The first Sunday following the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along the right pathways for His name’s sake. Thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. [Palms 23]
On this Good Shepherd Sunday America is sad, and so am I. I believe that what has happened in Littleton, Colorado this past week is the telling tragedy of a nation and not just one community or a few angry distorted teenagers. It is the telling of America’s soul. In this decade alone there have been at least seven such tragedies: Not us, Idaho; Springfield, Oregon; Fayetteville, Tennessee; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky, Pearl, Mississippi. Time and again we have been brought to these moments of self-examination by the tragic experience of our children—senseless unimaginable violence and death.
America is sad today, but strangely we are not yet outraged. We are not outraged by a culture dominated by popular art imitating graphic violence and gratuitous death. A cultural reality whose industry is justified by horrendous profits and rhetoric about free expression, and supply and demand economics as the American way. It may be the American way, but it is not the way of the Good Shepherd, for it corrupts our soul; it does not, “restore our soul.”
Our children live in a culture which not only glorifies violence, but insures easy legal access to high-powered assault weapons. Strong political lobbies justify this access as an expression of constitutional and individual rights. We are told it is the American Way. But our children are not “lying down by still waters.” They are lying down in death! It may be the American way, but it is contributing to the destruction of our children’s lives and souls.
More of America is enjoying the right to work today, making a better material life for our children. Yet why are they so unhappy and why are we so sad? Something is wrong with America’s soul. It is leanness, and it is a poverty of spirit. That is why Jesus said in the beatitudes, “Blessed are they that know they are spiritually poor for [only then can they receive] the Kingdom of Heaven (or the peace of God).” We are sad today. But why are we not outraged?
Every day in our inner cities our children are injured or killed by gun violence. We think it is sad, but we do not identify with them, we actually do not quite think of them as our children. We would like to assume that their tragedy is related to their impoverishment of hope, lack of economic opportunity and moral discipline.
But Littleton is one of those places whose tragedy gets our attention. A quiet upper-middle class community with a quaint name; a name reflecting more of what it means to be America than cosmopolitan names such as New York, D.C., Chicago or San Francisco. Littleton, a place with good schools, beautiful, bright and promising kids, nice neighbors, police who are well trained and members of the community. A nice comfortable, safe community with good hard-working folks just like you and me. People living out their commitment to the American Dream. It’s the kind of dream many of us have tucked away somewhere in our hearts.
The children who were killed or injured at Columbine High School are our children. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the alleged killers, they too are our children. The children of Littleton represent the vulnerability of all of our children to evil. It reminds us that even success cannot create a safe place from evil.
The comfort of living in a success culture can cause good people not to see the potential for evil within ourselves and around us, only to see the good. One incredulous parent in Littleton spoke for all of us when he was reported as saying, “I can’t believe somebody couldn’t see these things coming.” But what is there among our possessions that can enable us to see “the shadow of death” in the glaring sunlight of social bliss? What material security can defend against the spiritual assaults of evil?
As people of faith we must believe in God and seek to follow him as the Good Shepherd. But a healthy faith also requires that we take seriously a counter spiritual reality in the universe – Evil! We must accept that evil is really often beyond the scope of our culpability or control. It is why Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray for “deliverance from evil.” Only by God’s spirit can we resist evil’s force and be sustained in the wake of its assault.
But I fear much of America, religious or otherwise, believes more in the dichotomy of profit and loss, success and failure, than the reality of God and Evil. We are a nation that enjoys and believes in economic prosperity above all else. We believe success and material affluence is our right. In fact, the bible of democracy says that right is unalienable. In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence it states that every person is, “Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But happiness is more than material. It is spiritual peace and security as well.
In middle America many of our children are learning this truth early on—through their exasperating loneliness, their adolescent anger and confusion in the midst of a world of privilege. In the quiet of their hearts, among the privacy of friends, in the message of their sullen and sometimes bizarre behavior, they are acknowledging the illusion of privilege—the impotence of things to satisfy self worth. We often wonder why all we have worked so hard to provide for our children does not seem to be sufficient. But they, in their own way, know the truth of what Jesus taught, that “life does not consist in the abundance of things.” Yet, there is a spiritual tragedy here, for to know the truth of which Jesus speaks without knowing the God of whom he speaks is to encounter a desperate reality; a sense of futility and even rage. Where do we turn with the rage and fear of our futility if we do not know God?
