Holy Innocents, Then and Now – The Rev. Gary Commins, St. Luke’s Long Beach
December 30, 2012, the Feast of the Holy Innocents
My God, my God, why have we forsaken you? Amen.
Children. Children! Someone is killing children. Again. Herod has sent his death-squad, his hit-squad to Bethlehem to kill all children two years old and under because the wise men had told him a king was born there. We don’t know Herod’s mind set. Was he mentally ill? Did he want to hold onto power, position, and wealth? Or is one the same as the other? All we know is that he decided children had to die, and children were killed.
Children! Someone is killing children! Again! In our nation, you might as well say: Always! Eight children a day. That’s the usual statistic. God’s children are always being killed by goddamned guns. Newtown is just one awful, sickening, gut-wrenching example of a constant in our society. Beautiful children. Ordinary children. Smiling children. Crying children. Playful children. They looked like any children, like the children in our families, like the children at St. Luke’s. The media always wants to know the mental state of the murderer. But the more pertinent question is: what is our mental state? Why do we, as a nation, continue to be accomplices in the murders of children? Do we suffer from a collective hallucination? Or are we a nation of Herods? Do we prefer to cling to money, power, and guns instead of making our children safe?
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Chicago columnist Mike Royko said that millions of people pointed the gun at King. He said: We are pointing the gun at our own head and we are pulling the trigger. The idea of collective responsibility is biblical. Individuals are responsible for their behavior, but we are collectively responsible for the kind of society we live in.
Some call our nation “Christian,” but Jesus never said “blessed are the gun makers.” Nations are not Christian when they refuse to listen to Jesus. Some say we are “civilized,” but civilized nations do not exalt violence. Civilized people do not believe that violence is redemptive, that you can kill evil by killing people. That’s Nazism. Everything in our society from video games to TV to movies presents guns as solutions. There is a continuum from video games to Congress to foreign policy. Nothing is exempt from our faith in violence.
We like to think that other people are violent. We know that not every Iranian is a terrorist, but we say Iran sponsors terrorism. Iran, Al Qaeda – those are terrorists. 9/11. That’s terrorism. It is impossible to quantify the evil of murdering 3000 people. It’s evil, demonic, satanic. And about 12,000 Americans die every year of gun-related murder, and 30,000 a year of gun-related deaths. That’s over 100,000 murders and 350,000 gun deaths since 9/11. So who is really more dangerous to our children – Al Qaeda or the NRA? And why do we allow the NRA to hold our children hostages?
Not every member of the NRA is a terrorist, but when a spokesman for the NRA suggests that we need more guns in and around our schools he proposes an arms race against ourselves! That’s not just crazy. It’s terrorism. It’s evil, demonic, satanic. The gun industry makes billions of dollars a year. We live in a land of corporate-sponsored terrorism. We live in a land of Congress-sponsored, state-sponsored terrorism. Like Herod, people value money and power over children’s lives. I tend to think of elected officials as gutless cowards and witless pawns. To them, it is more important to be elected for another two or four or six years than it is to protect children from guns. That makes them little Herods.
When I worked at Holy Faith in Inglewood, guns were always on the horizon. Urban interns living at the church said hardly a week went by when they didn’t hear gunfire at night. Sometimes it was more often. Two or three or four times while I was there, a certain drunk asked me for money. When I said no, he picked up his shirt to show scars from bullets, and said he was going to get his gun and come back and shoot me. Someone Anna Olson helped told her he was going to come back some day and shoot her. A man who said he had a gun mugged a parishioner, while he asked for forgiveness. The same man came back a month later and sexually assaulted an urban intern, telling her he had a gun, and asked for forgiveness. That night, at about 2 a.m., I followed an Inglewood police officer, who was also a parishioner and a former member of our youth group, into our church as he looked for the perpetrator with his gun drawn.
One morning our Senior Guild of twenty or so 70-, 80-, and 90-somethings was having its Bible Study when we heard gunshots outside. After a minute, I went to see a teenager with his leg bleeding. He refused help and limped away before the police could arrive. Two young adult parishioners were held up at gunpoint next to the church and forced to lie face down on the sidewalk. Marcie, who worked in our office, came to work in tears one day because her grandson’s 6-year-old best friend had been shot and killed by a stray bullet while playing at the park. Chris, a member of our youth group, a lector, a kid who thought he could beat me at basketball, got into the wrong crowd. Not a gang – he got to know the son of a celebrity. That son of a celebrity shot and killed Chris, and that son of a celebrity didn’t spend a day in jail.
Guns are most prevalent in urban America, in cities, in Chicago, in Inglewood, but they don’t just hurt urban people. Fifteen years ago at an anti-gun rally, I ran into a couple from my first church in south Orange County. Their son, a Sunday School kid when I was there, had been shot and killed in a random crime when he was about twenty. It was thirty years ago in Orange County that I got a phone call to see a family that had been camping whose twelve-year-old daughter had been shot in the head by a stranger. I spent sixteen hours with them while they decided to pull the plug.
When Zac was in the second grade, one of his classmates brought a bullet to school. The principal told the teacher not to tell the parents, as if children wouldn’t mention it? If a boy can sneak a bullet out of his house, why wouldn’t he try to sneak out a gun? I went to see the principal the next day. I asked if the student would be suspended, if the family would get counseling, and if the father with the LAPD might get lessons in keeping guns and bullets out of his son’s reach. When he refused to answer my questions, I told him I was my own boss; I had all day; and the chair in his office was very comfortable. I got my answers.
