God Can’t Fix This
Our reading today comes to us from the poet Richard Blanco — an excerpt from his poem titled, “One Today.”
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
Unity Temple, the congregation I served for two years as an intern minister, sits in a peculiar place in the suburb of Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. The town itself is a good mix of affluent, middle income, and lower income people — with mixed housing developments and various types of businesses that cater to all different walks of people.
This was largely in part because during the era of white flight, Oak Park was intentionally integrated. On top of it all, the town of Oak Park, has within it a strong city feel with all of the comforts of the suburbs. It hugs the hip of Chicago, the western edge, and it is both a historic and new town.
From the heart of this suburb, it is a mere two blocks away from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago — one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the entire city. The transformation is sudden and overwhelming the moment you cross the street from Oak Park into this neighborhood of Chicago.
Affluent 3-flats become run down row houses, plowed snow is on one side of the street only, parks go from walkable to obstacle courses of empty shopping cards, old tires, and piles of garbage. You feel the blight. You feel the depression. You feel everything that needs to be felt in a neighborhood that is desperate.
The Oak Park police regularly patrol the dividing street, making sure that their pristine and intentional suburb does not see the highly segregated, highly impoverished, and violent neighborhoods of Chicago spilling over. As someone that comes from a Chicago family — I know very well the realities of the city — the segregation that is in its DNA, and the cycles of oppression that leave people no choice but to turn to desperate measures — gangs, violence, survival by any means.
Every Sunday at Unity Temple we had a joys and sorrows very similar to many Unitarian Universalist churches, like this one — but with one distinct difference. Each Sunday, a small black book with hundreds of pages was brought up to the pulpit and read. Very rarely someone would write a personal joy or sorrow, but more often than not, it contained small pieces of paper taped to the insides of the book.
Page after page, pieces of paper one after the other, some folded up so they would fit, some with handwritten additions to the typed lists on the pieces of paper. As the intern minister, it was mostly my duty to read from this book every Sunday, to speak the words on those lists, and on top of it all, to somehow keep my composure given what was being said.
It would go something like this: Sam Johnson, 19 years old, Martese Gentry, 15 years old, Demetrius Bottom, 49 years old, Deja Atwood, 29 years old, Verna Tobicoe, 5 years old. The lists would often go on and on, and when I would need to unfold the paper to reveal more names, that is when the voice would crack — every time.
Inside this black book, nicknamed the death book, were the names of those killed by gun violence in Chicago every week — often just two blocks away in the neighborhood next to Oak Park, Illinois.
I’ve never been shot at, though I’ve heard gunfire. I’ve never owned a gun, though I learned how to shoot rifles at Turkey shoots. I’ve never been one to look at gun magazines like many of my male peers when we were younger, though I’ve never really stopped to question much what it means for our culture that gun magazines are freely sold to teenagers.
I remember hearing about columbine on the television, but thinking, that could never be my school — and thankfully, that held up to be true. Like many Americans I am wholly untouched by what is now being called a nationwide gun crisis. Wholly untouched until a few years ago as I began to read the lists of names during my internship — teenagers, elders, adults, children, infants — all were named, all were victim. And the lists never stopped.
We are indeed facing a crisis in our country — another crisis on top of other crises that might make us sigh and wonder what we can do — but it needs to be named. And it is gun violence. Since January 2013, over 5100 people have been killed or injured due to a mass shooting. And when we say injured, we are not talking about hang nails, we are talking about being shot and surviving in some way.
On top of this, since 2001, over 406,000 people have been killed by gun violence in total — whether it was a mass shooting or not. That’s more than the population of Lexington, Kentucky. To call this a crisis is an understatement — it is a tragedy, an epidemic, a boiling over of senseless loss of life.
And wrapped up in all of this is a dialogue that pulls us in several directions — mental health, terrorism, race, violence, poverty, and a culture that engenders rage. I have no doubt that there are mental health issues with those who would commit mass shootings — and I agree that we need to care for those among us who suffer with mental health issues in a more timely and generous manner.
But on top of it all I know intertwined with this crisis are issues that have nothing to do with mental health. It has to do with the culture we are a part of, the racial divides that continue to plague us, and a bundle of other interconnected matters. It is so easy to blame video games or to blame Wal-Mart.
