As Yet Untitled: The Morning After the Arizona Murders

January 9, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

At about 4pm yesterday, the news out of Tucson, Arizona was that a 22-year old gunman named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's meeting with constituents at a Tucson Safeway. I immediately went to CNN for the news, where I first read that she had died, and then read that she was expected to recover. I worked on this sermon while checking updates every few minutes.

Social media sites like Facebook and blogs immediately generated thousands and thousands of comments. Someone notes that Sarah Palin's website that featured congressional districts, including Rep. Giffords', in the crosshairs of a gun target to be "taken back" in the next election has been swiftly edited to scrub those offending images.  Someone posts a prescient quote Representative Giffords made to MSNBC on March 25th.  She said, "They [leaders] really do need to realize that the rhetoric, and the firing people up and you know even things for example, we're on Sarah Palin's 'targeted' list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they've gotta realize that there... are consequences to that action."  

YouTube videos emerge filmed by the Loughner. I can't make any sense of them. They are rants about currency, about government brain-washing, and high illiteracy rates in Rep. Gifford's district. I immediately think, "This guy is not of sound mind." And then I watch the reactions come in as I have my own.

The evasion begins almost instantly. "We don’t know if this is politically motivated," I see written in many places. What a strange thing to say, I think. Whatever Loughner's political affiliations or ideas are -- and as of this writing I don't know -- his crime was most certainly political. Politics does not mean merely one's party affiliation and policy-making. Politics comes from "polis," Greek for "city," for a group of citizens. Politics is what we do in public, how we behave in the act of living together as citizens under one government. There is almost no public act I can think of that could not be construed as political. Everything we bring to public attention is political. 

A congresswoman was targeted. Federal court judge John Roll was killed. Our Constitution guaranteed Loughner's right to bear arms. It offered him a platform on the Internet for the sharing of his ideas, because he is also guaranteed freedom of speech under our constitution. This is all political. 

Undoubtedly trying to inject some perspective and calm into the mounting furor, MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow says, early on in the evening, "There is nothing to be gained from speculating on the motives and affiliations of the Arizona shooter without facts." I disagree. I think to myself that we have plenty of facts. We know that six people are dead, including a child named Christina Taylor Greene who-- in a painfully ironic fact worthy of Greek tragedy -- was born on September 11, 2001.  We know that a federal representative has been shot point-blank in the back of the head with a semi-automatic weapon while greeting constituents in an event that had been publicized. We know that the FBI are seeking at least one, if not two, other men who were connected to the crime. 

I follow all of this and I am really, really angry. I think of how this will play out - the pundits opining according to their unmistakable political biases, the hand-wringing, the generic condolences by other top officials in Washington, the finger-pointing, the grief, the sense of impotence among decent people, the sense that there is a crisis and that no one knows what how to solve it because we haven't identified even exactly what it is. Or maybe it's just that we can't agree on what it is, because to agree would be somehow to lose this epic battle we seem to be fighting in this country where any concessions made by someone with an opposing viewpoint is derided as wimpy and jeered at by the pundits.

I feel that America is in a schoolyard fight, behaving at barely above a toddler level of maturity but with much more serious weapons and power.  

Just like most people watching the story unfold, I think I know what the problem is. I have my theory just like everyone else does. My theory is that society has long ago declared open season on decency and that we are becoming ever more addicted to and enthralled by the gladiatorial style of interaction that inevitably ends with a shot to the skull at point-blank range, bodies in the street. I am not talking about violent movies or games. And I am not even talking about gun control, which is a related subject but not what I am focusing on this morning.  What I mean by gladiatorial style is the emotionally and rhetorically vile, bloody and violent play that now passes for political discourse in our society, for leadership in government, and for business as usual in business. We have accepted --and accordingly become desensitized-- to the blood sport of hatred and violence-promoting sound bites on talk radio, television and the Internet. Heck, we are even occasionally entertained by it! The point of this sport, of course, is to land on the front page and promote one's an agenda through the nastiest means necessary. 

What I decry as most immoral and despicable about this sort of rhetoric, this violent play, is that it is deeply cynical. It is coldly, intentionally manipulative, engineered by, funded by big money interests, and unleashed on a public that actually has some heart left, some emotional connection to the fate of our nation and its people, and who do not see that we are being played by cynical opportunists who exist in a rarified realm of power and influence that we naively hope or believe might concern itself with the actual common good.  

Cynical manipulation of the public - something I believe has a profoundly upsetting effect on unstable minds like that of Jared Lee Loughner -- is becoming more and more prevalent in our age because it is working. It works for the left and the right. It is a huge moneymaker for the news media, which once had journalistic standards including a commitment to objectivity that has not existed for several decades.

This cynicism is soul-killing.  

