I want to thank Dean Hall and the Cathedral staff for their celebration of this Children’s Sabbath and all of you for being here, and I also want to thank the Children’s Defense Fund staff that worked so hard to make it possible and the D.C. Mayor and Police Department for helping us have a symbolic turning of swords into plowshares and RAWtools who is here today, our Blacksmiths, and I hope you will join us right after church.
What kind of people do we Americans want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? What kind of choices and sacrifices are we prepared to make to realize a more just, compassionate, and less violent society and world, one safe and fit for every child?
A thousand years ago, the United States was not even a dream. Copernicus and Galileo had not told us the Earth was round or that it revolved around the Sun. Gutenberg’s Bible had not been printed. Wycliffe had not translated it into English, and Martin Luther had not tacked his 95 Theses on the church door. The Magna Carta did not exist. Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s tales had not been spun, and the miraculous music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and the Negro slaves in America had not been created to inspire and sooth our spirits. Many European serfs struggled in bondage, while many African and Asian empires flourished in independence. Native Americans peopled America’s soil free of slavery’s blight, and Hitler’s Holocaust had yet to show the depths human evil can reach when good women and men remain silent or indifferent or give up too early because the problem is hard.
A hundred or a thousand years from now, will civilization and humankind remain? Will America’s Dream be alive, be remembered, and be worth remembering? Will the United States be a blip or a beacon in history? Can our founding principle that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights withstand the test of time, the tempest of politics and greed, and become deed and not just creed for every man, woman, and child? Can we overcome our lingering birth defects from slavery, Native American genocide, violent both of them, exclusion of women from and propertied white men from democracy, and close that gap between our dream and our deed? Is America’s Dream big enough for every second child who is female, every fourth child who is Latino, every fifth child who is poor, every seventh child who is black, and every 12th child who is mentally or physically challenged?
Something is awry in our country when the United States—in this United States when the 400 highest-earning taxpayers earned as much as the combined tax revenues of 20 states in 2009, and our wealth and income and educational inequality are at near-record levels. How do we close this spiraling gap between the haves and the have-nots? What kind of country does it reflect to have a gross domestic product which leads the industrialized world, indeed is number one in millionaires and billionaires, but 34th in the percent of children living in poverty, which is also a form of a violence, and 31st in preventing infant mortality? How do we continue to tolerate being number one with the largest number of incarcerated people in the world and with a prison pipeline that is fed by one in three black boys going in 2001 and one in six Latino boys? How do they become the people that we need them to be, and why do we continue to let this drive that has settled at the interaction of poverty and race continue to chisel away in our efforts to become a society where everybody is equally valued and there is a level playing field for us all?
We have got to see the continuing problems erase and poverty in our nation, the structural problems and the cultural problems, and see how we are going to end this blight, because otherwise we are going to have a new American apartheid reflected in our incarceration and prison system, and it’s going to set us back 50 years in our efforts for social and economic progress. How do people of faith wake up and see and act to make us come together rather than to continue the process that we are hearing in our culture too much now that separates us, one from the other?
After President Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. King wrote that it was time for our nation to do some soul-searching, and he said, “While the question of ‘Who killed President Kennedy?’ was important, the question of ‘What killed President Kennedy?’” was even more critical. Dr. King believed the answer was that our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement nation climate. :It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said 50 years ago this year.
Dr. King also said that the undercurrents of hatred and violence was made up in this morally inclement climate, which made this morally inclement climate, were fueled by our cultural embrace of guns. “By our readiness,” he said, “to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the techniques of killing, by allowing all of these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.” The same winds of hatred, storms of violence, and easy access to and glorification of guns that Dr. King believed killed President Kennedy would soon also kill Dr. King.
On April 5th, 1968, in Cleveland, Ohio, after Dr. King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy spoke about the mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives. “It is not,” he said, “the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown.” “No one,” Kennedy said, “no matter where he lives or what he does can be certain who will suffer from some senseless action of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.”
Since Robert Kennedy spoke these words, he and another 1,300,000 other American men, women, and children have been killed by guns. This is twice the loss of life than all American battle casualties and all of the major wars we have fought since our nation began. Guns have lethalized our despair and anger and turned moments of emotional instability into tragic, permanent loss of lives, and while the heartbreaking massacre in Newtown and Aurora and our inner cities daily go on—and the Navy Yard—it may galvanize public attention for a moment or a week or even a month. Killing of children, particularly by gun violence, is not new. It has been a relentlessly unreported and underreported plague that kills or injures a child every half hour in our nation.
Since 1963, guns have killed over 166,000 children, three times more child deaths on American soil than all the combat of soldiers in wars abroad. What is it going to take for us to see and to hear and to stand up to stop the killing of children? Why are American children, under 15 years of age, 17 times more likely to die from gunfire than their peers in 25 other industrialized countries? And not even our youngest children are exempt from this gun scourge. We lose more preschool children every year to gun violence than police officers in the line of duty. Why do we tolerate this? I can’t imagine what God must think.
Escalating violence against and by our children and youth is no coincidence. It is a cumulative, convergent, and heightened manifestation of a range of serious and too-long denied and neglected problems, including epidemic, including epidemic child and family poverty, racial intolerance and hate crimes, an inadequate mental health system, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, pervasive violence in our homes and popular culture, the disintegration of too many of our families and communities and the spiritual values that support children need to be supportive, neglected children and youths left to fend for themselves by too many absentee parents in all race and income groups, and continuing abuse and neglect of children in their own homes. A child is abused or neglected every 45 seconds—47 seconds, the CDF staff would correct me.
