Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando: We Begin Today

Sunday. The Lord’s day. On the way to church, or right after, we were mortified by the news out of Orlando. Another mass killing. How many? We’ve lost count. The ache, the revulsion. Even though numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of this news story, you shudder, and can’t turn off the TV coverage. I’ve seen rants on Facebook and Twitter. But the noise seems muffled somehow. A hush, a massive shudder has fallen over the world. I sit quietly, prepared for tears, but just numb.

I want names. To say 50 were killed, and it’s a record for the U.S. seems wrongheaded. Give me one name, then another. Each one has a mother, a brother, a coworker, a neighbor, a teammate. A person with a name is a life, a story, God’s lovely creation, a beautiful story. Because of the identity of those killed, we will rightly hear a cry on behalf of LGBTQ people. The point to be made really is that people are just people. Luis, who ran the “Harry Potter” ride. Kimberly who greeted people at the cellphone store. Juan, who’d just come out to his family.

In the first hours after every mass killing, when little is known, news agencies have to fill time. Much of the talk is speculation: Who was the killer? What was his motive? What were his thoughts? The important truth is, we do not know. We only infer, and guess. We have no idea what was in his head. Maybe this killer was drawn to radical Islam, but felt same gender sexual stirrings — and this was his way out. We cannot know what is in someone else’s heart — which is crucial here. If Omar Mateen hated LGBTQ people, he did not know them. He made a thicket of false assumptions about them.

Which is precisely what goes wrong in our culture which is so very terrified by anyone who is ‘other.’ As followers of Jesus, we never begin by prejudging anybody, ever. We go to the trouble to listen, to learn, never to assume. I live in North Carolina, where we’ve had a long-running controversy over LGBTQ people and bathroom usage. I have a friend who believes that, somewhere beneath the bluster opposing such rights, there’s a desire many Christian people have — that LGBTQ people just didn’t exist. I hope he is wrong. As Jesus’ people, we never wish some ‘other’ person would just go away or not exist. The only ‘other’ we want to get rid of is hate. Jesus anticipated we’d feel harshly toward ‘others,’ so he pretty clearly told us to love our enemies.

Pastors should say something, or do something. But what? When national catastrophe struck, the Israelites gathered fasted, and prayed Psalms like 44, 74 and 80. These corporate prayers were not for swift justice, or changed laws even. They cried out How long? They shook God, assuming God had to be slumbering. They repented instead of blaming. I suspect we should open our churches for special services, read the names of the deceased, read these Psalms.

And fast. Who can eat, anyway? Martin Luther King famously pushed back quite a few meals after reading newspaper reports about the killing in Vietnam. Or do we return too swiftly to our routines, our diversions? We are all of us deeply enmeshed in the very gangland culture that upsets us so. We good Christians have not just tolerated but created and funded a culture obsessed with guns, violence and depravity of all kinds. We have propped up politicians who pander to fear and talk tough. We have a lot of repenting to do. Was what Mateen did terror or hate? Our category for killing is Sin, but Sin is the condition of the entire fallen world. So in days like this, old wounds reopen; it’s time for all of us to talk with God, to get a lot of things straight. When these moments descend, we realize the work we should have been doing, and had better get busy with before the next tragedy. Our primary task as Christians is reconciliation. Sometimes when we debate the LGBTQ ‘issue,’ we forget there are always names, just one person, somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. I always wonder if hard-fisted judgment in church might actually foster a culture in which hatred is not just acceptable but actually holy? Can our tone be mercy? Can we Methodists reconcile, know names and stories, and love, and change communities where we live?

There will be pressure in the coming days to denounce Islam. Clergy can up their popularity in many places by castigating Muslims and wishing we were rid of them. It is just as easy for more enlightened clergy to clarify that what we see on the world stage is an aberrant perversion of Islam. It is up to clergy to stand in the breach at such times, and to say "My Muslim friends are horrified and sorrowful too." You can do so only if you’ve made friends with Muslims, and phoned them up in the hours after such a tragedy.

There will be a lot of talk about gun control. Quite predictably, Christians will demand it as the fix to this mess, while other Christians will explain how background checks won’t help, or that guns make us secure, or that this or that strategy won’t fix things. Isn’t it time to do something, even if it only makes the tiniest dent or doesn’t accomplish much? If someone you love has been shot, you do something, even if you don’t have a medical degree, even if it doesn’t really help. You can’t just do nothing.

Our country is hemorrhaging, literally, and drastic triage is required. Don’t Christians, whose Lord said “Put your sword away; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” have some holy obligation to labor tirelessly to do something, anything? If the prophets of Israel and Jesus himself provide us any clues, we must ask Can clergy speak respectfully but firmly to our people to rally them to be part of a movement not easily frightened off by the powers that be? Ours is not to secure safety for ourselves, but to stand with and for those who are hated, in Orlando, Charleston, in any and all places where precious children of God are despised and mercilessly slaughtered.

Beyond question, our problems are too massive for us to fix this week, or in a lifetime. But we begin today. Quite rightly, we pray, and fervently, not merely for God to soothe the grief of victims’ families, but to turn the whole world on its axis, to change a nation, to convert hearts, to temper a culture bent on distrust. We need and dare to expect a miracle; and we ask God what we can do as individuals and as God’s church — and then we do it with courage and mercy. We indeed are “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12), even while we grieve, repent and look for God’s waking dawn, and to each of God’s children, one by one, each with a name. 

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