Remarks given by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, at the Boston Vigil to #EndGunViolence, Thursday, December 14, 2017, being the 5th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Massacre
Gun fatalities in the U.S. this past Sunday, December 10, 2017:
Chicago (3 deaths); Brooklyn; Lafayette, LA; Birmingham, AL; Lancaster, PA; Oklahoma City; Jacksonville; Salt Lake City; Nashville (2 deaths); Memphis; Boston; Decatur, GA; Roosevelt, UT; San Diego; Oakland; Philadelphia (2 deaths); Anchorage; Chesapeake, VA; Aberdeen, NC; Hebron, IN; Bakersfield, CA (2 deaths); Stockton, CA; Temple, TX; Baltimore; Hazelwood, MO; Dayton; Columbus (2 deaths); Norfolk, VA (2 deaths); Milwaukee; Maple Heights, OH; Akron, OH.[i]
Thirty-eight deaths by gun violence this past Sunday. Did you get weary of hearing the list? Did you wonder when it would ever stop? Indeed, we are weary of hearing the list. We do wonder when it will ever stop.
We are gathered tonight, on the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. We remember the 20 children aged 6 to 7, and the 6 adults, who were gunned down that day. And remember we should. Yet it bears noting that on a quiet Sunday in December, five years later, as we all went about our business reading the Sunday paper, Christmas shopping, watching a football game – on that quiet Sunday thirty-eight people were shot and killed. That’s twelve more than died at Sandy Hook. Not that it’s a contest! Death statistics are not a competition. Grief is not a contest. But it is constant. It is constant, and to our shame as a nation, we seem barely to notice.
Gun fatalities in the U.S. on Monday, December 11:
Saxton, PA (2 deaths); Paterson, NJ; Las Vegas; Pensacola (2 deaths); West Palm Beach; Winter Haven (2 deaths); St. Louis; Seattle; Trinity, NC; Philadelphia; Lancaster, PA (2 deaths); Artesian, CA; Jasper, AL; Waukegan, IL; Hammond, IN; Chicago (2 deaths); Whiteville, NC; Stuttgart, AK; Palmer, AK; Indianapolis; Winston-Salem; Arlington, TX; Cincinnati (2 deaths).
38 dead on Sunday. 29 more dead on Monday.
Here in Boston you have perhaps read about the outdoor crèche at St. Susanna Roman Catholic Church in Dedham. On the back wall of the Christmas stable parishioners mounted signs recalling mass shootings in the U.S. There, next to the celestial angel, high above the infant Jesus, are the placards: Columbine High 13. Virginia Tech 32. Orlando Nightclub 49. Texas Church 26.
Fr. Stephen Josoma says that we can scarcely celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace without acknowledging that the Christ Child’s message of peace does not seem to have yet taken root. “It’s like Groundhog Day,’ ” he says. “There’s a shooting, and we’re told, ‘We can’t talk about it now,’ and then the next shooting happens. . . . It’s our new normal unfortunately, and [this display is] to jar people out of that place of accepting it as the new normal.”[ii]
Good for Fr. Josoma and the people of St. Susanna. After every gun-related massacre, we are told that to speak of its root causes is somehow to disrespect the dead – as if the dead could be any more disrespected than having been gunned down in the first place! Whenever some matter of importance gets taken up in the political realm, voices attempting to raise the moral issues involved are told to Shut Up. ‘Religion does not belong in politics,’ we are told. Yet if the organizing of our common life together, which is the role of our governing bodies, excludes consideration of our collective moral obligations – well then, God help us all.
Of course religious and moral precepts belong in our civic deliberations of every sort, including those regarding gun violence. Religious and moral voices collectively represent our effort to maintain a conscience in our life together. Who wants a government without a conscience? (This is meant to be a rhetorical question.)
And now we have the great “Thoughts and Prayers” debate. With each passing massacre, we hear expressions of “thoughts and prayers.” Lately we hear likewise the voice of those frustrated by pious platitudes, who cry, “Keep your stinking thoughts and prayers to yourself. What we need is action!”
Two of humanity’s deadliest sins, according to church teaching, are Pride and Sloth. We all know about Pride – arrogant self-importance, positioning oneself above others including even God. But we misunderstand Sloth. It is not laziness. Sloth is not about sleeping in on a Sunday morning, or lying too long in a hammock. Sloth is the failure to use our God-given gifts. Sloth is passivity which fails even remotely to tap the potential with which we have been created.
So here is what I want to say about the “Thoughts and Prayers” debate. Action without thoughts and prayers is the sin of pride, imagining that on our own we can forge ahead and fix the world. Action without thoughts and prayers relies on the arrogant assumption that “I, and I alone” am going to fix this hard thing. It’s the sin of pride.
Meanwhile, thoughts and prayers without action is the sin of sloth. We cannot ‘think and pray’ but then not bother to apply what tools God has given us to address the ills that beset us. Thoughts and prayers without action fail to make ourselves agents of that particular prayer we utter all the time: “thy kingdom come.” God’s kingdom won’t come without our participation. Such passivity is the sin of sloth.
Gun fatalities in the U.S. on Tuesday, December 12:
Gloucester Point, VA; Detroit; Huntington, WV (2); Columbus; Cleveland; Baltimore; Ft. Wayne (2); Gretna, LA; Tucson; Kansas City, MO; Norfolk, VA (3); Houston; Cyprus, TX; Syracuse; Akron; Atlanta.
That’s 20 more. And that means that in the first three days of this very week, in the course of 72 hours, we have seen (or refused to see!) 88 gun violence deaths. More, by far, than even the 58 killed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, our nation’s deadliest mass shooting.
Here is what my colleague and friend Dan Edwards, Episcopal Bishop of Nevada, said shortly after the Las Vegas massacre:
“Jesus says God’s children are peacemakers. Peacemaking starts with truth. Without truth, any peace is a superficial thing. The consolations I hear about our tragedy remind me of (the prophet) Jeremiah who said, ‘They have healed my peoples’ wounds lightly, saying “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace.’ .…
“We have no Constitutional right to food. We have no Constitutional right to medical care. But we are fanatically jealous of our capacity to kill…. Violence is where we place our faith, our hope for deliverance. … We enact into law our veneration of violence. …
“I don’t mean we can eliminate gun violence with legislation alone. Jesus said it is from our hearts that evil comes, including murder. … [But] Jesus shows us a God who will submit to violence [himself] rather than use violence. … Jesus said, “Do not resist evil with evil.” …[iii]
A single needless death by gun violence is one too many.
Twenty-six tragic deaths at Sandy Hook was way too many.
Eighty-eight gun violence deaths in the first three days of this week is way, way too many.
Let us not give up the struggle. In this season of light and peace, may we rededicate ourselves to being agents of God’s light. With our thoughts and prayers, and with our actions, may we be instruments of peace.
[i] Statistics per the Gun Violence Archive, online archive of an independent data collection and research group. See www.gunviolencearchive.org
[iii] The Rt. Rev. Dan T. Edwards, Episcopal Bishop of Nevada, sermon October 3, 2017; via personal correspondence.
Photo by Bishop Alan M. Gates, Nick Cave “Until” exhibition, MassMOCA