Having heard a lot of confessions, some as a priest, some as a lawyer, I am rarely shocked by words. But I was taken aback by something I head in my parents’ living room a few years ago. My background is what sensitized me to this particular statement.
When I was in Junior Hi in Texas, in the early 1960’s, it was not at all unusual to hear the other kids talking about how somebody needed to kill John Kennedy. His murder was a popular fantasy, but one taken lightly – until Nov. 22, 1963. The following days, for those of us who lived them, can never be forgotten. The flag draped casket, the riderless horse, Mike Mansfield’s eulogy “And she took the ring from her finger and placed it in his hand.” It was the first wave of national grief, but not the last in that bloody decade. That time marked me in a way I had not fully grasped until a few years ago.
I was in my parents’ living room when one of my young relatives began talking of how he wanted to assassinate President Clinton. He wasn’t planning it. He didn’t express the intent to actually do it. But he thought it would be highly satisfying. He wanted to do it and said so freely. That is one time, I was truly shocked. Despite all the years that had passed, I felt myself once again to be a Texan, to remember the shame that the President had been murdered in my state, and now to hear this young Texan, my kin, eager to relive that evil day was more than I could grasp. I was not polite.
I don’t know what to make of the murders in Arizona. I don’t know whether there is any direct connection to any ideology or the political rhetoric of our time. But I do turn to my faith and what little I know of human nature to help me reflect.
I start with the premise that God does not make murderers and does not send people out like Manchurian candidates to do evil. And I take to heart the message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic, Moral Man, Immoral Society in which he said we are each much better as individuals than we are as a society, that society, though necessary to fully human life, is fallen and makes us do things that are beneath us. Mobs commit atrocities few individuals do. The lone gunman is not lowered by a machine onto the human stage. The lone gunman is formed in a society. The most broken fall prey to our darkest passions and perform the darkest acts on behalf of the worst sentiments in our collective spirit.
My young kinsmen never took at shot at President Clinton but he gave voice to something that we have neither owned nor extinguished. Sometimes a broken person is too weak to resist it and becomes its agent. Language is our best way to know what a society believes, feels, and values. My young kinsman said the murder of a leader is good. The rhetoric of our contemporary politics is violent, murderous – “the second amendment alternative.”
Christianity is, in an important sense, a special language. It is the language we speak to suggest, to hint at, to point toward “things to deep for words.” It is a language of creation, appreciation, mercy, and reconciliation. That makes it a language quite at odds with most contemporary political language. Yet it is not anti-political. Politics is by definition the practice of a common life, a sharing of authority, a caring for each other. It is the so-called “political” rhetoric of our time that is actually anti-political. It is the language of faith that makes an authentic politics possible.
This is why it is absolutely essential that Christians speak on matters of the common good, that we speak in the public square, that we articulate the demands of justice. Christianity is not a political ideology, as much as some on the left and the right alike, have claimed. Christians do not necessarily agree on matters of politics and economics. But Christians speak (or when they are true to Christianity should speak) of these things in a distinctively Christian way – a way that is non-violent, because Christians live in hope, and violence is always an act of despair. (Robert Cover, Violence & The Word, Yale Law Journal).
The voices of violence are shouting in our time. The anger and contempt are in long supply. And we speak too little, far too little. Sometimes, I see people in the church behave as if they were at a town hall meeting spewing hate. I see the ways of the world informing the Body of Christ, while the Body of Christ muzzles itself rather than inform the ways of the world. If Christians speak, and Christians are obliged by our Baptismal Vows to speak, on matters of justice, we speak differently in two ways. First, we speak in prayer – prayer for guidance, prayer of intercession, and prayer of contrition. Second, we speak prophetically – but prophetic speech is not simple or easy.
To speak prophetically is to say what we believe to be God’s will. To speak prophetically, we have to subordinate so much. We have to subordinate our pride, our ego, our self-interest. Above all we have to sacrifice our political and economic ideologies. This is particularly hard for leftists with secularist anti-religious ideologies and for rightist with Darwinian ideologies – both of which are challenged by Christianity. It is hard, hard, hard to resist the temptation to paint the face of Christ on whatever already fits our ideology.
Then, having died to self that we may speak for God, it is incumbent upon us to speak reverently. That means refusing to claim we know God with greater certainty or precision than we really do. We must be able to say “Thus sayeth the Lord – I think.” (Niebuhr, On Christian Tolerance) If we subject all our other beliefs to God, and acknowledge our uncertainty of God’s will, then we will, of necessity, speak more gently and listen more attentively to one another.
Clearly, not all Christians have spoken with the kind of non-violence and humility. We have the regrettable Battle Hymn of the Republic in with “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” etc. Christian violence is an oxymoron but one that has too often obscured the light of Christ. Our first duty is to repudiate evil spoken in the name of Jesus and to claim the truth of our tradition.
If we add our voices, along with the voices of peace, wisdom, and hope from other faith traditions, we can, by grace, counter at least some of venomous voices that poison souls, especially the souls of broken, vulnerable people.
In the wake of the Arizona shootings, I hope we will speak to God, to each other, and to the world in an authentically Christian way. I hope we will pray for the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence who wound themselves most grievously. I hope we will repent of our own violence, our own intemperate words and deeds – knowing that every word and action ripples out into the world in good and evil ways greater than we intend or foresee. I hope we will rededicate ourselves to mercy and the mission to reconcile all people to each and to God in Christ.Dona nobis pacem.