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.
family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church
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 townhall 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
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?
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.
9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When
Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the
heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and
alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.’”
Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of
cleansing. But there is a darker
symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In
1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come
into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win
their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or
baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?
Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of
baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need
today? Which baptism truly
heals? Do we need the water of God,
or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply
obvious. We need redemption
gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.
If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.