50 people killed in Orlando in a gay nightclub, in a place that is supposed to be a safe haven.
And then, hours later, here in Sacramento at Verity Baptist Church, a pastor preached a forty-five minute sermon applauding the horrific act and encouraging more death. This, almost to the day, one year after Dylann Roof went into a church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people who were in the middle of Bible study.
Killing after killing. Shooting after shooting.
After every mass shooting we gather together as a church. After every mass shooting I stand in this pulpit and lament. But, for me, this time is a little different.
The constant repetition and drum beat of mass shooting after mass shooting is opening my eyes; I’m different because of last year’s shooting. I’m different because of the conversation we had after last year’s shooting, after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, went into an African American AME church and shot people during Bible study. This event that happened in the wake of protest after protest against violence perpetrated on African Americans by police.
We entered into a conversation at Trinity Cathedral during Lent; we listened to people of color; we had educational conversations about race. I began to realize how I had been lulled into the belief that racism really wasn’t that much of a problem; I drank the post-Obama-election Kool-Aid and believed that we were in the post-racial era. As I participated in our programs on racism, I began to realize that the danger and corrosiveness we’re dealing with isn’t just outside our borders, it’s something that’s happening right here with us. I, and we, were becoming more and more sensitized to issues of race.
And my sensitization began to be exacerbated, heightened. I began to hear voices that I didn’t hear before. When politicians would make comments that were misogynistic and I heard from my women friends about how they deal with sexual innuendos again and again and again, I began to learn about the rape culture that we are in.
And then, after Orlando, I heard from friends who are gay and lesbian about how they are constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they’re in a safe place and not being too demonstrative with their affection, in case it would offend someone else and cause a situation of violence.
I began to hear the corrosiveness and the divisiveness that is in our own culture, and that these shootings weren’t necessarily because of a foreign influence. These shootings were because people are bred to be distrustful and hateful. We have this collective naming language that allows us to look at a group of people as a danger: it’s the Muslims, it’s the immigrants, it’s the Mexicans - you know they’re rapists and murderers.
This corrosiveness is in our own culture. It’s not about Dylann Roof, it’s not about Omar Mateen. It’s about a culture that creates Dylann Roof and Omar Mateen.
A couple weeks ago I was in Sun Valley, Idaho, participating in a wellness conference. I was listening to a talk by Marianne Williamson, and she was talking about us as a Prozac nation, where we are medicating more and more people for depression in a time when healthcare has never been better, prosperity has never been better, and we have all of this technology and stuff that is supposed to make us happy. We buy and we buy and we buy, yet more and more people are being diagnosed with depression and going on medication. She suggested that maybe being depressed in this day and age is the sanest thing a person can be, given what’s going on in our world.
We are trained to consume and then realize it doesn’t make us happy. People are lonelier and more isolated than they have ever been. People are working full time and living in poverty, our planet is falling apart, and the people we elect to lead us, to hopefully make wise decisions, can’t make decisions at all! It seems like there is no way out. Marianne wonders if maybe we should all be depressed, and what if - what if the people who are becoming depressed are really just more sensitive to what’s happening in the world? She likened people who are getting depressed and medicated to Canaries in a Coal Mine. They’re really sensitive to the situation and they start getting depressed. If you have canaries in your coal mine, and they start getting sick, you give them oxygen. Right? The coal mine keeps getting worse, more canaries get sick and you give them oxygen. The problem is the canaries. Instead of us seeing sick canaries as a signal that something is wrong with the environment, we medicate the canaries!
We need to do something about these canaries.
And the world gets worse and worse and worse.
I was reading a commentary on today’s gospel reading with this man, the Gerasene demoniac, who’s infested with Legion, thousands of demons. This commentary was by John Shea, my favorite scholar (I never preach without consulting John first to tell me what I should say). He asks, what if the Gerasene demoniac was just the symptom bearer of all the problems in Gerasene? What if the demons in that town, the dysfunction and brokenness of that community, were all projected onto this one guy? This one guy is bearing the symptoms so the people didn’t have to bear the symptoms! In the same way that I certainly didn’t have to bear the symptoms of racism, or sexism – they weren’t bothering me. The world three years ago, five years ago, looked pretty great! Because these problems were all projected onto other people and they were bearing the brunt of it.
