Last Sunday, on a gloomy and gray afternoon, we gathered from a wide swath of Maine, representing various United Church of Christ congregations along the Kennbec Valley and the northwestern part of the state, up to the Canadian border. We came from places like Hallowell and Wilton, Waterville and Farmington, Winthrop and Jackman, New Sharon and Benton Falls. We spent the afternoon at the Farmington church getting to know each other, as we are still a relatively new merger of two Maine Conference Associations. I didn’t count how many people were in attendance, but my guess is around thirty.
Most of us could be dead right now.
Just as our meeting was breaking up, just after we had smiled and giggled our way through “Getting to Know You” (not exactly what we usually sing at church gatherings, but it felt appropriate to what we had been up to all afternoon), someone announced that there had been another mass shooting. This time in a church.
A wave of silence took over the room, along with an almost palpable sense of shock and dismay. Another horrible incident. Another horrible day. And, the unspoken veil of futility hung over us: nothing will change.
The slaughter of country music fans in Las Vegas, or a bunch of young children in an elementary school on an ordinary December day in Connecticut, and now a group of caring and faithful people at worship at a quiet church in Texas—somehow none of them count enough to motivate a serious, wide-ranging discussion about guns and violence in our communities.
This week, we have heard the rhetoric of the extreme, and vocal, end of the NRA, calling for more guns and for armed security in places like churches. We are hearing the dangerous adage that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun—as if bad people go around with large “I’m a bad person” hats on their heads, just so we are clear about everything.
Tuesday’s New York Times included, related to its coverage of the church shooting on Sunday, an article, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.” And, in that article, the statement: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”
The question, then, is why. Why so many guns?
Is this really about the NRA stuffing down our throats a narrative about freedom and protection of self through gun ownership? Or, is there more to it?
From my little perch in this corner of the country, I find myself wondering about our violent tendencies, as well as the fraying of ties that hold us together as community. I find it curious that, in a country in which so many claim some sort of tie to Judeo-Christian traditions, there seems to be a remarkably tenuous relationship with basic tenets of those traditions, like “do not kill,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” While there are many who cling to “do not kill” when it comes to abortion, that commandment doesn’t get much attention when living individuals are attacked so wantonly and viciously.
Why can we not truly talk about what is happening? Why can we not dig deep and to let go, for a moment, of our long-held opinions and positions, in recognition of the agonizing loss of life, to engage in meaningful conversation about what is happening in our country? As the bodies mount—not only through mass shootings, but also in the acts of violence that get little or no attention—how can we simply slide into our usual responses and only for a short time until the incident recedes in our consciousness?
Isn’t it time that we find the courage to honor those whose lives have been cut short, and to talk about violence and guns? Not to shout at each other, or to assume we know where other people stand on these issues. And, put aside “talking points” and the narratives of lobbyists. And talk. Talk about violence. Talk about the willful neglect of God’s commandments. Talk about the Golden Rule and what it means, and how it should influence how we treat each other—how we should take more seriously mental health, and loneliness, and domestic violence, etc.
Those who have been so brutally killed, and their loved ones who mourn, deserve more than our “thoughts and prayers.”
We must do better.