What particularly galls me this Sunday morning is that these cynical manipulators are counting on me, and other American clergy, to call for peace today, to call for quiet reflection, prayer and mourning, to call for remembering the families of the slain and the wounded, keeping our mouths shut and focus on our "flocks" (note the connotation of sheep!) while they take care of big, important things. Shut up and pray, is really what they're saying. Keep your minds in the stuff that happened thousands of years ago.  Don't make connections between religion and reality. But who will speak for the soul? asks Diana Butler Bass. 

Exactly. The soul is at stake here. The soul of a nation, in this case, which is worth fighting for, and fighting about, with as much passion as we can muster. 

The soul requires truth. The soul is that which is present in all of us that connects us to the rest of us. It is the eternal essence within each of us that inclines us toward beauty and transcendence and it has a wisdom that is being actively and intentionally shredded by the claws of the cynics, who are completely invested in promoting a mythology of separation, alienation, tribalism, fear, illusion and delusion. 

The soul, being an intangible entity that can neither be bought nor sold, is easily dismissed and disrespected by those who would reduce all realities to commodities; everything a product on the market. Our collective power is in the soul, not in the government or the military or in any institution. It is time to harness that power for a form of activism that reclaims the soul and the deep wisdom of people who are tired of hate, who are sick of being manipulated, who are insulted and disgusted enough by it to say "STOP."

In the Green Movement, we have a form of activism that recognizes how harmful toxins in the environment are for our health: We protest harmful additives to our food, we have outlawed lead paint and remove asbestos from buildings. We test for automobile emissions and don't allow cars on the road that are unsafe or that emit more than an acceptable level of gasoline vapors. It is time for a form of activism that protests the level of toxins in our civil discourse and that imposes public disapproval, shame and consequences for offenders.  

For too long, good people have kept their complaints to themselves or their close circle of friends, fearing to be labeled "politically correct."  Political correctness concerns itself with sensitivity to language and with inclusion. Not only should we be totally unafraid and unconcerned with being labelled politically correct -- who cares!?  I think we need a communal and all-inclusive movement that ramps it up a few notches. Call it the Civility Movement. Call it the CCD. Citizens for Common Decency. Call it something catchier than that -- have a bunch of fascinating, funny, entertaining and impressive people promote it. Set up something more attractive and sexy and exciting to counter the hate and trash and violent talk. Bring respectful conversation back, call the folks who are so horrified and disgusted by the ugliness and ignorance and cynicism of the current discourse back to the table... and expect this movement to make absolutely zero profit for anyone.

Who is willing to make that kind of investment? 

Many Christian congregations are observing Baptism Sunday this morning as part of the season of Epiphany. They will be re-affirming their baptismal vows, one version of which says, in part, "Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?"  I used to get a little giggly when I heard those dramatic words, but not today. And probably not ever again.

There are spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers in the world. And today I do repent of the sin of participating in the casual acceptance of some of them that need to be resisted more forcefully, with more moral courage.  

As a liberal faith tradition we have two theological commitments that can discourage us from crusading against forces of wickedness. One is our talent for, and commitment to, the consideration of many points of view. We hesitate to name things as right or wrong because definitions of right and wrong have proven to be fluid over the ages. But "if you don't stand for something," someone said, "you'll fall for anything." We know what's wrong here. Let's call it out. 

Second, we are heirs of an optimistic theology that believes in human potential and moral improvability. Well, that doesn't happen on its own by magic. If we have a vision of the world improved by humans better living into our potential as ethical beings, we need to get busy clarifying how that looks and living into it ourselves while encouraging others to do the same. Enough endless debating and theorizing, or Monday morning quarterbacking. This isn't an episode of "Law And Order: Criminal Intent." This is our lives. It doesn’t get neatly wrapped up and explained by the end of the episode. It goes on and is open-ended. I ask you to join me in claiming the power to shape its evolution, a power that comes as much from the soul as from the mind.

I ask you to raise your voices and shape the discourse. Pull it back from the abyss. Take it out of the crosshairs and into the safety of a respectful assembly.

[sung]

I am open and I am willing
To be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change

There is hurting in my family
There is sorrow in my town
There is panic in the nation
There is wailing the whole world round.

May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes.

Give me a mighty oak to hold my confusion
Give me a desert to hold my fears
Give me a sunset to hold my wonder
Give me an ocean to hold my tears. 
- “I Am Willing” by Holly Near

 

READING
"Speaking for the Soul"
by Diana Butler Bass

The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband's family attended their Presbyterian church.  They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened. My husband's family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether. 

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk town hall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics. That would be a mistake.

Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party's violent rhetoric and "Second Amendment solutions." Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies. But who will speak of the soul? 

Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest "someone get hurt." Well, someone is hurt--and people have died--most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

...If we don't speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.