And so some seek another spiritual power to sooth their pain and anger; power to help them feel in charge, to be greater than that which they fear. In the process, they make a strange peace with violence and death. These dangerous evils can become our children’s friends. Our children can find a type of peace in morbid fascination with such things as Heavy Metal, Goth Culture, and mimicking Hollywood depictions of gloom and death. Macabre make-up masks the pain, and lurid lyrics which shock and befuddle others are intended to represent their morbid peace with death and violence, with futility and fatalism. In the extreme, one embraces a notion that if nothing is real and all is hopeless then my death and the death of others does not really matter. It is like a video game, with all the gore and violence, with none of the responsibilities or consequences. Like the familiar hymn, “it soothes our pain and quiets our fears.” St. Paul taught that death loses its sting through faith in Jesus Christ. But it is important to know that there are alternative powers which offer solace from the sting of death.
For many of our urban children there is also a sense of futility, especially in the inner city where there is no perceived future for many children, except violence and early death. They are more familiar with the sound of gunfire than the chimes of an ice cream truck. We see young people – including sweet nonviolent children- caught up in the lyrics of gangster rap. A counterculture music where they hear their isolation and alienation glorified in high decibels, their fears and anger articulated with a hostility that intimidates a world which would otherwise ignore them. It is another strange alliance with the reality of death and violence around them.
A social worker once told me of a beautiful spring day in an inner-city housing project, overhearing a group of lovely young girls fantasizing about how they would be dressed for a certain special occasion. They described to each other the color and type of dress they would wear, debated what accessories would be cool, the type of flowers. The social worker thought they were fantasizing about their prom or even their wedding until he heard them discuss which friends would give eulogies. They were designing their funerals! They too were making peace with death and violence. But death and violence can never be true friends. They are always the seductive imps of evil which consume the soul of our children in quiet, as well as resounding ways.
WE MUST CHANGE OUR CULTURE. We must be more than sad. We must be outraged enough to demand a change. The welfare of our children is not just the work of parents and teachers in Littleton or our inner cities. It is a communal responsibility! It is the responsibility of all of us, parents, teachers, ministers, politicians, business and industry. They are all our children.
We must begin by seeing Evil’s opportunity in a culture which celebrates violence; which romanticizes it, commercializes it, sexualizes it and casually passes time with it as entertainment: music, computer and video games, graphic comic books which anesthetize us to death’s reality and the true consequence of violence. A few weeks ago I was waiting for my wife in one of the large area malls. I went into a video arcade filled with pre-adolescent children. I discovered not only that there was not a game simple enough for me to play, but that every game—every single game was based on violence and bloody killing. The higher the level you mastered the more sinister and violent the game. We cannot accept this. Our children are blurring the reality of death and violence.
We must insist that the right to bear arms is not more important than the right to save our children from violence and death. Nor must we allow gun manufacturers to be exonerated by free market rhetoric, pious chatter about civil liberties, while children die every day on our streets and in our schools from guns easily gotten from Internet, gun shows and shops. It is arrogant idealism that the accessibility of firearms is more important than the protection of our children from themselves.
1996 hand gun murders: New Zealand 2, Japan 15, Great Britain 30, Canada 106, Germany 213, USA 9,390. Governmental studies: 200 million Guns and 30% of teenagers have firearms. Dept. of Education: more than 6,000 students were expelled from schools last year for bringing guns to school. The NRA and the Governor of Colorado are wrong on this issue of accessibility and concealment. They, like many of us, don’t understand or accept the factor of evil.
Finally, we must be people of peace. We must work to build community not a clan, reaching out to others, including those different from ourselves. Building relationships across race, culture and lifestyles is the most essential way to fight bigotry. If everyone who is your friend or aquaintance is of the same race, class or culture you are perpetuating a dangerous culture and model for your children.
Being responsive to the pain and loneliness of others must be as evident in our lives as the ethic of hard work and our convictions about the rewards of success.
I love the prayer of St. Francs which guides us to be people for others.
I realize that it is unnatural, “to seek to love more than to be loved, “to understand more than to be understood.” But this is why JESUS told Nicodemus you must be born again. We must allow God to change us. When we seek a relationship with God, to have a life of active faith, we are changed. We find strength to do the things that make a difference in our culture, communities and homes. Our children need to see us as spiritually different from the world, as people who take a relationship with God as primary, people who believe seriously in the peace of God’s vision for humanity. Unless we do so, our children, as beautiful as they are, will continue to be vulnerable to evil.
This sermon is not about Littleton, Colorado. It is about you and me. Their tragedy is our tragedy. If our children have any hope of being saved, our culture must change. But our culture will only change if we change. We must become people committed to change, committed to the way of the Good Shepherd. The way shown to us by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, “revives our souls and leads us along right pathways” of Peace. So, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I invite you to join with me in praying the St. Francis prayer, that God will make us instruments of his peace.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.</P