But we need only look at the Oregon militia that has taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge — we need only look at the images of sheriffs shaking the hands of the armed white militiamen, and then look to the numerous unarmed black men killed these past few years.
For us to make any progress on the matter of gun violence in this nation, it requires a nationwide cultural shift that confronts race and poverty just as much as it confronts mental health and gun control. But one need only look to our elected leaders to see how, if at all, they are addressing the matters before us. After any mass shooting, the response almost feels the same, as if it were copied and pasted from the same source: We offer our prayers.
The New York Daily News, after the shooting in San Bernardino, made headlines for it’s own headline: God Isn’t Fixing This. The responses ranged from praise to ridicule. Inherent in their headline was a clear critique of the stock political response, conservative or liberal, that offers up prayers for the victims and their families, instead of actions to address the continued loss of life due to gun violence.
The people who were outraged at such a headline said it belittled prayer. It diminished the support that people were able to offer. It mocked the comfort the families should be getting from these prayers. On the other side, those who praised such a headline, said they made it clear that we cannot let ourselves trust in God alone because it lets all of us — each and every one of us that is a part of the same social contract — off the hook. If we give it to God, we’ve washed our hands of the matter.
I happen to agree. I will never mock someone for their prayer when it is offered in heartfelt appreciation to the God of their choosing — but I will not accept that as being enough to address the concerns of our world. This headline offered up by the New York Daily News was more than a headline — it was a commentary on the dominance of Evangelical conservatism and with it the promotion of the gun lobby in Washington.
It was a commentary that took to task the credo of “You have our prayers. Now give us our guns.” It was also a commentary on just how dehumanizing it is for our lawmakers to pray instead of act — and pretend that was enough. That was the heart of the headline and the article, and yes, it was meant to ruffle the feathers of those who would pray and still be bought by the gun lobby.
It also called out each and every one of us for apathetic prayer instead of prayer that leads to change. Now I’m a person that prays — even in my humanism and skepticism, still, yes, prayer is a practice in my daily life. But the prayer being taken to task is not the prayer many religious liberals have come to known.
It is the type of prayer that begs the questions, Are prayers lulling the tide of domestic terrorism — such as with the rogue militia in Oregon this very moment? Are prayers ending gang violence in impoverished inner city neighborhoods that have always been impoverished and are designed to remain impoverished? Are prayers addressing the violence that is growing?
The prayers being taken to task are the ones left in the lap of God in eager anticipation of a response. I hate to break it to our leaders, no response is on its way. God, it would appear, went home for the evening — and we must face the nightfall ourselves.
I know that many of you here have a deep belief in God, just as many of you don’t. I know, too, many of you pray — whether you are a theist or atheist. But this is the distinction I need to make. And I do not make this distinction to pat ourselves on the back but to make it clear that there is indeed a difference in culture around not just prayer but in how the world will become a better place.
The prayers of religious liberals — not just Unitarian Universalists, but other progressives as well, are a way of focusing our intentions. They are earmarked actions that we anticipate or will endeavor to fulfill. They are a way of saying to our hearts and minds and to our communities — we commit to justice.
For me, prayer is not about trusting forces outside of us, it’s about trusting ourselves to do what our values ask of us. If only this were the case with our leaders whose values are rooted in the peaceful way of their prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.
As a more often than not traditional Unitarian Humanist, I make no specific proclamations around deity, though I like to think about the possibility or impossibility of such a thing often — it goes with the work. But if there is one supreme deity from which all proceeds and to which all will return, I would have to agree with our founding fathers, of whom many were Unitarian.
They believed in a deity that was distant and passive, often absent, and wholly entrusting us — human beings — to do the work. This was a common belief amongst Unitarians for some time until roughly the 1800s — when the belief shifted to an engaged deity that called to us relentlessly — called to us and beckoned us forward without forcing our hand. Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we still share this later belief in many ways.
But it manifests itself more appropriately — and more broadly — appealing to the diversity of our theologies or non-theologies in a question that we need to ask in our communities: Are we beckoning ourselves along? Is our cry clear and resounding, is it striking at the hearts of those who would remain passive?