One night the choir at Holy Faith was rehearsing music a few days before Christmas in a big open room with lots of windows facing the street. In the middle of a Christmas anthem we heard shots fired across the street. None flew through the window. But something about the juxtaposition of Christmas and gunshots, like the juxtaposition of Jesus’ birth and the deaths of the Holy Innocents, has stayed with me ever since.
So we must ask: where is God? Where is God when children are murdered in Bethlehem, or Newtown, or Inglewood, or Long Beach? First, let’s start with where God is not. I think it was on the day of the shooting that some public fool said the shooting happened because there is no prayer in schools. Now, it is not a crime to be publically stupid. It is not even a sin to be publically stupid. But why publically violate the First and Third Commandments? The first is to have no other gods than the God of Israel, the God of the Exodus. I don’t know what god that public figure referred to, but it is not the God of the Bible, and certainly not the God of Jesus Christ. The Third Commandment is that we not take God’s name in vain. If that fool didn’t take God’s name in vain, I don’t know who does.
That is where God is not, but where is God? We yearn for a God who will defeat our enemies and keep us safe. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said he could pray for legions of angels to protect him, but he doesn’t. We want a God like that, a God who will always protect us. We want a mighty God we can blame, but we can’t blame God for the society we have made. What we get is Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh, baby Jesus, so vulnerable he needs Joseph and Mary to protect him. In Bethlehem, Jesus is born into a violent place. God’s power, love, and wisdom enter the world as a baby. This is the God we have – God who is one with us, one of us, who gives us the same power that was in Jesus, a person we can learn from and follow, a person who shows us the Way, a person who is the Way. The question is not: God, why have you forsaken us? It’s: why have we forsaken you?
To me God is in the words of Wendell Berry. Before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Berry asked: how many children do I want to have killed so that I can maintain my freedom? How many children should die so that I can maintain my comforts and my lifestyle? None. Zero. None. Those are the questions we need to ask: how many children should die so that someone can own a gun? How many children should die so that corporations can make billions of dollars? How many children should die so that politicians can retain power another two or four or six years? To the Herods of this world, money and power and comfort take priority over the lives of children.
To me, God is in the events that took place after the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins. At their funeral, Martin Luther King said that God can “wring” good from evil, even something that tragic, that horrifying, that evil. Years later, Walter Cronkite called that murder “an awakening.” On a practical, political level, civil rights leader Diane Nash decided she either had to hunt down and kill the murderers or think of a way to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Things like that still happen, but Nash planned what became the Selma Voting Rights campaign that led to a constitutional amendment two years later.
Personally, I favor the abolition of guns, but people say that conflicts with the Second Amendment. I’m no expert, but the last time I checked the Second Amendment it talked about militias to protect states from foreign armies or even the U.S. army. The last time I checked the Second Amendment, it talked about “arms,” but arms could be mace; arms could be tasers; arms could be rubber bands. The last time I checked, a former Supreme Court justice called the idea that the Second Amendment applies to individual gun ownership the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people in the second half of the twentieth century.
In any event, the Second Amendment is not the Second Commandment. It is a law. Laws change. Why not let people own guns but not let them take them out of the house? That way they can only kill their own loved ones, which is what happens most of the time anyway. Why not say that people can own guns, but only have two or three bullets? That’s what they do in some civilized countries. Once, I actually agreed with a member of the NRA that everyone who wants to own a gun should first get a Learner’s Permit and later take a test to get a license. We do it to drive. Why not do it to own a gun?
Usually, when people see me in my collar they think I’m going to make a moral argument; most of the time I settle for a rational one. After Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, I went with a friend to ask people to sign a petition to limit guns. A man who was 6’5 and 300 pounds told us he wouldn’t sign: how could I protect myself, he asked? So much for rational argument.
But what can we do? Lots of people are trying to do something, even little things. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship has a Gun Free Zone campaign. Churches put up signs on their property: No Guns. It’s not much but start where you worship. The Episcopal Public Policy Network is seeking support to pressure politicians to at least limit semi-automatic weapons and make it harder to buy goddamned guns to kill God’s children. Many organizations have been working to limit gun violence for years. Go on line. Find out about them. Check out the boycott of Starbucks, or is your cup of coffee more important to you than the lives of children? If you’re a member of the NRA, fine. Break away and form a more moderate, more rational group – the “Rational Rifle Association.” If you are focused on other issues – and God knows there are millions of important ones – ask: is that issue more urgent than gun control? There may be good reasons to legalize marijuana, for instance, but if you’re working on it so you can smoke pot in peace, grow up, and focus on saving someone’s life.
It’s good to be rational. But as Christians, we are called to be more than rational. The last time I checked, Christians are to listen to Jesus, follow Jesus, and ultimately, as a community, be Jesus. So one question for us is: how can we be Jesus on the gun control issue today? Dorothy Day used to talk about increasing the sum total of goodness in the world and decreasing the sum total of evil. It can take hundreds of years to create a more just society, and gun control isn’t going to be quick, but how can each one of us increase the sum total of peace in our society and decrease the sum total of gun violence. Start somewhere. Turn in your gun. Boycott somebody. Write a letter to someone in Congress. Tell them to rent some courage. Tell them to stop being Herod.
Children are being killed. God’s children are being killed with goddamned guns.
I’ve said where I think God is. I’ve said that these are some things I believe God wants us to do. I’d like to end, though, by saying where I am personally and spiritually, as a Christian and as a priest. If corporations care more about money than the lives of children – to hell with them. If politicians care more about power than the lives of God’s children – to hell with them. If we as a nation don’t do something about guns now, after this most recent, most horrible murder of God’s children, then God curse America. And if all I do is preach one sermon about guns and consider my work done, then to hell with me. Amen.