OK, I didn’t watch the president’s speech on terrorism. Then again, I rarely watch presidential speeches, except for, maybe, the State of the Union. I used to be diligent about them, but stopped early in the Reagan administration as I kept wanting to throw my shoe at the television screen because I was so frustrated by what he said.
Based upon my reading of Monday’s newspapers, I’m glad I didn’t spend 13 minutes listening to him not announce anything terribly new, that we should not condemn Islam as a religion, and that we should not respond in fear. The last is what I’ve been preaching on and off for months from 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.”
I couldn’t avoid preaching on San Bernadino. I was really in despair on Thursday, the day after the shooting. I didn’t know what I could say having addressed the shooting in Paris and the shooting in Colorado Springs from the pulpit. Three of my four last sermons on shootings. That’s terrible. It’s really a bummer for Sunday mornings – kind of makes brunch instead of church more appealing.
Rather than post the sermon, I’ll just cut to the chase.
The issue the president could not address, but should have, is why we have people becoming radicalized who will then perpetrate a mass shooting. It really doesn’t matter to me whether they are captivated by Islamic fundamentalism or right-wing extremism (still noting that other than 9/11 the most destructive domestic terrorist incident in the United States was Oklahoma City) or someone with mental illness. The president didn’t ask the right question. But, then, to ask the right question questions our values as a society.
Let’s be clear, though, that I support tighter gun laws. I know that overwhelmingly gun owners are responsible people. So, I’m not among those who want to ban them. I’ll also say that most people who want tighter gun laws are reasonable and don’t want a total ban either. But, my question is not about gun laws, either.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” He connected civil rights, the Vietnam War, and social justice together. Towards the end of the speech he said, “…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” He went on to say, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
My question is existential, “Have we died spiritually?”
Almost three years ago children were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. It was horrible. I posted my sermon about it on December 16, 2012 entitled “Rachel’s Tears.” At one point I wrote, “If this shooting doesn’t make us stop what we are doing, then we should seriously consider how torn and shredded our community fabric has become, and perhaps that should make us weep, too.”
We did nothing. Isn’t that a sign of our spiritual death?
I’ve been wracking my brains for the past several months for answers to what plagues us today. On one hand things seem OK. Consumer spending is up. Unemployment is down. Despite all the mass shootings, we have relative peace.
Yet, we see signs that things are wrong. We have a huge disparity between rich and poor and public policies which openly transfer wealth from poor to rich. Corporations seem to put more emphasis on profits than its employees. Until today racism is openly expressed by the leading GOP candidate for president and he gets no serious rebuke by party leadership. (Finally, other candidates are calling out Trump for his total ban on Muslim immigration.) The president has had to endure too many racial slights by members of the opposition. We can’t ignore overlook how the criminal justice system affects black communities more negatively than white communities from police shootings to incarceration rates. Furthermore, we have the highest incarceration rate of all the major nations. The GOP presidential candidates are openly xenophobic and are not being called out for it.
Finally, fear. Why do people feel they need to carry guns in public? Is it fear? What is the source of that fear? Is it also a sign that trust in our public institutions is gone?
I believe we are dying spiritually. The ties that bind us together as community are frayed or have become too thin to hold us together. We’ve lost sight of the common good – it doesn’t seem to be a factor in public decisions these days. Corporations will do whatever it takes to make a profit as long as its legal; and just to be sure to be legal they buy influence with legislators. (Maybe that’s why I stopped watching presidential speeches – I believe an unspoken legacy of Ronald Reagan’s was effectively severing the role and responsibility of government to ensure the common good.)
King’s words were prophetic. We spend more than half of our discretionary budget on the military; certainly way more than programs for social uplift. We’ve reached the point where many legislators want to cut social programs. Somewhere we stopped thinking about people and became more enamored with computers and machines and profitable bottom lines.
We celebrate wealth, power, and prestige, but have no interest in people like you and me. Actually, we don’t really count because we don’t have enough money for someone to take an interest in us. We’ve become one budget number on a vast spreadsheet that can be cut or eliminated.
So, is today’s free-floating anger a symptom of dying? We may have moved passed the denial stage and are now in anger. In anger we lash out at anyone.
As I read the newspapers and listen to the rhetoric we’ve gone adrift. We seem to have lost our compassion, our generosity, our gratitude, our patience, our forgiveness. We fail to have faith in love’s transforming power. We have become fearful and intolerant. We demand short-term gratification. We’ve organized ourselves around scarcity and not abundance. In short, our spiritual values, life-affirming values, are in short supply.
In 1967 Dr. King warned that we needed to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. I hope we are not too late.