The Rising and Falling of Many
Luke 2:22-40, Hebrews 2:14-18, and Cesar Vallejo’s “Masses”
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
Rev. Bromleigh J. McCleneghan
3 February 2013
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The other night, I had a dream. I cannot tell you most of it – simply because the plot and images were gone as soon as I awoke, nothing untoward – but in my dream, I was walking here on the South Side of the city. It was very early morning, just before dawn, and I was alone, navigating the block in the cold, half-light. I picked my way through vacant lots of the sort we see below 63rd, hurried along cracked sidewalks and busted chain link fences.
In my dream, I was afraid.
When I was coming of age, in our culture with all its unresolved racial conflict and tension, young suburban white women were often taught to be afraid of city streets. We were meant to be afraid of being raped by strangers, of being overtaken on a lonely street on the way home at night. And, indeed, this happens. It happened to a friend one night our last year of college. She was followed home and assaulted.
In my dream, I was not afraid of this. Despite my friend’s experience, I have deeply internalized the data – both anecdotal and widely verified – that women in this country are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they already know. Not a stranger. Not on a city street. A guy at a campus party; a “friend;” a spouse.
I’ve been reading Little House in the Big Woods, the first in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nine wonderful stories of her childhood on America’s frontier, to my five year old Fiona each night of late. I loved them as a child, and I love revisiting them now: it is amazing to my suburban child to hear of a five year old girl who has never before seen a town, or a store. We delight to learn of a life of such limited means that can be so entirely rich. These stories take us to another world.
At the library a few days ago I checked out the 1974 pilot to The Little House television show for “family movie night.” At one point, Charles, the father, has left his wife and daughters for a week’s trip to the nearest town, to trade and purchase supplies. They have previously encountered strangers on the prairie, and one night, mother Caroline is convinced that some of the Native Americans she has seen on the horizon are going to come take advantage of her husband’s absence. As the children sleep, she sits in the rocking chair facing the door, with Pa’s gun across her lap, singing hymns to herself through clenched teeth. She hears a noise, and cocks the gun, and is beyond relieved when the door opens… and it is her husband.
“I’d feel more welcomed,” he jokes warmly, “if you’d put down the gun.”
Fiona didn’t understand this scene. She didn’t understand the isolation this family must have known, and the fear of the unknown. She is, obviously, untutored in the narrative of white women fearing for their safety and their sexuality without the protection of their men, against strangers in the night. She is, I hope, untutored in racism. I struggled, in reading the first book a few weeks ago, with a lengthy scene explaining how Pa cleaned and oiled and loaded his gun, to ensure that she knew the gun was for hunting, and eating, and safety against large, predatory animals. She really is pretty unfamiliar with guns. But I wasn’t ready for this scene of isolation, and fear, and danger. I wasn’t ready, certainly, for Caroline to accidentally shoot and kill her husband on his entry – but the scene portrayed the gun as a protector. The thing that promised to keep Caroline and the kids safe, a deterrent to the unknown dangers of the night.
In my dream, walking the city streets in the dark, my fear was not unknown. I was afraid of being shot. Afraid of some random drive-by violence, or a mugging turned lethal. Though we hear so often of near misses – of miraculously clean shots that bypass vital organs – that is not how many guns work. Guns tear flesh, spit it out, spraying blood and tissue. I am afraid of them, of their power to kill.
I am afraid of them, and yet, maybe like good old Ma Ingalls, am more afraid of the ones I haven’t seen yet. The ones that emerge out of car windows, the ones terrifyingly out of place in schools and parks.
Cultural narratives are important – shaped by and actively shaping our individual and collective fears. We have several stories Americans tell about guns. The most obvious, the most crudely paradoxical: some see guns as protectors of life and livelihood; others speak of guns as the means of robbing others, unjustly and cruelly, of life.
The things that divide us as a nation similarly divide us in the stories we tell about guns: race, class, rural or urban dwellers. There is a sense that those who oppose gun ownership are elitist, that they look down upon those wise, adventuresome folks who enjoy hunting, who want to protect themselves and their homes, who live in dangerous environs. These dichotomies, both real and imagined, were present in the short-lived semi-controversy over President Obama’s professed enjoyment of skeet shooting. Yeah, right. Gun lovers said. Awfully convenient he’d never mentioned it before. And thus we now have a photo of our president with a gun, pointed and aimed at little clay discs, comfortably, powerfully, masculine.
When I was in college, I took a terrible class on media criticism, in which each text disillusioned me more and more with the American people… or, at least, American publishing. They were so bad that, when I couldn’t sell them back to the bookstore, I couldn’t even bring myself to donate them to prisoners in need. I threw them away, something I had never done before and have not done since. One of them was a manifesto, which warned of a coming day when the government would come for our guns, and would use our subsequent helplessness to engineer a totalitarian regime. All would be expected to espouse the same beliefs, to give up everything they’d ever called their own. There were, you may not be surprised to hear, racial overtones. Readers were called upon to stockpile their guns. Hide them in oil barrels, bury them in their backyards. Whatever it took. We would need to be armed for the revolution to come.
