We Must Change

Last Sunday, I gave what was perhaps the most emotional sermon ever as I reflected, as did many throughout America, on the events that occurred in Sandy Hook.  My personal connections to the community made it all the harder for me to function in the hours and days after the event.

I have read many perspectives over the last few days and have come to the conclusion that the recent events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT have more to do with our love for violence than it does with guns.   Guns are only a small piece of the puzzle.

There are folks who believe that banning assault rifles is the solution.  I agree that assault rifles have no purpose except for killing mass numbers of people.  However,  banning weapons will not prevent murders from weapons any more than banning abortions would prevent terminating pregnancies or banning cocaine and crack would prevent drug addiction. The only outcome of outlawing weapons, abortions, crack/cocaine is force these underground giving organized crime syndicates another market to exploit.  Plus the number of deaths annually by assault rifles is small compared to the number of deaths by all firearms, whether those deaths are homicides, suicides, or accidental.  So a ban on assault rifles only covers a small dent in the overall issue of gun violence, just as gun violence is a small piece of the over all issue of violence.  It might seem a victory for gun control advocates but it does not address the problem.  It is comparable to swatting at a fly when a tiger is on the prowl.

That tiger is violence in American culture.  We have a love affair with violence.  John Lennon is quoted as saying “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”

We begin early in our lives to enculturate our children to violence.  When I was young it was watching Tom and Jerry Cartoons and The Three Stooges. We would laugh at their antics but the underlying theme was violence.  Today the children are given video games of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty and the Halo series.  The animations are increasingly lifelike. One of the purposes of games in any culture is to teach various skills that will enable the player to survive in that culture.  Games like Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders teach young children how to cooperate with one another, Chess teaches strategic thinking, and World of Warcraft, Halo?  They teach how to become immune to the horrors of war and death.   They teach how to be callous in the face of violence–both in the receiving of it and in the perpetrating of it.

I am not going to join the chorus that is trying to blame video games on the recent shooting in Sandy Hook.  The factors that led this young man to commit these heinous actions are far too complex to simply point to one factor as the scape goat.  That said, our culture’s willingness to lift up these games as desirable products for children and adults is a symptom of this nation’s pathology.  It is an indication that our culture is mentally ill when violence is glorified  as entertainment.  It makes our culture no different than the Roman Empire when people  were thrown to the lions and gladiators for sport.  We look at that ancient empire and think how barbaric yet our actions are no less barbaric.

We further enculturate our children to violence when we teach our children that it is acceptable to be violent towards women. The recent misogynist statements by our elected officials that rape is only legitimate if no pregnancy occurs  or that god (small g deliberately used) ordained the rape for purposes of pregnancy is part of this normative approach to violence in our culture.  How many times are our young teens told that when a partner says ‘no’ to sex, that they do not really mean ‘no’?   Or that if a woman does not resist sexual advances that she therefore wanted the sex?  Unwanted sexual advances are violent and our culture lifts this up as acceptable behavior unless the behaviors become brutal and leaves outward visible marks.  Then we might prosecute but what always comes up is that the woman dressed in a manner to invite such advances.  Resulting in all bets are off and the violent act is once again seen as acceptable.  Violence against others in any form is never acceptable behavior is the message we need to be sending.

We honor and lift up spiritual violence as a normative in our culture as well. Our churches preach that homosexuals deserve death because that is what one of the  six verses in the Bible state.  The fact that the same Bible says the same for working on the sabbath is over looked (Exodus 35:2). We do spiritual violence to our gay, transgender, and intersex children when we spout such violence from the pulpit.  Yet we abhor the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, not because they are saying anything differently than most  conservative congregations in America but because they are are putting into action the words that  our ministers have stated from the pulpit.    So spiritual violence is fine but acting on that spiritual violence by making it also physical violence, not fine.  We are a very sick and demented culture.  Those preachers who preach spiritual violence against sexual minorities are the same as Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church–a matter of degrees in action does not make it acceptable nor moral.