And still, too, our shared faith calls us to be engaged, not only because our principles recognize we are all connected or that we all have inherent worth and dignity, but because of all of our principles — all seven of them.
I find it hard to believe when faced with the principles of Unitarian Universalism, let alone our history of being beckoned forward to greater justice — I find it hard to believe that we can be idle or promote the very tools that foster the loss of dignity, diminish compassion, or ignore the responsibility we hold people to cultivate truths and meanings that are life-giving.
This faith tradition is rooted in justice — it’s right there in our principles, and it’s right there in our history. It asks of us, is it just that Columbine, Newtown, San Bernardino, or the thousands of other shootings occurred?
Is it just that the names of five year olds make it regularly to lists of people shot and killed not just in Chicago but across the country? Is it just to give up hope or ignore it? We are called to be engaged — in ways that we find meaningful but also ways that make an impact, even if it is incremental.
Yes, God isn’t fixing this. So we must fix it as best as we can. And there is good news to what is an otherwise bleak prospect for our culture. The good news is that we, as a species, are getting less and less violent. Things are getting better and we are living in sturdier more life giving times.
Now it certainly doesn’t feel that way. And part of it is my fault, this message isn’t exactly rosy. But there is a glimmer of hope that civilization itself is getting more kind and gentler. Stephen Pinker, a cognitive scientist that was formerly at MIT — wrote a book in 2011 titled, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” In this exhaustive volume, he documents with great detail the evidence that human beings are not as violent as they once were.
He outlines how we are more settled as a species, our civilization is more structured, we have a rise in humanitarian efforts, our peace lasts longer, and we are more concerned with the rights of all. But still, even though the numbers are right in front of you, it still does not feel that way. In response to this, Pinker points out the cultural element for us — which is partly rooted in how our media portrays the world.
First, news travels faster — it is nearly instant, and it is intense. Second, the news will never stand in the city of Baghdad or the city of Ferguson to say: “We have no news of war or violence to report.” Wouldn’t that be great, though? “Breaking News, no one died due to gun violence today!” One can hope.
But yes, things are getting better, we have fixed some of the violence that is breaking our hearts nearly every month. And this is why our response to the politics and theologies of apathetic prayer and of absurdity must be met with a resounding No, not today, not ever.
Those who would control the dialogue around guns and violence would rather see it remain highly politicized, charged, demeaning, and bombastic in its nature. But there is no dialogue when mutual respect is not an option. And we need to be realistic, dialogue alone will not stop bullets.
But that is where we are. And that is probably what is most heartbreaking around this topic — it is political. The loss of life, thousands upon thousands of lives — not by warfare, not by disease, not accidents, but by a culture of unchecked guns. Absolutely heartbreaking. And for us to admit that where we are is at the level of dialogue — the heart cries out for a quicker resolution.
But still, that is where we are. We need to meet each other where we are as a culture. And as I pointed out earlier, there are so many justice causes that we face. They can be exhausting — and we may feel more passionate about one over the other, that is natural. What good is it when we hold dialogue on all of them? What good is it doing? How are we keeping ourselves safer? How are we making the world more just? How is the dialogue around guns accomplishing anything we can see?
The recent executive actions by our President to expand background checks on guns were met with wide support by the public — conservative and liberal — but the consensus amongst most people was a skepticism. How will we be safe? How will this create greater peace? Is there nothing else that can be done?
What this tells me is that people are waiting for the dialogue. People are waiting for hope. People are waiting for more than prayers. I want to believe that deep down no matter if the person is a conservative or a liberal, a Christian or an atheist — they cherish life above all else and that they secretly hope their prayers will give them not an escape from the problems of the world but the courage to confront them. I can hope. We can hope.
Earlier you heard a poem that was taken from Richard Blanco — a poem he read at the inauguration of Barack Obama — not long after the Newtown shootings. No one can forget the image of twenty desks marked absent now and forever — a reminder that gun violence is more than a political issue, but an issue facing the most innocent amongst us. Blanco ends with some hope:
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, always – home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country – all of us –
facing the stars
hope – a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together.
May the constellation we map as a people of faith and a people of this nation be one that aims for greater peace and embodied justice. May it be