By Sam Candler
When I heard the devastating news from Tucson about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others, I was on a weekend retreat with the Chapter of the Cathedral of St. Philip, of Atlanta. (The Chapter is the elected group of eighteen lay leaders of the Church; four canons and I were also there.) We were in the snow-covered mountains of North Georgia, preparing for the year. Suddenly, my outlook saddened. Like our entire country, I was struck deeply by the news. Obviously, the violence was senseless and in such a public space; but I also remembered at that moment how I admire public servants.
We need politicians. We need public servants, who are called and willing to enter our public places and to care for them. Public servants always risk their time, their honor, and their reputation; they are not supposed to be risking their physical lives. On our Cathedral Chapter this year, and on retreat with us, was the sister of one of Georgia’s statewide elected officials; she knows better than I what her brother must endure and care for. I am sure she heard the Tucson news with special sensitivity, too.
We need politicians, politicians who take challenges and make themselves vulnerable. However, the Tucson events reminded me that, at some level, we are all politicians. We all have a place, politically, in this democratic republic of the United States of America, and we all take risks. The victims of the Tucson shootings, from a federal judge to a nine-year old child, were fulfilling their roles in the public sphere. They were showing up for a good old-fashioned “Meet your Congressperson” event. People and politicians were doing what we were supposed to be doing.
The theme I presented to the Cathedral Chapter was “Beloved Community.” It will be our image for this year and for the future. But I believe it is the proper image for all our churches during this year. All churches in these times have the gift of being a beloved community. Our gift of beloved community enriches us, but it can also serve as a model of community for the world around us.
On the weekend after the Tucson shooting, many of us will remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet with whom I associate that beautiful image, “beloved community.” That phrase inspired a truly heavenly vision for him and for us; but he was not its originator. I would claim that the image goes back to the New Testament itself. “Beloved” is a dear phrase in the New Testament, from the instant in which Jesus is called “beloved” at his baptism, to the countless instances in which Saint Paul describes his church members as “beloved” (five times in the Epistle to the Philippians). God really does love Jesus, who called the church into being. The church’s great apostle, Paul, really did love his people. The church is meant to be a community, beloved of God, beloved by each other, and beloved for the world.
But these are times in which our society seems especially confused about community. Much of our culture too easily accepts, and even demands, too shallow a form of community. Waiters come up to my table and introduce themselves by their first names. Talk show hosts demand that callers use only first names. Our schools and civic organizations and sports teams call themselves “families.” These associations are nice, and valuable to our wider community life. However, using intimate forms of conversation before the hard work of relationship-building can lead to dramatic disappointment. True community takes time and effort and care.
Another area where we are truly confused about community is in our use of television, the internet, and social media. (Can you believe that the term “social media” was not even a phrase a few years ago?) The speed in which we can acquire data, through television and random internet searches, leads us to think we know all there is to know about a subject or person just with mechanical facts. Our social media sites give us the opportunity to make quick comments, and sometimes biting, vicious comments, about subjects and persons without having to look at other people face to face. These comments create a “form” of community, but that form is astoundingly weaker and less informed than face-to-face community! At their weakest, members of these “internet communities” are actually quite isolated and lonely; they become loners and renegades.
I do admit, of course, that these forms of social media, at their best, are wonderful! I find that, at their best, they reinforce healthy relationships which have already been formed face to face. I love reviewing social media photographs, for instance, which remind me of wonderful past events or which inform me of what my friend or colleague is doing.
In a time when our culture is confused about community, I believe the church has the calling and gift to be true community, to be “Beloved Community.” We are meant to gather together, to learn and laugh together, to love and cry together. And, together, we account for each other. We teach each other and hold each other to standards of civility and grace. We love (and live) for the long term and not the short term. The Christian Church, at our best, offers true and beloved community.
I am way down the line when it comes to being qualified to speculate about why the Tucson shootings occurred. Like you, I have read and listened to all sorts of reactions. But most of them leave me concerned that our various speculations and reactions to the shootings have become further elements of our polarized divisions. Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes.
David Gergen made the sad observation on 9 January 2011, at CNN.com, that “Soon after the news broke, the internet lit up with accusations, even before we knew anything at all about the man who pulled the trigger. Much of the early commentary, especially from the left, blamed the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc. for employing a rhetoric of militarism and creating a climate of hate. Commentators from the right soon retaliated, arguing that the left was just as guilty of rhetorical excess and through bad governance, had inspired a citizen revolt. As of this hour, we have a country that is not only deeply saddened but even more divided than we were before the shooting.”
So, I repeat: Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes. I do not want to speculate too extremely myself. The simplest explanation for the Tucson violence is a deranged person. But I would also suggest that people who resort to violence are not, unfortunately, part of beloved communities. For various reasons, they sadly do not belong to communities who offer measured grace and civil relationship over the long term. People who resort to violence are not part of healthy religious communities, healthy Christian churches, healthy Jewish synagogues, or healthy Muslim mosques. My sad comment about the Tucson shooter is that he did not have beloved community.
The way out of random acts of violence is the way of community. I mean healthy, life-giving, community; and I mean beloved community. It is beloved community that sustains daily interactions of civility and sustenance. With others, face to face, hand in hand, and sometimes arm to arm, we learn how to behave in the world. We learn how to care, and we learn how to express disapproval with peace and honor.
Finally, of course, in a beloved community, our ultimate values are the same values as the One who “beloves” us. And it is a peaceful and just God who beloves us. Such is the God who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to realize that the church’s values of peace and non-violence could be a model for the world around us. And that world certainly includes the political world, in which we all play a part. Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community came to include, not just the church, but the world itself. And that is our calling, too. All of us have a part in today’s political world, to risk ourselves, to give ourselves, to the peace and love, honor and respect, of a truly beloved community. I thank God for everyone who shows up in the public square, for the common good, to take that risk.
The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.