So, what if this demoniac was indeed bearing the brunt of all the problems? What if the demoniac was just the symptom bearer? He’s the canary in the coal mine! They kept him chained - he broke out of the chains and caused some problems - but mostly he stayed where he belonged. It worked out ok until Jesus came along and freed the demons from him. People got angry because Jesus changed the system.
Listening to Marianne Williamson and then reading John Shea in the context of realizing the problems that we have, got me thinking. What if Omar Mateen is just a symptom bearer? This man who walked into this gay bar with an automatic rifle and killed 49 people - what if he’s just a little more sensitive to the rhetoric that gets spewed? What if he’s a little more vulnerable? Then the issue isn’t him; it’s not Omar Mateen, it’s not Dylann Roof.
If we focus on Dylan Roof or Omar Mateen, we just play Wac-A-Mole -- Seeing each shooter as an individual problem we need to prevent respond to or prevent. When really underneath all of this is a cultural divisiveness, this brokenness that we allow to continue.
There are three things that I’ve been thinking about. Three aspects of our cultural sickness that leads to these mass shootings. One has to do with this collective blaming and divisive rhetoric that is constantly happening. We hear it again and again. It gets in our skin and we can’t wash it off:
Mexicans are rapists and murderers. The problems of the world are because of Muslims.
Or people who are gay.
Or illegal immigrants.
Or people who support Donald Trump.
Or Evangelical Christians.
The way we lump people and see them as the enemy - this rhetoric happens all around us. And it sinks in. It corrodes our soul, so that in some people, more vulnerable people, it takes root. And you can’t oppose divisive language and rhetoric head-on, because if you confront it head-on, like if someone says something homophobic and you say, “Well, the problem is you’re all homophobes!” then you’re just part of the problem: blaming a large group of people. There has to be another way.
The second thing, couple the divisive rhetoric that’s clumping people, making them the enemies and scapegoating, with our propensity in this culture to resort to violence. In his book, Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin writes, “There is something in this culture that believes that there is no problem so severe that it wouldn’t improve if we could just shoot someone.” And even if that may not be literally true, it’s true. We are trained to think that we can make something better if we could just shoot someone. If we could kill the problem then we could make it better. We live in this culture where we train people, just by everything they see and hear that the answer is to shoot someone, like our best answer is that Good’s gonna beat up Evil. And it’s reinforced by almost every single blockbuster movie I love to watch! Right!? Almost every conflict in movies is resolved by someone shooting someone or blowing someone up. And then we feel this lovely, sort of cathartic redemption; the good guy won and all is right in the world.
But in the real world it does not work that way. You shoot someone and you become part of the problem. Now I’m not saying we don’t need armies or police, we do. But we need to know that every time we deploy an army, or we shoot someone, it is perpetuating violence. It’s not a solution.
So we have this rhetoric that turns people into enemies. We have this philosophy that believes we have to shoot someone to make things better. The third part is that we make assault rifles that are almost as easy to get as a pack of gum! Then something happens and we ask, “How did this happen? It’s a mystery! How did this happen?”
My friends, it’s not because of Omar Mateen. It’s because the culture Omar Mateen was raised in invited him to believe that gay people were the problem and shooting was the answer. And my friends, there has got to be a better way. We have got to find a better way. We have got to be the better way! This is not going to get better on its own. More shootings are going to happen. And if we just keep medicating the canaries, it’s just going to get worse.
We have to change the way we treat one another.
We have to change the way we look at one another.
We have to change the way we talk about one another.
I believe as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, that the only way to defeat evil is with love. This counter-intuitive, completely ridiculous path of love: to not respond to hatred with hatred. We can do this. We can do this individually, and we can do this collectively.
Individually: last night I read on Facebook that Loren Weatherly was at home and a couple people knocked on his door. They wanted to talk to him about the Bible. Loren likes talking about the Bible so he invited them in. They handed him a pamphlet from Verity Baptist Church, the Baptist church with this pastor who was proclaiming that gays need to be killed. And Loren is a gay man. Loren kindly and graciously told them that he was a gay man, that he was a beloved child of God, that he was a member of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento and loved Jesus with his heart, mind, and soul, and that he didn’t think this conversation was going to be fruitful. He blessed them and invited them on their way. Now, there are many other ways that conversation could have gone. And I believe Loren, by the power of the spirit given him, and strengthened by his life of prayer and worship, was able to stand in that really scary, threatening place and not scream until after he shut the door.