I have said before that I am a lover of institutions, by which I mean that I am moved by their power used for good, moved by collective action to improve the lot of all. But our institutions have been known to fail us, leave us wondering for whose benefit they exist and serve, leave us asking questions of leadership. Our government, certainly, and our churches. Even our institutional home here at the University of Chicago has had a week in which our attention has been called to our responsibilities to the neighborhoods we call home, and to our neighbors, and to our students.
And there are tensions, certainly, between our desires and needs for freedom and for justice. There are, indeed, tensions between our needs and desires for conflicting freedoms: freedom from danger and freedom to choose our own destinies. Freedom to exercise our faith, freedom to speak, and freedom from hate speech and an established religion. Freedom to own a gun and freedom to grow up in a community not overrun with gun violence or the threat of a shooter armed with a semi-automatic weapon and dozens of clips of ammunition.
These tensions have been a part of our lives as a nation since our founding, and a part of cultures other than our own for generations beyond that: freedom and security, equality and justice. Of course, the terms we use to describe these differences may be exacerbating the problem. There is no such thing as security; all people should be free to flourish, but no one is free of her responsibilities to others. I wonder if we might get farther in the debate if we stopped calling for gun “control” and started asking for gun “regulation.”
It is probably right and good that we not want to cede all our power – control over our lives – to the government. But it’s not in danger of happening, even if we substantially added to our terribly lacking regulation of gun sales and ownership. Between the armed forces and law enforcement, there are roughly 226 million guns worldwide. Civilians own over 650 million. 650 million guns. That’s a huge number, but compared to a world population over 6 billion, it’s hard to understand.
But in this country, with its 300 million people, we are in possession of 314 million firearms. 4 million of those belong to law enforcement and the military. 310 million guns are owned by civilians. More than one for each of us. As Mother Jones notes, civilians outgun the government 79 to 1.
It’s obscene, really.
And the sheer volume of guns that are owned – the fact that there have been 1300 gun related deaths in the 6 weeks since the massacre in Newtown, Ct – suggested that this is not an ideological issue at all. Gun regulation may feel that way, but it is not. The ability to buy, sell, own, and use automatic weapons, designed to effectively obliterate flesh and life, of animals (though you couldn’t eat them) and humans, is morally wrong. And it ought to be illegal. We ought to have background checks and waiting periods. We ought not to allow the sale of so much ammunition. Of clips that enable the killing of dozens of people before witnesses even have time to scream.
Prolific writer Stephen King published an essay last week entitled, simply, “Guns.” Its opening pages have a cynical tone, as King describes the media coverage of a school shooting, describes the ways in which our furor is raised, the ways we grieve, and then forget. Until it happens again. And again. “This is how it shakes out,” he writes.
His essay, though, is not cynical. It is profoundly reasonable – laden with profanity, but reasonable – and deeply hopeful. We must change this. This cannot go on.
Our readings for the morning are varied, but they give us hope. Anna and Simeon have waited and waited and waited for the time when the vision of peace, of God’s Messiah, of a new way of being in the world. They have waited for a glimpse of salvation their whole lives and now, though it comes with a recognition that the work of justice is complex and hard and ever so slow, now their eyes have seen salvation. Perhaps we, now, may know that we have waited long enough for our salvation from pervasive gun violence. Perhaps our lives might be changed by this vision.
In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul reminds readers that Christ came and lived and sacrificed here – willingly sacrificed of himself – for the lives and love of us. Not of angels, who have no need of his aid, but for humanity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, preaching on these texts, speaks of how Christ’s dual nature – as divine and human, is no mere gracious condescension.
“The author,” Tutu says, “speaks of us as being those who are going to be filled with the fullness of God – yes, we have been created in the image of God, that is our destiny, our destiny to be God-like, God-like so that we are perfect, even as our heavenly father is perfect.”
If we participate in this God-like destiny — here, at the table — we are conquerors over death. We have no need to fear. But more than that, we have a responsibility, a call, to be generative – to be creative, to teach, to change and love – to be a force for life in this world.
We may not raise the dead. We have only a share of God’s power, of Christ’s divinity. But we must do more than hang our heads in grief. A man is dying. It was sad! But despite the care of one, he went on dying.
Even when a few gathered to offer courage and love, it was not enough.
We have lost too many. There is not one who is not affected. Parents of first graders, grandmothers and grandfathers, in cities and towns and rural areas across our country. Here, Hadiya Pendelton, a Chicago high schooler gunned down less than a week after performing at the inauguration.
There is not one who is not affected. My suburban kids, the beloved children – Avery, Rufus, Viktor, Kaius, Kira-Sophie, here today – we cannot wait; we cannot wait until it is too late.
Then all the men on the earth
stood around him; the corpse looked at them sadly, deeply moved;
he sat up slowly,
put his arms around the first man; started to walk…
We have seen the rising and falling of many. Let us be brave, let us be sure, let us be deeply moved, that we might share in God’s good and generative work, that we might be agents of divine love and sacred hope here and now. Today.