Our theology is even steeped in violence.  The whole idea of a savior needing to be brutally tortured and  killed for our sins reveals a god that is equally violent and non-loving. That is not the good news, that is the violent news.  The good news message of Jesus is not found in his brutal death but rather in his life, the love and compassion he showed, the belief or rather trust he held that each of us have the potential to reveal the realm of love.  His death,  as Gracie Allen might say, is the comma not the period.

Spiritual violence against another person is not appropriate behavior.  Words cut just as deep into the heart as a knife does and can shape that young person into being violent, not only against others but destructive against their own being as well.  It is well documented that the most virulent homophobic person is one that struggles with their own sexual orientation.  The result is they project violently all the self hatred and self-rejection they have out into the world.  We need to learn how to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Spewing hatred and violence towards others means we  neither love our neighbors nor ourselves.

The events in Clackamas, OR and Sandy Hook, CT are horrifying. I hope that we will not only look to substantive legislation like stricter controls on gun registration, not only those sold new but those sold used, just as we do with car registrations.  Stricter regulations on requiring gun safety courses for all gun users and locking guns away securely when not in use.  But if that is all that we do, then we are doing ourselves a disservice.    We also need to change our desire to fantasize being violent, acted out through our video games. We need to correct our theology so it reveals a loving God who wept over his son’s death (the sun went dark and the earth quaked)  and not gloried in his son’s violent death. We need to examine how insurance companies handle mental health issues–having a limited maximum number of sessions or day stays in a hospital is not helpful for people who are psychically hurting. We need to learn how to solve our problems with rationality and not with violent words and fighting.   We need to learn how to treat each other with respect, how to respect and honor each other.

In short, we need to create a new culture here in the United States.  A culture of love and equanimity.  A culture of humility.  A culture where non-violence is lifted up and valued.  This is more than just a few feel good legislative bills proposed and passed but in such a water down version so the legislation  is impotent.   We need to change our heart.  We must change or we will self-destruct in our psychosis as a nation.

Here Comes the Sun

OPENING WORDS    From Joanna Macy from the book “Dharma Rain’:  “Is it my imagination to think that we have been chosen [to live] at a time when the stakes are really high, at a time when everything we’ve ever learned about interconnectedness, about trust, about courage, can be put to the test. Each one of us is a gift…the earth is giving to itself. Every anguish, betrayal, disappointment can help prepare us for the work of healing…If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is greater than their fear, people who can open to the web of life that called us into being…” Come into this place of interconnectedness and find healing through the work of ordinary people loving life with extraordinary passion and reverence.

I light candles in memory of
Phyllis Ward, a member of this congregation
George Karatheodoris, a son of a member
Greg Vaughn, a nephew of a member
Betty Mego, a member of this congregation
Richard C. Brown, a member of this congregation
William Walden Booth, a father of a member
Joseph Self, a father, grandfather and great grandfather of members of this congregation.

In the last four months, our congregation has been directly affected by the loss of these individuals from our lives.  These losses make it hard for us to gather in celebration this year.

This was to be the focus of my sermon today… how to find hope when hope is hard to find especially in the light of the loss of these loved ones—with so many words unsaid, with so many things left unforgiven, with so many things left unresolved.

My father also died in the fall and in the December of that year, many years ago now,  I wrote this poem entitled Grief.

The Christmas presents
are all wrapped neat
and stacked in their
organized or
way                 beneath the
evergreen tree.

This year, this Christmas
wrapping paper,
bows, gift boxes,
are not enough
to contain the
we thought resolved;
now found undone.

And so this was going to be the focus of today’s sermon; how to handle our grief and finding hope when hope is hard to find.

And then, what made these, our losses, seem like thunder in the distance we heard word on December 11th that three people were killed by a gunman in Clackamas, OR.

And the thunder rolled closer to a deafening silence on Friday, when 28 people were killed, 20 of whom were young children in Sandy Hook, CT; a rural New England town next door to where I made my home in Danbury, CT.  I knew this community.  I did work in this community.

