October 15th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio

Texts: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Matthew 26: 47-52

Notes on an American Epidemic

How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.  So says the prophet Isaiah.  Those words were later applied to Jesus.  How difficult it is to hear such an announcement these days.  Such an announcement comes to us now as if through static, like a radio station long out of range.  Every so often, a moment of clarity occurs.  Only to fade again.  I’m trying to hear the voice of Jesus right about now.  It’s hard to hear that voice across so much static. 

Let’s begin our litany of static in 1998.[1]  April 20, 1998, Littleton, Colorado.  Columbine High School.  13 dead. 24 injured.  July 29, 1999, Atlanta, Georgia.  In the stock exchange.  9 dead.  13 injured.  September 15, 1999.  Fort Worth, Texas.  At a Baptist church.  8 dead.  7 wounded.  November 2, 1999.  Honolulu, Hawaii.  At an office building.  7 dead.  December 30, 1999.  Tampa, Florida.  A hotel.  5 dead.  3 injured.  December 26, 2000.  Wakefield, Massachusetts.  7 dead.  February 5, 2001.  Melrose Park, Illinois.  An office building.  5 dead and 4 wounded.  July 8, 2003.  Meridian, Mississippi.  At a Lockheed Martin plant.  7 dead.  8 wounded.  December 8, 2004.  Columbus, Ohio.  At a concert.  5 dead.  7 wounded.  March 12, 2005.  Brookfield, Wisconsin.  During a church service.  7 dead.  4 wounded.  March 21, 2005.  Red Lake, Minnesota.  At a school.  10 dead.  5 injured.  January 30, 2006.  Goleta, California.  In a post office.  8 people dead.  March 25, 2006.  Seattle, Washington.  In a public space around Capitol Hill.  7 dead.  2 injured.  October 2, 2006.  Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  In a one room Amish school house.  6 children dead.  5 injured.

A moment of clear reception, born of a scene from the 1985 film Witness, starring Harrison Ford.  It’s one of the most sensitive treatments of gun violence, or indeed any violence, in popular culture.  A Philadelphia detective hides among the Amish in Lancaster County, a religious community dedicated to the practice of nonviolence.  My mother’s family comes from an old order Brethren tradition, close cousins of the Amish.  I once lived in Lancaster County, and when I was in 5th grade, my parents let me see Witness, despite its “R” rating, because of the film’s obvious devotion to the Amish.  To this day, I maintain a deep and abiding respect for the Amish.  In one scene, a young boy discovers the detective’s gun in a drawer.  The detective unloads the weapon, and after unloading it, tells the boy that it is safe, letting him handle it.  The boy does so with fascination and awe, until his mother enters the room, and sees him.  She takes the gun away, holding it in front of her with two fingers, as if it were a soiled rag.  She knows that it is not an object fit for a human being.  Later, in the scene shown on your bulletins, the boy sits with his grandfather, who explains why guns must never, ever, be handled.  His reasoning is born from Scripture.  A gun is designed to kill other human beings, the grandfather tells the boy.  We cannot, we must not, participate in that, he tells his grandson, for the Scriptures command that we must never kill.  He quotes a verse of Scripture: “Therefore come out from among them (meaning, in this context, those addicted to violence), and be ye separate.”  God always opens to us a way other than violence, the old man says.  I watched the film last Sunday night after we rang our church bell 59 times.  That scene, the one on your bulletins, with a boy and his grandfather, working through the implications of an American epidemic, moved me to tears.

Static again: February 12, 2007.  Salt Lake City, Utah.  An open public space.  6 dead.  4 injured.  April 16, 2007.  Blacksburg, Virginia.  Virginia Tech University.  32 dead.  23 injured.  October 7, 2007.  Crandon, Wisconsin.  A public space.  6 dead.  1 injured.  December 5, 2007.  Omaha, Nebraska.  A mall during Christmas time.  9 dead.  4 injured.  February 7, 2008.  Kirkwood, Missouri.  A city council meeting.  6 dead.  2 injured.  February 14, 2008.  DeKalb, Illinois.  At Northern Illinois University.  5 dead.  21 injured.  June 25, 2008.  Henderson, Kentucky.  At a plastics factory.  6 dead.  1 injured.  March 29, 2009.  Carthage, North Carolina.  A nursing home.  8 dead.  3 injured.  April 3, 2009.  Binghamton, New York.  At an immigration center.  14 dead.  4 wounded.  November 5, 2009.  Fort Hood, Texas.  An army base.  13 killed.  30 wounded.  November 29, 2009.  Parkland, Washington.  A coffee shop.  4 dead.  1 wounded.  August 3, 2010.  Manchester, Connecticut.  A beer distributor.  13 people killed.  30 wounded.  January 8, 2011.  Tuscon, Arizona.  A press conference.  6 dead.  13 injured, including Rep. Gabriel Giffords.