This is all fueled and exacerbated by equal and easy access to deadlier and deadlier firearms and exacerbated by political leadership in all parties and in all levels of government that pays more attention to farm than to domestic enemies, to the rich than to the poor, and to their own political interest than to the interest of children and families in our community and our nation, and to too much silence on the part of people of faith and citizens to demand that they speak up and take actions to keep our children safe and to stop the proliferation of guns.
The U.S. has more guns as people and as citizens than our law enforcement agencies. About eight times, in fact, more guns are in the hands of citizens than there are in the hands of our law enforcement. Something is wrong with that picture, and many of these guns, like AK-47s, are the assault weapons which we should forge a responsible ban on, have nothing to do with hunting and self-protection. And as we heard, the market is if you need a gun in your house to keep your family safe—from the wonderful forum with our leading public health experts this morning—if you have a gun in your home, you’re more likely to be less safe than to be safe, and I hope that all of us will look at and think about this forum that was livestreamed, and we need to begin to confront gun violence as a public health issue that we can solve and must solve with urgency and persistence, and we must begin to make sure that we know the truth. And we must stop then NRA’s blockade on gun research.
What can we do? We can, one, follow the example of the relentlessly persistent widow in Luke, that despite the unjust judge who didn’t care anything about her call for justice, she wore him down, and it was easier for the unjust judge to do what she wanted, than not to do what she wanted, and we must be like that widow with our Congress people and our state legislators and all those who block the truth through research and who really insist on making more and more powerful weapons available. We can stop this scourge of violence with our own dogged persistence. Slavery was hard to overcome. A lot of things that we overcame were hard, but we’ve seen transformational movements come about, and good people decide that it is time to do something and to stand up. And we need as people of faith and as parents and as citizens to stand up to our political leaders, and as citizens, it is we who will start this movement. They don’t happen in Washington; they happen back home. So call and e-mail and be vigilant witnesses, and make sure that we are now going to end until we have universal background checks, that we do have a support of ban on assault weapons and high-ammunition clips, that we do begin to make sure that our children have mental health services, that the Consumer Productive Safety Commission can regulate guns. It is the only unregulated consumer product, and it kills 30,000 people a year. We regulate toy guns and teddy bears, and we don’t regulate guns that kill thousands each year? Let’s turn that policy around, and let’s take the actions that we can take to provide alternatives to the streets for our children. Our congregations need to open up their doors and provide positive alternatives for the streets and be a source of comfort and safety for young people. The gangs and the drug dealers and the gun dealers are open 24 hours and 7 days a week. How do we compete with them in the faith community, and how do we get people in the faith community to go out into their neighborhoods, so that they know that there’s hope and that they are not alone, that they do not have to resort to guns to protect themselves? We can do this if we choose to do it.
The second thing we really must do is to confront the continuing scourge of poverty, which Dr. King thought was another form of extreme violence. It is a travesty that children are the poorest age group in America, and that the younger they are, the poorer they are. And we’ve got the incentive of our Congress cutting food in a time of recession and a jobless recovery, when increasing numbers of children and families are becoming hungry, and millions of Americans have no income. And we’ve not touched all the corporate welfare subsidies, all the subsidies for the wealthy. What kind of nation hits children who are cold and hungry at a time of need? We need to come to grips with who we are and what we want to be as a people.
And one thing I hope we will try to agree to accomplish in beginning to end child poverty and to set a goal for ending child poverty, and that is putting into place a high-quality early childhood system for every child to get them ready for school. Sixty percent of all American children cannot read or compute at grade level in almost 79 percent of Latino children, and 80 percent of black children cannot read or compute at grade level. What is a child going to do in this society, in this competitive, globalizing world if they can’t read or compute? They are being sentenced to a social and economic death. We can do better than that, and the foundation that we must lay is through early childhood development. And the President has proposed—and we have got to get all of our Members of Congress and all of our legislators out in the States that we invest $90 billion, which is a very strong start, in ensuring home visiting, are really putting into place the early care and early childhood development to make every child ready for school, home visiting, Head Start, quality Early Head Start, preschool education, and I would submit kindergarten as well, universal, because we are going to require that our children meet Common Core standards very shortly, but only 10 states provide full-day universal kindergarten. You must stop holding children accountable for things that we don’t give them the supports and the means to achieve. We could do this. This is probably the most important poverty prevention effort that we could take, and with all of our voices, I hope we can achieve bipartisan support that we are going to get every American child ready for school and give those children an alternative to the prison pipeline and have them grow up to be productive citizens in this very rich nation.
Our states are spending on average three times more for prisoner than for public school pupil. That’s about the dumbest investment policy we could have. We must reverse it, and we can begin to invest, as Chairman Bernanke said, in early childhood, which is one of the best economic investments we can make, but it would give our children a chance to participate in our democracy and in our country and to contribute. I would think that we would be able to do that.
Let me just end with a prayer to ask God to give and help us transform our rich and powerful nation, where small babies die of cold quite legally. O God, help us to prevent and transform our nation where small children suffer from hunger quite legally. O God, forgive and help us transform our rich and powerful nation where toddlers and school children die from guns sold quite illegally and often illegally. O God, forgive us, and help us transform our rich and powerful nation that lets children be the poorest group of citizens quite legally. O God, forgive and help us transform our rich nation that lets the rich continue to get more at the expense of the poor quite legally. O God, forgive and help us transform our rich and powerful nation which thinks security rests in missiles and bombs rather than in mothers and in babies. O God, forgive and help us transform our rich nation, for not giving you sufficient thanks, by giving to others their daily bread. O God, help us never to confuse what is quite legal, with what is just and right in your sight. Amen.