My heart stopped by the sound of the children silenced forever…  what hope can I offer when we live in a society where we re-enact the biblical slaughter of the innocents.  A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. ~ Jeremiah 31:15

What hope indeed  … I like many are filled with unbearable grief… and when the grief thunder clouds part, they part only for lightening flashes of anger.  I found myself wanting to huddle all of our children in a safe house and never let them out again—if only that would keep them safe—if only that action would not cause harm of a different nature. Sheltering our children even with the best of intentions can cause harm in their ability to survive in our world.   I wanted to confiscate all weapons and destroy them if that would mean this would never ever happen again.  If it meant that our children would be safe and would grow up into adults to have their chance with the world—unfortunately the world I am leaving them is this one… broken and fearful.  So my anger, my desire to protect our children was reduced again into grief and hopelessness.

Grief has a way of demanding unrealistic what ifs.  What if I never left Danbury?  What if I continued my work in Newtown Schools? Of course, there is nothing I could have done.  But grief is a narcissistic savior that loves to sap energy from forward movement and it does so with perseverative obsessive thinking.

A quote has appeared in the last 24 hours (perhaps some of you have seen it)  by Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood television show fame?  He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers? So many caring people in this world.”

We know these are true words.  We know this from our own experiences, not only from our own personal losses within the past few months but also in our collective losses in the days following the Tornado.  The world came to our doors and assisted us in our own grief.  There were many, many good helpers in the hours and days and weeks following our tornado.

And there are many, many good people in the Sandy Hook region who are responding there as well.  Some of them were the teachers, like Kaitlin Roig, a teacher who hid with the children in the bathroom and lived to tell the tale. Some of them were the police who escorted the children out of the school and as they passed the areas of mayhem, told the children to shut their eyes and hold on to the person ahead of them to lead them out of the school.

And the agency where our offering will be going today is also filled with good helpers.  Newtown Youth and Family Services is especially equipped to handle trauma.  I have witnessed their work in the community through projects I was involved with and I am confident that they will be one of many excellent good helpers that will provide the support to help heal a grieving and broken community.

But surely good helpers are not all there is to this story?  As touching and moving the stories of people’s compassionate and selfless acts are; is that all there is?  Is that the extent of the comfort we can expect from such horror?  That a few people maybe more than a few people will step forward to help?

I may have told you that my Great Grandfather after losing a daughter to diphtheria, his grief resulted in his finding a way to prevent other children from dying from this disease.  He revolutionized the sanitation of the dairy industry from the care of the cow to the delivery of milk.  His actions dramatically reduced child mortality rates from milk transmitted diseases.  Good came from his grief.  And all of us today are beneficiaries of such men and women who changed the dairy industry to be healthier in their practices.

We need to shift our grief from being paralyzed by what ifs to being active in finding a way to prevent this horror from ever happening again. The political fervor is calling for renewing the assault weapon ban and requiring stricter registration of guns.  These, while they may be of some good, do not prevent what happened in Sandy Hook on Friday.  The hand guns used were registered by the mother of the shooter, whom he shot and killed before going to the school.  Yes, there was a semi-automatic rifle in the car but he did not use it in this shooting. It, too, was legally owned by his mother. So these calls for gun control are not preventing another possible Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting.  [ There seems to be conflicting stories regarding weapons used, after I gave this sermon, word came out from the press that the shooter did indeed use an assault rifle in the shootings previously stated to have been left in the car but this does not alter my statement regarding the specific call for legislation and this event.]  The problem of violence in America is far more complex than will be handled by passing a few laws restricting access to guns or requiring more stringent background checks.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his eulogy for the martyred children of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963, said, “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

These words are as true today as they were 50 years ago.  Violence in America lives in a system that is held and nurtured like any thing else that thrives.  It is like a fire that burns because oxygen is abundant.  Remove the oxygen and the fire goes out.  We need to discover what the oxygen of violence is in America if we want to prevent this event from happening again.

Quick fixes are not going to work.   In the United Kingdom after they suffered a similar horror in the Dunblane Primary School[i] massacre of 1996, they passed two firearm acts that effectively banned private ownership of handguns.  The deaths by firearms reduced dramatically to 39 in 2008, given the size of population of the UK to the US that is an equivalent of 195[ii] as compared to 9,528 in the US the same year. And these are just murders.  If you add other reasons for deaths by gun violence, such as accidental deaths and suicides, that number soars to over 30K annually in the US.   Now just because it worked in the UK does not mean it will work in the US but this is also the country where the police are only armed with bobby sticks. So understand there is a very different take on violence that is Oh, I don’t know, civilized. 

