high profile supporter saying memorably that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
No matter where we fall on the broad spectrum of how to stop gun violence, I can’t believe that anyone among us supports the horrific outcomes of our failed policies. What we do know is that we have a terrible problem. The United States has more mass shootings and deaths by gun violence than any other nation in the world. And for every time we hear or say that we send our thoughts and prayers, we know in our hearts that we need policy and change — that is, thoughts and prayers in action. As Pope Francis says, You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That is how prayer works.
Years ago, when I was a young lawyer, a bill was introduced in the Georgia legislature that outlawed a type of financing lease that allowed cities to borrow money to finance government buildings and equipment without a bond referendum. There were really good public purposes for these leases. And there also had been some abuses. Cities had entered into leases they couldn’t afford to keep but couldn’t function without. It’s not important to understand the technicalities of the leases — just that they were an important tool, but had been used without enough regard for their potential harm. Something had to be done, but we could not agree what that was. The committee room at the Georgia House was filled with bond lawyers, and local delegations of mayors, city managers, council members, and taxpayers — all earnest and concerned — explaining why the legislation that had been introduced WOULD NOT WORK. I was in that meeting room, and I have never forgotten what the committee chair said to us. I hear all your good reasons why this bill we have introduced won’t work, he said. But these leases are a problem, and we have been talking about this for a long time. You all get together and write something that will work, or we’ll just get rid of these things.
Write Something That Will Work
Is that approach too simplistic to imagine in the context of gun control? Maybe. But it sure clarified what was at stake and motivated us to get past differences we all believed were insurmountable to find the best outcome for us all. And just to be clear, as with the gun lobby, there were economic interests involved. All the bond lawyers like me — and the investment bankers and financial advisors — we supported our families with this municipal lease work. And the cities were able to finance essential equipment and facilities — like E911 centers and fire trucks — that they could not do any other way. The committee chair’s ultimatum — that we establish our own reasonable limitations to control the abuses of this financing vehicle or lose our economic interests altogether — focused our thinking, and we surprised ourselves. We were freed from the system of domination by our economic interests, and we figured it out.
What if we put our loudest and strongest thoughts and prayers in action, insisting that our legislators introduce strong gun control legislation, with the united will to pass it, and let those who support gun ownership for good reasons — including both gun owners and the well-funded gun lobby who stand to lose their economic control over others — figure out reasonable regulations to free us all from this system of domination by economic interests? We must call on them to try, because the streets of heaven are just too crowded with angels.
Paul and Silas in Jail
We see economic stakes like this play out in today’s reading from Acts, when Paul heals a young girl who is making her owners a lot of money by telling people’s fortunes. She follows Paul and the other apostles around for several days, annoying him by repeating endlessly that Paul and the others are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation. Everything she was saying was true of course, but she was also a victim of her owners’ economic exploitation. When Paul frees her from this system of domination, her owners take Paul and Silas to the government authorities, where they are stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison. As preacher Bromleigh McCleneghan writes, when God’s power is revealed—over and against the power of businessmen to exploit a young girl, over and against Rome’s power to imprison agitators and evangelists—Doors break open.
In the words of preacher Ron Hansen, There is an earthquake that jars loose the doors of the jail and somehow unhinges the framework holding Paul and Silas imprisoned. Paul and Silas’s Roman jailer is also freed from the imprisonment that binds both captor and captive in systems of human domination. The Roman jailer is baptized, and his whole household with him, liberating all of them at the same time. Like the Roman jailer, we are all victims of gun violence. May we pray actively, working with God, to unhinge the framework of gun violence holding us imprisoned. Amen