by Torey Lightcap
The window is propped open, the birds are singing, a mild breeze is blowing, and the church lawn is verdant. It’s a sunny day in the middle of June, and the earth seems to be breathing with less desperation than it did this time last year, when it felt like a drought was upon us and our crops were already wilting in the field from insufficient rain and too much heat. In other words, deep in its bones, today feels like a perfect day to let out a sigh, piddle around outside, or linger and read.
But I don’t feel like I can do those things. I don’t feel careless or even ordinary. It’s hard to identify with the weightless ease of summer — especially the summers of my youth, which I now remember as endless stretches of largely innocent playtime. I’m an adult now, and a husband, and a father of two beautiful young children, and the pastor of a Midwestern church filled with good people, and it’s harder these days to rest assured that all is well. There is an anxiety in the body-politic, and I am well attuned.
The weight of our country’s gun violence of late is starting to become more than I can bear, and I wonder if it is with you as well. It seems each day brings a fresh new set of deaths, names of killers, another pin on the national map. It’s getting harder to pay attention to the news for fear of that next cycle of breaking headlines — a school, a shopping center, a sorority house. A man (usually it’s a man) with a grudge or some kind of paranoia trumped up by the paranoia of others. Stories of people being slowly whipped up into a frenzy, writing their manifestos, making terrible plans to do terrible things, seeking retribution or infamy or the legitimizing of an infantile agenda that is realized at the cost of our collective sanity. Men declaring themselves sovereign, seemingly worshipping their guns, and defying others to step up and just try their luck at knocking the chip off their shoulders, or at least get out of the way, or just pray we’re not in the line of fire. Promises of grand-scale violence and the beginning of a revolution. A mythology built around the idea that what the public doesn’t understand now will be understood in times to come.
These headlines — these tragedies — break faster and faster these days. I’m always unprepared for them. They remind me that there’s a large part of me that chooses to feign innocence every time. There’s a part of me that feels shamefully naïve and gut-sick. I look in particular at the faces of the parents of children who have died, and I try not to imagine the horror of being in their shoes. I think of how much I love my own children; I think of my wife, working in a school library. I think of how easily I would let my life go if it meant them keeping theirs, and how helpless and desperate and hopeless life would feel if I did not have any of them. Seemingly with nowhere else to turn, I roll it all into an honest and selfish and searching prayer to God for their protection and the protection of all people from all forms of evil.
Then I turn it all off and walk down the street, and the cycle starts all over again. A momentary flicker of sanity in the national dialogue about guns and gun violence turns back into a black-and-white argument over personal rights versus the common good. No one ever wins this argument; at this point, it has been rigged so as to flame out when people lose attention and move onto something else. Until … and then it happens again. And again. And again.
Each bullet fired takes us one step further away from being able to have a sensible conversation. Each “incident” removes another peg, until the whole thing seems untenable. Perhaps in retrospect, it will be said that we loved our personal freedoms more than the collective good of humankind.
Even in spite of all these things and how sad they make me, I have an unshaken center, for the core of me resonates chiefly with the Jesus Story.
The Jesus Story is the human part of the unfolding narrative of God, which in its entirety takes up all of history and beyond. The Jesus Story is about a God who chooses a specific moment to intervene in our affairs and to retrain our attention to certain key ideas about living. Among those ideas, perhaps the main one, and the teaching that is hardest to fulfill, is that we cannot return violence for violence no matter how much we want to. We must learn, instead, to seek out different ways to respond to violence. These ways-of-being must be simple and effective. But more than anything else, the prohibition stands: just because you’re treated this way doesn’t mean you get to respond in kind. I can’t think of a more difficult teaching or of anything more opposed to basic human nature. Surely God gives it to us as a commandment (“that you love one another”) for precisely that reason.
When you add it up, these men who are going on these killing sprees are telling us in the material they leave behind that the world has dealt with them unfairly — has wounded them, and now they must have their revenge. The Jesus Story is about a God who intervenes at a specific moment to say that that is not an acceptable way to live. But now Jesus has given this ethic to us. It’s up to us to carry it and talk about it and commend it to our prayers and sew it into the consciousness of our country. It’s up to us to preach it in our lives and to exercise it in our discernment and in our speech. It’s up to us to publicly repent for lack of prior action, and then to stand up and say that this was never an acceptable way to live and if not now, when? It’s up to us to do all that. Because the way it’s happening now obviously isn’t working.
So, are you going to join me? I mean, I’m not quite sure how to go about this, but I know I can’t watch all this happen anymore and still imagine I have a clean conscience about it. We can’t continue to be devastated by these things. Our faith narrative will not permit it. We worship a God who in Jesus Christ heals a woman who takes action, and who tells her, Your “faithing” has made you well — or in other words, because you acted on what you believed, you have been healed of your infirmity.
What will you do?
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Diocesan Transitions Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa. He’s mostly preoccupied this summer with keeping his kids from going stir-crazy.
Sculpture: Non violence sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, Malmo, Sweden, source Wiki Commons.