More static, this time disguised as a piece of vacation fun: A newspaper article, published at some point in the early or mid 2000s.  It’s about a new phenomenon in Las Vegas, gun ranges that allow you to learn what it feels like to fire all the weaponry from your favorite action movie.  Pistols, but also M16s, Uzis, AK-47s, and God only knows what else.  I read it with fascination.  A student of theology, with a heritage in the nonviolent Anabaptist tradition, I think to myself: I’d try that.  It sounds like fun.

The static continues: September 6, 2011.  Carson City, Nevada.  An IHOP.  5 dead.  7 wounded.  November 14, 2011.  Seal Beach, California.  At a hair salon.  8 dead.  1 wounded.  February 22, 2012.  Norcross, Georgia.  A health sauna.  5 people killed.  April 2, 2012.  Oakland, California.  A university.  7 dead.  3 injured.  May 20, 2012.  Seattle, Washington.  A café.  6 dead.  1 wounded.  July 20, 2012.  Aurora, Colorado.  A movie theater, during a late screening of a Batman film.  12 dead.  70 injured.  August 5, 2012.  Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  A Sikh Temple.  7 dead.  3 injured.  September 27, 2012.  Minneapolis, Minnesota.  An office building.  7 dead.  1 injured.  December 14, 2012.  Newtown, Connecticut.  Sandy Hook Elementary School.  27 dead, most of them children.  2 injured.  March 13, 2013.  Herkimer, New York.  A barbershop and an oil change facility.  5 dead.  2 injured.  April 21, 2013.  Federal Way, Washington.  An apartment complex.  5 dead.  June 7, 2013.  Santa Monica, California.  Another apartment complex.  6 dead.  3 injured.  July 26, 2013.  Hialeah, Florida.  More apartments.  7 dead.  September 16, 2013.  Washington, D.C.  The Naval Yards.  12 dead.  8 wounded.  February 20, 2014.  Alturas, California.  A Native American tribal office.  4 dead.  2 wounded.

Something like clear reception again: On a journey through the American West – Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona – in the summer of 2016.  We stop every few hours at gas stations to let the kids run, to stretch, to find coffee.  The shadow of casual violence is ubiquitous.  Every convenience store carries flashlights, fashioned in the shape of bullets.  A rack of toy firearms is placed at a child’s eye level.  T shirts are emblazoned with machine guns and threatening slogans about people who disrespect the flag.  In Utah, rolling through a suburb on the way to a lakeside campground, a big sign at a strip mall, displaying a machine gun, invites any and all to a firing range, as if it was a bowling alley, or a movie theater.  In West Yellowstone, Montana, a barbeque joint displays bumper stickers, most of them bearing slogans and images pertaining to firearms, and who ought to be at the receiving end of those weapons.  Liberals.  Foreigners.  Hillary Clinton.  An uneasy feeling spreads across my abdomen, into my chest.  It stays with me, and no amount of beauty throughout that western landscape can shake it.  I think to myself: I do not feel at home here.  I wish to have no part of this.  Something about the casual relationship to violence within America feels terribly wrong.

More static, more violence: April 3, 2014.  Fort Hood, Texas.  Again.  An army base.  3 dead.  12 wounded.  May 23, 2014.  Santa Barbara, California.  A university campus.  6 dead.  13 wounded.  October 24, 2014.  Marysville, Washington.  A high school.  5 dead.  1 wounded.  June 11, 2015.  Menasha, Wisconsin.  On a bridge.  3 dead.  1 wounded.  June 17, 2015.  Charleston, South Carolina.  Mother Emanuel AME Church.  9 dead.  1 injured.

A moment of utter clarity: An October evening in 2016.  Almost 25 people on our Wheels of Justice journey gather in Charleston at the Mother Emanuel church, sharing a meal with members of that church, eating in the same space in which the killing occurred.  It’s impossible to forget that fact as we eat.  At the end of our time together, a choir stands to sing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand.”  What does it mean to sing those words in a church basement where a mass shooting has taken place?  What does it mean to sing those words in America, where Jesus and guns exist side by side, with no evident tension, as in a sign for a gun shop I often see when I drive through Tennessee: Jesus Is Lord.  Gunrunners.  Can the two, Jesus and guns, be pried apart?  Do you have to encounter a crucified and executed Jesus, shot through by bullets, in a South Carolina church, say, before you can see that in our age, Jesus is found among the carnage of torn human flesh?  Is that the solid rock upon which we must stand?

Static, fuzz, violent confusion: July 16, 2015.  Chattanooga, Tennessee.  A military recruitment center.  5 dead.  2 wounded.  October 1, 2015.  Roseburg, Oregon.  A community college.  9 dead.  9 wounded.  October 31, 2015.  Colorado Springs, Colorado.  A public space.  3 dead.  November 27, 2015.  Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Again.  A Planned Parenthood Clinic.  3 dead.  9 wounded.  December 2, 2015.  San Bernardino, California.  A Christmas office party.  14 dead.  21 wounded.  February 20, 2016.  Kalamazoo County, Michigan.  A shooting spree in several public places.  6 dead.  2 wounded.  February 25, 2016.  Hesston, Kansas.  An office building.  3 dead.  14 injured.  June 12, 2016.  Orlando, Florida.  A gay, lesbian, trans, and queer nightclub.  49 dead.  51 injured.

