Bishop David Bard turns to the gospel to frame thoughts on the tragedy in Sutherland Springs, TX.
Greetings in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.
Lake Junaluska is a United Methodist retreat center nestled in the Smokey Mountains just west of Asheville, North Carolina. I arrived here late in the day Saturday, November 5 for the Council of Bishops meeting to begin Sunday. By the time we gathered for the memorial service Sunday afternoon, our traditional opening worship when we meet, the news was coming from Texas of a horrific incidence of gun violence at a Baptist church. The words of the poet Wordsworth flashed in my mind, “the world is too much with us.” Into the beauty of this environment came this terrible news.
As more details became available through the evening and into the next day, my heart continued to break. Twenty-six people – including a pregnant woman, a five-year-old, the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter and a 77-year-old grandfather – were killed, and 20 more wounded by a gun man who had a history of mental instability and violence, and whose in-laws were part of the congregation he targeted. Monday night at the Council of Bishops meeting, Bishop Robert Schnase from the Rio Texas Area shared some stories from Sutherland Springs and our United Methodist presence there, even as he also reported on hurricane damage in Texas.
The shooting at Sutherland Springs follows all too quickly the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the church shooting in Antioch, Tennessee, not to mention the terrorist attack in New York City that killed eight people. Violence marks and mars our world, and those of us in the church are disturbed that not even our sanctuaries are immune from such violence. We think of the church as a place of safety, a refuge, a place of peace, but the recent violence disturbs those images, reminding us that the church is not immune from the broader forces in our society. We are called to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation. We are called to be places of hospitality and welcome. The truth is that in responding to this call of God in Jesus Christ, we make ourselves vulnerable. We cannot eliminate that vulnerability if we are to remain faithful to our calling. We need not let such violence paralyze us.
In response to the violence in our world, we should always offer prayer. Like you, I hear voices cry out that prayer is not enough. Perhaps, but as people of faith we trust in the deep power of prayer and believe it makes a difference. Prayer is one kind of action in response to the violence in the world, and I think it to be our first response to such violence. We cannot always be physically present to families whose lives have been shattered by the loss of loved ones to violence, yet we can be spiritually present through our prayers. Prayer not only offers our hurting world to God’s love, but it also raises our awareness of the pain in our world and moves us to ask how we might respond in other ways.
As we think particularly about violence in churches, we should also be more attentive to safety issues. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus encourages his followers to be “wise as serpents.” There are things we can do to make our places of worship safer and more secure, and a recent article in MIconnect suggested some resources. We want our churches to be welcoming places for all people, and so we never want to close ourselves off from those who are struggling. We want to be wise as serpents and also innocent as doves. Concern for the struggling in response to God’s call in Jesus Christ does not preclude implementing policies and procedures in our congregations for the safety and well-being of all. Local law enforcement agencies are often an excellent resource for helping congregations consider upgrading their safety procedures, as are church insurance companies. Our churches should always be places of welcome and hospitality, places where the struggling can find help, yet we can also be wiser about our safety.
Finally, I encourage us all to think more deeply and broadly about how as a society we might enhance safety. In light of the New York terrorist attack, city officials will review the possibility of erecting more barriers which might prevent the use of vehicles as a weapon. As a society, we are much more reluctant to consider what kinds of preventive measures might be helpful in relation to gun violence. I am clear that there is no set of laws that will completely eliminate gun violence. I am clear that most persons who own guns are relatively responsible owners, and use their guns for hunting or sport. I also know many gun owners who see no need to have devices on the market which allow the conversion of a semi-automatic into a virtually automatic weapon. Taking such devices off the market may have prevented some of the deaths in Las Vegas. I know many gun owners who support a more adequate background check system, which may have kept guns out of the hands of the shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The stressors in our society exacerbate mental health issues and seem to increase anger and fear. We need to address such issues. We should also consider how we can do more to prevent rage from becoming weaponized. I hope we can talk and think, and then act upon such conversations. It is challenging work, I know, but so, too, is the work of grieving violent death or worrying that someone might bring their weaponized rage into the church again.
In this difficult time, may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, and may the God of peace who calls us to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation continue to give us the courage to engage in this work in the world with both wisdom and wide-eyed wonder.
Grace and Peace,
David Alan Bard