October 22, 2013
Dear Episcopalians of the Diocese of Nevada,
Tragic school violence has happened again. Only this time it has happened here. We are naturally shocked and grieved. Such things should not happen. But they do. Last week in Austin, Texas a high school student shot himself to death at school. Two months ago, a high school student shot a classmate in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In January, there was a high school shooting in California and a middle school shooting in Atlanta. One advocacy group reports that there have been 16 school shootings in the United States so far this year. It seems they are happening more and more often. When a school shooting happens at our doorstep, we ask, “What does God think of this? What is God saying to us in this moment?”
Back when I was teaching religion to law students, I read something theologically profound in a law review article by a great legal scholar, Robert Cover. He said, “Violence is always an act of despair.” That statement has stuck in my mind for nearly 20 years. “Violence is always an act of despair.” All of the things we really want we get from loving relationships. We want respect, kindness, understanding. We want to be heard and held. Everything we truly desire is a fruit of communion. It happens in mutual, caring, appreciative relationships. It is only when we despair of ever having what we truly long for that we resort to violence to get something less, something that will never satisfy. So yes, “violence is always an act of despair.” Nothing could be more explicitly despairing than a murder-suicide.
Despair is giving up on ourselves, giving up on each other, and giving up on God. Violence is despair in action. I don’t know the details of what happened at Sparks Middle School. But I know this much: it was a single act of despair by a boy, who some say had been bullied. Whatever his pain was, it overflowed his capacity to hold it, so he poured it out on others. Such acts are committed in the context of a society of people who are giving up on themselves, each other, and God. It is a hard, hard thing for a teenager to live in hope while growing up in a hopeless society.
That is where the Church comes in. We are here to share good news with those who most need to hear it. That’s our first Mark of Mission. It is our responsibility to insure that every young person, like that tragic boy with the gun in Sparks, has heard the word of God:
“I know the plans I have for you . . . . plans to prosper you
and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29
We have good news for the poor, both the materially poor and the spiritually poor. We have the good news that the world’s judgments about us are wrong. Our judgments about ourselves are wrong. God sees us through kinder eyes -- eyes that see something very good in us. The Bible says:
“Rejoice . . . The Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . . .
For the Lord your God . . . will take delight in you with gladness.
With love, he will calm your fears
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3
As if we were pony express riders, God has put hope in our saddlebags and said, “Get that hope to my people. They are dying -- and killing -- for lack of hope. Give them my hope.” Our first priority as the Church is to deliver hope to the lonely people beyond our walls who need to hear the good news words; but more than that, they need us to live those good news words. Our neighbors need us to make room in our hearts and space in our lives for them. They need us to delight in them, to calm their fears with love, to rejoice over them with songs. They need us to be Christ for them. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ. God wants to act through us to give our neighbors hope and a future. Evangelism is not selling someone something they don’t want or need. It isn’t talking someone into holding the same opinions we do. It isn’t recruiting people to support our Church. Evangelism is giving people a little friendship and a modicum of hope before they load their guns.
Some of my friends will be disappointed in me, but I am not going to politicize this tragedy. The Episcopal Church clearly supports reasonable restrictions on gun purchases, the same restrictions supported by the overwhelming majority of Nevadans, and a substantial majority of the rank-and-file of the NRA nationally. As a member of Bishops Against Gun Violence, I am on board with all of that. But laws and regulations -- right, reasonable, and necessary as they may be -- will not be nearly enough to prevent gun violence. There have been school shootings where better laws would have made a difference. But, at Sparks Middle School this week, I don’t know whether the law our legislature passed last session, had it not been vetoed, would have made any difference. So I make no political point.
Instead I make this spiritual point: When people despair of being loved -- not just cared for, but being appreciated, respected, delighted in, and rejoiced over -- when we lose faith in our own loveliness and the capacity of others to enjoy us, then we compensate with fantasies of violence. We imagine ourselves as armed heroes, which is a short step away from armed villains. We shift our hope from the power of love to the power of violence. That, brothers and sisters, is a spiritual issue, a moral lapse, a failure of faith, hope, and love. It is the fundamental corruption of the soul. It corrupts the soul of the individual and it corrupts the soul of the nation. The first province of the Church is to address that spiritual issue, that moral lapse, that failure of faith, hope, and love.
So I call on each of our congregations and on each Church member, to pray this week for the victims of the Sparks Middle School shooting – the wounded and the dead, the frightened and the bereaved. And I ask you to pray for the Church, not that we will grow in numbers and institutional vitality, but that we will set aside all trivialities, all self-will, all distractions in order to fully embrace God’s mission. Do more than pray. Think and talk and plan about what you can do to share God’s love with the folks outside our Church walls who need Christ’s love so desperately. How can we tell the story of redemption? How can we prove by our own actions that it is true? How can we be the light of which Isaiah sings in the Surge Illuminare:
“For behold darkness covers the land;
Deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.
But over you the Lord will rise
And his glory will appear upon you.
Nations will stream to your light
And kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open;
By day or night they will never be shut. . . .
Violence will no more be heard in your land.” Isaiah 60
“Violence will no more be heard in your land.” That’s God’s promise to us if we open the gates, if we bear his light to the violent, despairing, broken, hopeless people who are our brothers and sisters.
Yours in Christ,
10th Bishop of Nevada