Our nation is in crisis. In the first 219 days of this year, we’ve had 255 mass killings. In the wake of the 9/11 international terrorism crisis, we didn’t say, “Hey, there’s nothing we can do about this. We must resign ourselves to accept getting bombed.” No, we launched new preparedness. And as a result 70% of international terrorism is now stopped before they commit those crimes.
Our crisis today is one of violent racial extremism and domestic terrorism. Hate groups have sprouted and grown like mushrooms in the dark of the last three years. Troubled individuals embrace emboldened, normalized racism with an arsenal of weapons. We tremble in our daily routine. As we lock our doors at night, it is not because that makes it impossible for intruders to enter our homes. It doesn’t. It only slows them down. But as we consider reasonable measures of gun control like background checks, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, leaders throw their arms in the air, act defeatist, and say, “But that might not have stopped this crime.”
The facts are simple. During the era of the assault weapons ban in this country, only one attack occurred where 13 died at Columbine, Colorado. But since that law expired, we have had 16 attacks where 339 people died from weapons of war. Masses die at Walmart going after school supplies with children. In the case of domestic terrorism, 70% of killers are arrested after killing.
If you dismiss these mass killings as some trendy, media-generated issue d’ jour, consider this. Overall, homicides in America are about half what they were in the 80’s and early 90’s. But 20 of the 27 most disastrous public mass murder attacks have occurred in the last 15 years. Ouch.
Hate engendered by whipping up racial fear is on the rise in America. A message is broadcast that some people—white people like us–belong here more than others. We hear the threat of an “invasion” on our southern border. A mass murderer drives 10 hours to stem that “invasion” at El Paso. Three years ago illegal immigration on our southern border was at a 50-year low. So we create a crisis that wasn’t even there before, and violent vigilante acts become the answer.
Slavery and the subsequent racial hatred are America’s original sins. We can’t bury our dark secrets. We must face them, finding ways to let the better angels of our nature rise rather than our most base tribal instincts. I was in Detroit in 1967 when that race riot broke out. It was the largest civil disturbance–measured by dead bodies–since the Civil War, one full century before.
My mother then ran for precinct delegate of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, to make a difference. She was raised in a fairly racist community in a coal-mining town of West Virginia. But she knew, worked with, and loved black friends in the same restaurant where I worked. She lost the election to a man from the John Birch Society. Will things ever change? she asked. I take that torch from Margaret, and refuse to cave into the ignorance and fear of racial hatred.
Is the church the place to talk about this? I think so in the 21st century. Moses Mather agreed in the 18th century. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: in the Congregational church, we engage the vital issues of our time. Why is the church uniquely poised to consider this? Because at our best we have the chance to stand up for truth in a way that can transcend partisan politics, and the lies that infuse it through power and money. Because we can act as an institution of not just love, but also truth-telling amid today’s dizzying confusion of lies. Because we see the truth in Jesus Christ and we trust him to set us free, singly and together. Someone said justice is the form love takes when nurturing and protecting an entire society.
The Congregational church was the first church to ordain a black man, Lemuel Haynes, of West Hartford, a Revolutionary War veteran. The Congregational church built six colleges for blacks in the Deep South following the Civil War, knowing that more is needed than removing shackles to set people free. You already know of our FCC role in the Underground Railroad. I will not neglect and desert these traditions. They’re why I came to the UCC. Neither, I suspect, will you.