Our hearts break yet again over another mass shooting. This time it happened here in Nevada at a country music festival. It feels more real to us. From children slaughtered in a Colorado high school and a Connecticut elementary school to young adults at a gay nightclub in Orlando to Black worshippers in a South Carolina church to county music fans in Nevada, violence strikes any and all of us randomly. The perpetrators sometimes clothe their crime in an ideology – sometimes religious, sometimes political, sometimes racial, and sometimes not at all. The common thread is the choice of violence as a response to the satisfactoriness of the world.
If we muster the will, there are steps we could take to curb the gun violence. We do not need to interfere with anyone’s hunting rifles or even their handguns to say that no one has a legitimate need for such an arsenal of automatic weapons as Stephen Paddock unleashed on his victims. In the Las Vegas shooting, bad as it was, it could have been worse. Many were saved by hearing the shots and taking cover. Congress is now considering legislation to make silencers more freely available. Silencers will increase the number of fatalities and injuries. We have before us ways to make things better or worse. The choice will be ours.
But the weapons are just the implements of three deeper forces at work in society today. First, is our veneration of violence not only as a way to solve problems but as a way to validate ourselves as people who matter. Movies, t v programs, video games, comic books, popular music, and numerous consciousness-shaping voices are the catechesis of a false religion New Testament scholar Walter Wink called The Myth of Redemptive Violence.[i] The bad guy oppresses the good guy until the good guy is justified in violence against the bad guy. That violence sets everything right and everyone lives happily ever after. History teaches us how false that myth is. Wink said the whole Bible starting with the creation story in Genesis and culminating in the teachings of Jesus was a repudiation of The Myth of Redemptive Violence. Yet, that myth is practically the established religion of 21st Century America. If there is danger from Korea, chaos in Venezuela, bullying in a school, or discord in a home, our imaginations turn to violence as the response. We respect people for their ability to kill, make heroes of them, define them as our role models.
Second, and closely related, is our addiction to discord. It doesn’t matter which side we are on. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. We make up issues over which to get exercised. Political leaders stir us up. The news media stirs us up. Social media stirs us up. (It turns out many tweets on both sides of the “take a knee” controversy are coming from Russia). The problem I point to is our practically prurient attachment to hostility. It has become our drug of choice. Clearly, it is a long way from ranting on Face Book to killing people at a concert. But the hostility we habitually indulge helps form the breeding ground for mass violence.
Finally, there is the unravelling of community. Participation in churches and civic groups has been declining through the same years that we have witnessed the rise of crazy mass violence. We are retreating into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people, and many of us into solitary lives. Living this way, the qualities of character it takes to be a human society are atrophying.[ii] When community is broken, people are isolated. Because changing our environment is inherently a group project, isolated people are powerless and in despair. Violence is always an act of despair.
If you are reading this message you are probably a church person and you want to do something to turn this around. That’s a good thing. We are in the business of community, faith, hope, and love. Especially in this present darkness, we live by faith in Isaiah’s prophesy of God’s peace when, they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their speaks into pruning hooks. Nation will not rise up against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.[iii]As Jesus told Peter to put away, his weapon, we will no longer look to weapons for safety, for we know that as Jesus said, all who draw the sword will die by the sword.[iv]Our way is not violence because our way is not despair. It is hope.
God calls us to reach out beyond our walls to the communities around us with an invitation to be cared for – not conditioned on agreeing with us about anything. God calls us to listen to the lonely. God calls us to participate in civic discourse, not by joining in rancor and name-calling but by seeking deeper understanding of the feelings driving those who speak so harshly. God calls us to care for the victims, to reconcile with the perpetrators, and to offer faith and hope in the God whose love created and sustains this world instead of the futility of violence. Yes, God calls us to speak out for laws that will make our people safer from the kind of mass shooting that happened in Las Vegas. God calls us to speak for the protection of our people because we care for them. But the evil we confront is too deep for laws address. It is a time for a resurgence of faith, hope, and love as the antidote to distrust, despair, and violence.
Lady Julian imagined the word as a fragile hazelnut and asked God how it could sustain its existence at all, it was so small and frail. God said, “It exists because I love it.” God still loves this world. We rest in that love and we live into that love by loving God’s world and all who live here.