There is a myth that gun owner ship means safety.  But that is simply not true.  It is a delusion.  The fact is that gun ownership increases the likelihood that there will be a death by gun violence, not less.  The marketing tagline of the Glock, one of the handguns used in the shooting, is “The Confidence to live your Life.[iii]”  This is a lie.   Handguns do not provide confidence; they deceive the owners into a false sense of safety that does not exist when guns are part of the landscape.

Our video games are violence based.  What is the primary action of the player?  To go and shoot, blow up, maim, and kill all that stands in ones way in order to get to the next level.  And they are not just shooting aliens from another planet, but people whose animation is continually improving to lifelike proportions.  How can this be healthy behavior for our children; or our adults for that matter?  How many of you engage in violent video games?  Don’t answer that, I do not want to begin weeping again.  Just sit with the question and ponder if it is helpful in your pursuit of personal moral and ethical development.

And while I am not saying there is a correlation between violent video games and mass shootings, it is another symptom of a culture that normalizes violence.  John Lennon said “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”  Love making is taboo.  Violence is acceptable behavior.  What is wrong with this picture? 

Our nation is deeply pathological. We have become dulled by its violence.  United Church of Christ Minister, Michael Denton, prays for “strength to change this kind of Ferocious Normality.[iv]” And that is what violence in America has become a ferocious normality.

We have become socially adjusted to violence in America.  And not just violence of gun and fist but violence in word as well.  Our reality shows like the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, and Bridezilla glorify the immature violent behavior of these people as if this was something worthy of emulating. These are not appropriate behaviors.  Nothing in these shows is a display of appropriate behavior; from their drama queen fights to their oversharing of their own painful hearts is a continual onslaught of overstepping boundaries.   This is a violence that is normalized in this country.

So where is the hope?  Where is the sun that is to reappear on the 22nd and grow in casting its light on the world?   I wish there was an incantation I could pronounce or a wave of my hands that would take your grief and mine away and suddenly everything would be crystal clear again with hope.  I would love to be able to tell you there is some mysterious plan that is unfolding that we simply cannot see from our mere mortal perspective but if we had the perspective of eternity we would see that all is unfolding as it should.  Alas, I have no such perspective, nor do I have any great insight into how to intervene to disrupt a violent culture in order to change it.

Instead, I can only say this with any surety.  Our grief is better handled when we allow others in, than when we keep others out. It dissolves better when it is recognized and embraced than when it is resisted and denied.

I also know that part of the answer is located right here.  Each one of us has the potential to grow in love and compassion. We can choose to reduce our violent tongue and choose to increase practicing non-violence in word and deed.  These are not easy tasks.

But I do believe that we can increase in our love for our neighbor.  Not only our neighbor in Sandy Hook, CT  but also our neighbor right here in Tuscaloosa County.  It will take spiritual discipline to achieve the compassionate life with any consistency.  May we begin today to recognize the sun that shines bright and warm on our faces and shoulders and cast that warmth to each other. Blessed Be.

Closing words: by Rev. Meg Riley as part of her response to Friday  (slightly adapted) :  “I pray that I myself will remember love, that I will remember that even now there is so much love.  There is love in all of those who responded, in all of the school officials and police officers.  In all who weep now together.  Love that ripples out as the loss does, across the community and state and nation and world.  … May you feel my love, and the love of this warm and caring community.  May we carry the flame.”

Here Comes the Sun  Rev. Fred L Hammond presented at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa on 16 December 2012 ©

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunblane_school_massacre

[ii] http://www.juancole.com/2011/01/over-9000-murders-by-gun-in-us-39-in-uk.html

[iii] http://us.glock.com/

[iv] http://amistaducc.org/wordpress/2012/12/15/prayer-by-rev-mike-denton/

Published in: on December 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm  Comments Off on Here Comes the Sun  
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