Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Gun Control: A Religious Issue

A verse in our psalm today may sound excessively cynical, but in light of the moral failures of King David it resonates with a certain understandable world-weariness:

“Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”

Do you recall how, in last week’s installment of our summer reality series “David, Shepherd King”, God was heard to say to the young King, “Are you the one to build me a temple to dwell in?” David’s moral failings lend an explanation to that divine hesitation.

And speaking of world-weariness, isn’t there a hint of it in those opening words, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” It’s as if we’re chained to a recurring cycle of violence. The narrator suggests that even illustrious David gets lumped into the downward-sliding failure of imagination that finds it easier to fight wars than to build peace. Perhaps this endless procession of wars accounts for David being the one able-bodied Hebrew male not on the battlefield, the day his wandering gaze took in the profile of beautiful Bathsheba. He had delegated military command to others. A certain distance was creeping in between his decisions and the actual horrors of the front line, a numbing of the sense of personal tragedy that actually defines the human cost of war.

So we are treated to a tawdry episode in the afternoon of this stay-at-home king. Time seems fast-forwarded as this fling becomes a pregnancy. What follows is heart-breaking. David calls home Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, who has been fighting at the front. Pretending that he wants to hear about the war, David really wants Uriah to return to the embrace of Bathsheba, to eventually explain this pregnancy. Uriah is too principled, too loyal, too noble to have private pleasure while his brothers are engaging the enemy.

What a contrast between these two men! David slides into moral collapse. One ploy after another fails to get Uriah back in bed with his wife. One falsehood paves the way for the next, until the last dreadful step is taken. We are nearly three thousand years distant from this treachery, but we catch the heartbreak, once as a loyal valiant foot soldier is betrayed by his king, again as that disloyal king sinks into the sewer.

The complaint of the psalmist fits the occasion. “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good.” The psalm-writer even connects this world-weariness to the cynicism that says, “There is no God,” though he makes it clear that this is a foolish conclusion to draw. Still, he makes his point: in the absence of human goodness, God is felt to be absent.

The psalmist’s complaint gives us language to consider what happened in that movie theater in Colorado. I can imagine two reactions that remind me of what the psalmist says. One is how the victims may have felt the absence of God in those moments of sheer terror and searing pain. The other is how instantly we have seen human goodness in the stories of victims using their bodies to shield their loved ones.

But to my eye, and to my heart, the good that is absent in this tragedy is caused by our national failure to regulate the purchase of assault weapons. When kings go out to battle, when sovereign nations engage on battlefields, when police forces secure dangerous locations, they may need assault weapons. But when activists opposing regulation insist that anyone able to pass current background checks is entitled to own the kind of weapon that James Holmes brought into that theater, we should be worried that we’re in full ethical collapse. To say that current screening is enough is shown to be false with every mass shooting we experience. And if someone wants to try to convince me why would we want to live in a society in which anyone may own such a weapon, perhaps he can also tell me which of the nine circles of hell our society now occupies?

By caring more about the NRA lobby and voter backlash, our lawmakers have been disloyal to the rest of us, and negligent in fulfilling their duty. Isn’t it time to encourage them to take the risk that will, over time, diminish the risk taken by innocent movie-goers, students attending school, mall shoppers, laborers at their workplaces, people walking in their own neighborhoods?

Social commentary like this may not be your favorite style of sermon to hear on a Sunday. I have felt free to offer it today because of the apostle’s prayer in the letter to the Ephesians, that we may have the power to comprehend—or is it his insistence that we do have the power to comprehend--what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love God gives us in Jesus Christ.

That call to comprehension invites, no, it requires us to ask how gun control is a subject that belongs in churches and synagogues and mosques. Is gun control a religious issue? 91,300,000 results from googling that combination of words suggests that it is. Let me sample two.

“The Economist” magazine observed recently that when we Americans speak of our rights, many of us believe they are given to us not only by our Constitution, but by God. That bears some thinking. Does God give rights? Or does God give grace? Either way, does God not also give us responsibilities? That gun control will require careful, creative, political thinking is self-evident. That it deserves careful, creative theological thinking—who knew?

Some Roman Catholic commentators know. Popular Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin wrote recently in “America” magazine that gun control is as much a reverence for life issue as the others that his church consistently addresses: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. He also suggested that there’s something wrong with Christians praying for the victims of gun violence, without also using their God-given intelligence and courage to minimize the incidence of gun violence. Within hours of posting his views about gun control as a religious issue on Facebook, Martin had to shut down comments on the page because of the vitriol his views provoked.

As unsettling as that must have been to Fr. Martin, he might have concluded that he’s doing something right, to have caused such a stir. But this issue in this country will always cause sharp reaction. When we try to catch this wind in our sails, we will find it a rough crossing. But it’s time. It’s time that we stop persuading ourselves that our five-fish-and-two-barley-loaves worth of convictions aren’t enough. It’s time to make the crossing.

And I believe we will find Jesus walking right nearby, and will hear him say, “It is I; do not be afraid.”