This Wednesday, April 21st at 6:30 we will have an opportunity to discuss gun violence in our community and what God might be calling our parish to do about it. The plans for this discussion arose from our nightly Compline group. I want to describe to you how this came about because it says something very important and gives us a way forward.
On March 11th, there was a quadruple shooting on N. 76th street in Overbrook Park. That’s about a mile and half from the church. That night at Compline the shooting came up. During the prayer time, someone offered a prayer for the victims of the shooting and all who were affected by it. When that prayer was prayed, several of us on the call felt a little tug in our hearts. It was as if someone or something was saying, “this is important, don’t forget this.” It was as if God was speaking to us. I believe that God was answering the prayer as we prayed it. We ourselves are affected by this shooting and God was speaking to us in answer to our own prayer.
After prayer, we discovered that God had been speaking to several of us and a conversation ensued. We also discovered over the course of several night’s discussion (not that we didn’t already know) that the topic of gun violence is a contentious and polarizing topic, which is very difficult to talk about even in the abstract. That is when we decided to dedicate a separate time to the conversation in order to preserve the function of Compline as a prayerful moment and an opportunity to check in with each other.
The fact is, gun violence is not abstract. It isn’t a distant problem affecting distant people. It is ubiquitous and very close to home and it is affecting our neighbors and us. So, the question for me is: who am I, if I am the person who walks right past a neighbor who is suffering, without even so much as pausing because of my own fear? The answer to that question is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the story, a person has been robbed and is dying in a ditch on the side of the road. A religious leader comes by but does not stop to help because he is afraid of the ramifications of getting entangled in someone else’s problem. So, the religious leader, crosses to the other side of the street and goes on his way. So, yes, I am that person, if I allow a mere street, an invisible but powerful border named City Avenue, to prevent me from noticing the pain and suffering of my neighbor. I am on a dangerous spiritual trajectory whenever I choose to stay on my side of the street, rather than get entangled in a problem that, in reality, is everyone’s problem.
No doubt about it, this is a very tricky topic for a bunch of reasons. Gun violence on a macro level is a huge societal problem that we can’t make a dent in. In addition—and here’s the real fear that drives a lot of apathy—it is very hard to know what to do and how to act in the midst of very uncomfortable and complex dynamics of race, geography, and socio-economics. Some of us are afraid that if we step into this fraught territory, we may not find a way through, or we’ll be too miserable to carry on. Some of us are rightly concerned that if we rush over to Overbrook Park and start “fixing” stuff that we will fall into in what is known as “white savior complex.” That danger is very real. Even with the best intentions, we can do much harm if we do not pay attention to power dynamics. But the other danger, the death-dealing danger of apathy, is an even greater concern. There are risks in having this conversation, but taking risks is part and parcel with taking up our cross and following Jesus.
Ours is a politically diverse congregation, a fact about which I am very pleased. When we have the conversation on Wednesday, it is going to be tricky not to run aground on partisan political differences, and thus never get to the heart of the topic: What is God calling us to do, here, now?
So, I am proposing some ground rules for our conversation:
- Keep the conversation away from partisan politics. In the spirit of Christian unity, let’s try to avoid partisan labels for people and ideas. As part of this effort, let’s not discuss or debate the effectiveness of particular legislative solutions. Obviously legislation matters, but there are plenty of opportunities outside our time on Wednesday to talk about legislation and to contact your congress-people and senators regarding it. We’re trying to have a different conversation.
- Keep the conversation away from the Second Amendment. Again, there are plenty of forums to discuss and debate constitutional law. But, in many ways, this is a more modest proposal.
- Keep the conversation local and concrete. It is all too tempting to generalize and to retreat to hypothetical situations in an attempt to avert our eyes from the facts that are right in front of us. Let’s try to keep this conversation about the actual experience of our neighbors and community; not on what might happen, but what is happening.
- Let’s avoid Pelagianism and have some humility. Even as we avoid apathy, we must also avoid the temptation to think of ourselves as saviors of the world. We’re not Jesus. Pelagianism is an ancient heresy that believes we have the power within ourselves to save ourselves and solve all our problems. Part of our society’s problem is that it is delusional about the extent to which we can solve our own problems without relying on each other and on God. Even at the very local level, this is a complex problem with many components, including spiritual ones. We lack the power to solve the problem of gun violence, and we’re certainly not going to fix it by just talking about it. Instead, what our time Wednesday is about is listening to and paying attention to what God is already doing in this neighborhood, and how God might be calling us to get on board.
God is up to something, and I think our conversation on Wednesday is going to be excellent. I hope all of you join us. We’ll use the Zoom Compline Link.