December 29, 1890.  The Wounded Knee Massacre. 

A clear signal: One week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, a group of travelers from Old Lyme stand at the foot of the mass grave at Wounded Knee, struggling to comprehend how the Army Cavalry could have opened fire that day in December, slaughtering more than 300 people, the vast majority of them women and children.  To this day, Wikipedia declares that it was a victory for the United States.  But what kind of victory?  As we stand there, I wonder aloud if there is a through line, extending from the slaughter at Wounded Knee, to the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where in America it becomes first thinkable, and then doable, to shoot and kill that which we do not understand, that which we do not fathom, that which we wish to replace.  I ask our group to stand at that mass grave for a long time, as long as we can stand it, in hopes that somehow, by confronting the tragedy of firepower, one more Golgotha, one more site of crucifixion, the illusion might be broken.  Soon though, it’s time to go.  We can’t stay there forever.  On our way out, I purchase an overpriced dream catcher from a Lakota craftsperson, an amulet in the greater dream of overcoming the American violence represented at that site.  The man who sells it to me stands at Wounded Knee most every day.  He and a few others are there as witnesses.  They carry their own dreams.  Some of those dreams, I expect, are closer to nightmares.

The signal fades again: July 7, 2016.  Dallas, Texas.  A public protest.  5 dead.  11 wounded.  July 17, 2016.  Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  3 dead.  3 wounded.  September 23, 2016.  Burlington, Washington.  A mall.  5 people dead.  January 6, 2017.  Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  An airport.  5 dead.  6 injured.  April 18, 2017.  Fresno, California.  A downtown shopping area.  3 dead.  May 12, 2017.  Kirkersville, Ohio.  A nursing home.  3 dead.  June 5, 2017.  Orlando, Florida.  An awning manufacturer.  5 dead.  June 7, 2017.  Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania.  A supermarket.  3 dead.  June 14, 2017.  San Francisco, California.  A UPS depot.  3 dead.  2 injured. 

October 1, 2017.  Las Vegas, Nevada.  59 dead.  527 injured.

Is it possible to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through all that damaged flesh?  It’s hard, I know.  Maybe it comes to us in the following way, through the writings of the Apostle Paul, himself haunted by a murder he once helped to instigate.  It’s his writing about food and eating that intrigues me right now.  Paul addressed disputes that were occurring about the eating of particular foods in churches in one of his letters.  Some people thought particular animals were unclean to eat.  They not only wished to refrain from eating those animals themselves, but argued strenuously that others should do so as well.  Others understood themselves to be free to eat this or that, and wished to demonstrate that freedom.  Paul asked those individuals to exercise their freedom by refraining from eating food that would be offensive to others, for the sake of those with a weaker constitution. 

It’s an argument that’s often cited around those with a weakness for alcohol.  Sometimes it’s teenagers.  Sometimes it’s those who suffer from addiction.  Those who have the freedom to partake choose to voluntarily refrain, choosing to abstain, because of the damage their freedom may cause to those who struggle to regulate themselves.

I’ve come to wonder if the same argument should be made for guns and firearms in America.  I’ve come to wonder if even those of us who enjoy recreational shooting, who enjoy hunting, who occasionally visit firing ranges, who let our kids play with toy weapons, might need to refrain from doing so.  I’ve come to wonder if we need to do that as a way of insisting not upon our own rights, or our own pleasure, but deferring to the weakness and fragility of the culture we inhabit.  I’ve come to wonder if the Amish are right, knowing they must not even handle a weapon, because of the way their souls will become contorted. 

The grandfather in the film Witness tells his grandson that God always provides a way other than violence.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wish to believe it.  I wish to be among those who live as if that was true.  In the final scene of the film, as gunfire erupts on the Amish farm, the grandfather gestures for his grandson to ring a bell.  The bell brings all the neighbors running.  It’s a sign that something is wrong, and they gather as a community as a man with a shotgun threatens another.  They stand as witnesses, and their gaze prevents another killing. 

Might we, here in Old Lyme, stand as those witnesses now?  Might we be the ones who heed the warning of Jesus, that those who brandish swords shall die by the sword, or, to put a contemporary spin on it, that those who brandish guns shall die by guns?  Might we be the ones who resist the seductive lure of violence in all its forms?  Might we be the ones who come running to stand as witnesses to an American epidemic?  Might we be the ones who practice an alternative way found in the Scriptures and in some of the best parts of our history?  Might we serve as witnesses?

I don’t have solutions to the problem of gun violence in America, or other kinds of violence either.  But I wish to be among those who practice another way.  I wish to help create and mold another way, like the one the old Amish grandfather shares with his grandson.  Perhaps that’s the enclave we need to create here in Old Lyme. 

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who comes to announce not violence, not warfare, not the love of firearms, but the practice of nonviolence, the gospel of peace.  I’m straining to hear the signal.  I’m trying to hear the announcement of peace.  I think I hear it.  Can you?









[1] Statistics compiled from a list published by Mother Jones:  http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/

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