I wasn’t preaching last Sunday so I didn’t face the decision that most preachers entertained that morning: Do I say something about the violence and death? This time it had happened in El Paso and Dayton, but we have a long list of American cities and schools that now have the words “hosted a mass shooting” in their historical records. What’s the preacher/pastor/prophet to say when two new names join that grim reckoning?
We all know the risks. Say something and you immediately fall into the swamp of our great political divides. Americans are suspicious of strong reactions. We evaluate every statement according to the standards of our affiliations and interests. Is it helping or hurting “the other side”?
But something must be said. If we do not mourn the dead, lament the lost, or resist the evil that haunts us in these days, what is the meaning of this gospel we proclaim?
So we speak. Hopefully not in clichés. Clichés are those statements that make you want to say, “Yes, and…” So when we say “thoughts and prayers” we recognize that we have said that phrase so often in these situations that the words are now pointing to something else. Yes, we think of the victims and their families and we pray to God for comfort, and there is this other feeling within us—a sense of inadequacy. Are we really helpless in the face of this evil? Is there really nothing that can be done?
It’s because of this that we have created a new saying that is fast on its way to becoming a cliché: “Thoughts and prayers are meaningless without action.” Yes, and…what are we going to do?
The faith of Jesus Christ calls us to a deeper community capable of responding to such a question. Polls tell us that most Americans really do want to address the problem of gun violence and we agree on what some of those solutions could be. But moving toward consensus will require that we move toward each other and that will mean giving up our fondest villains—those imagined ‘others’ whom we pillory, mock, and berate—in favor of the real people in front of us that are complex human beings whom we love.
I wasn’t preaching on Sunday and I’m sure I would have been tempted to jump on my favorite hobby horse and ride it. But I hope I would have paid some attention to the deeper longing in my soul, which is for the beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about so often. That community puts the brokenness of the world right on the table for everyone to see—right there on the communion table. And that community listens over and over to words that become our prayer and purpose: “By your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”