We can also do this collectively. It’s important for us to do this collectively, to bear witness to a different way of being in this world. This was real for me in Trinity Cathedral on Thursday night. On Thursday night we hosted an interfaith service that was one of the best things I’ve experienced in church in my life. It was just breathtaking. And I want you to understand what a good leader I am. When it was suggested to me that we have this interfaith service at Trinity Cathedral, I wanted to say “no.” There had already been rallies and protests. On Sunday evening, the evening of the shooting, thanks to Charis Hill, a member of Trinity, we hosted a candlelight vigil at the Cathedral. So when the pastor, Alan Jones, from St. Mark’s Methodist Church called me and said, “We need to do an interfaith prayer service in response to Orlando, and it shouldn’t be at my church out in Carmichael, would you host it in Midtown?” I thought, “We’ve already done that.” (You know, we checked that box. We shouldn’t pray too much, right?) But he said, “I’ll organize it, you just have to open the doors.” So I agreed to host it.
The church was packed. Every pew was filled, the side pews were filled, and we had maybe fifteen religious leaders. Each of them was asked to bring a prayer or reading - sort of like an unplanned potluck with some music sprinkled in. It was breathtaking. Every single prayer was about love. Every single one was about coming together in unity and love and peace and hope. No one said to do that. There could have been words of anger or hatred or fighting against the evil out there, but it was all about love. And it wasn’t just the usual suspects. It wasn’t just the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the Catholics. There was a Muslim Imam from Salam Center and Cantor from B’nai Israel. We had a Hindu woman pray a beautiful, beautiful prayer. We had a Pentecostal minister, an Evangelical Christian minister and a Mormon. It was the most diverse faith group, all professing love. And something happened in this room. I could feel fear being replaced with peace. I could feel despair being replaced with hope. This church got brighter and brighter and brighter. We were driving out the darkness with light. I could feel it. It was real, it was true. And it worked. It was breathtaking.
There were 300 or so people here, and now looking back on it, I’m thinking there should have been 1,000. Or 3,000, or 5,000, or 10,000. This needs to be a movement. This needs to be a movement that is bigger than you. I know that there are Muslims, there are Hindus, there are Sikhs, who are eager to come along and provide a witness.
I want to invite you to think about why you come to church. If why you’re here is to get your recharge for the week – I want to encourage you to think bigger. We need to be a community of love that shines a light in our world, that changes our community. And there are people who, if we make the invitation, will join us. We need to be here to change the world; so that when someone says something that is foolish and cruel (like Mexicans are rapists or murderers, or the problem is Muslims), instead of getting traction, it doesn’t - because it sounds so foolish cruel – because we know better. People should see this community that includes Muslims, and Mexicans, and people of color, and a wide diverse array of people working shoulder to shoulder to make it a loving community. That, my friends, is the way to change the conversation that we’re hearing.
One last thing. I’m thinking of the two people knocking on Loren Weatherly’s door from verity Baptist church. We’re not doing that.
Not only are we not doing that, we’re not telling anybody that there’s this community of love that the world needs to hear about. It’s not about getting people to come to our church, it’s about changing the conversation. I’m tired of the mean people winning. I’m tired of the mean people getting traction. And if the mean people are the only people spreading their message, and we’re just sitting here praying about it? Not that prayer isn’t important, it actually creates the soul space for us to be out there, but we need to have a bigger vision. And we need to do this together. To fill Sacramento with a voice of love and acceptance that does not allow messages of cruelty to get traction. It’s the only thing that’s going to work.
So, I invite you to join me in casting out the demons, not by beating them up, but with love. And loving everyone. Including the poor tragic souls who are killing others. And the poor tragic souls who are spewing violence toward others. I know that, strengthened by this community, we are able to love people who are very scary to love. So let’s cast out these demons that are Legion, with love.