Michael Hidalgo

A LETTER ABOUT VIOLENCE AND GUNS AND THE USA5.7.2019

This is a letter I wrote and read to our community of faith known as Denver Community Church on May 21, 2018. After another shooting in the Denver Metro Area I’ve decided to post it here. It’s about a 15 minute read.

The preaching this morning will be a little different than normal. Typically, if you are familiar with our gatherings at Denver Community Church, I’m found walking around on the platform and preaching without notes and preaching from our predetermined schedule, which for the last season has been from the letter to the church in Ephesus – the book we traditionally call Ephesians. But today, I am going to read a letter of my own.

A letter written by me to all of you who call DCC home. A letter to all of you who listen via our Podcast each week. A letter written to any and all people who call themselves a follower of Jesus and claim America as their home.

My reason for writing this letter is because I am here on the platform once again only a few days removed from another mass shooting. This time it took place at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas; a shooting in which eight students and two teachers were senselessly gunned down and lost their lives.

When I read the news of the shooting on Friday morning my heart sank to new depths. How long, oh Lord?I found myself saying, “Lord, have mercy,” over and over.

I picked my kids up from school Friday afternoon, and they shared their real fear of whether there could be a shooting at their schools. How long, oh Lord? I found myself saying, “Lord, have mercy,” over and over.

Then last night I heard from a friend. He is a pastor near Santa Fe, Texas, asking for prayer as he planned to preach about the shooting this morning at his church. How long, oh Lord? I found myself saying, “Lord, have mercy,” over and over.

I am fully aware this morning, that we could enjoy the comfort distance provides. We could allow the shooting in Santa Fe to remain another part of our nonstop newsfeed; a newsfeed that has been quickly crowded out by our insatiable interest in the Royal Wedding.

Or because the shooting was not in our backyard or because the shooting was not in the Denver Metro Area we could go on as normal at our schools. Or we could do what we normally do on a Sunday after another mass shooting. We could take a moment, we could pause, we could pray, we could offer words and we could get on with the pre-planned sermon.

But the families who are making funeral arrangements instead of graduation plans cannot go on as normal. The students in our midst who are scared cannot go on as normal. My friend who is preaching right this minute, not far from Santa Fe, Texas, cannot go on as normal.

So to only stop and reflect and pray before preaching this morning, quite frankly, did not seem like enough. And I am not sure anything I can say this morning will be enough.

However, I felt compelled to scrap the sermon I had prepared and say something. So I came to this building early this morning and wrote this letter so that I could say something about our society, about violence, about guns, about confession and about repentance.

As I read this letter, I am indebted as I read to Joe Kay, a pastor, who wrote a convicting article, shortly after the Las Vegas Massacre, for Sojourner’s titled, “When’s the Last Time You Heard a Sermon About Gun Violence?” It is his article and its words – some of which I will use this in this letter with his permission – that inspired me to write this letter. I also will use the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, over fifty years ago, spoke about the violence that plagues this nation and his words are as important for us today as they were when we spoke them.

With that said, let me continue …

It is obvious that there is something terribly wrong in our society. If our religious leaders won’t find words to address it beyond superficial sentiment, then they and we and I are contributing to our sickness. We have a divided and a violent and a gun-soaked society. We’re at verbal war on social media. We can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable. While many see this problem; few speak about it with any real conviction.

We say, “We don’t want to get too political.” Or, “We don’t want to bring politics into the church.” Forgetting the Church, when gathered together, ought to be the safest place to speak about everything and anything plaguing our country and ourselves.

We say, “We don’t want to get into a conversation with friends or family who think differently.” We believe we are somehow keeping the peace, even though we are doing nothing more than allowing violence to remain in our hearts and theirs.

We say, “We don’t want to engage with bullies on Facebook or Twitter.” And we fail to see that by our silence we fail to see we are complicit in the ills of our country.

We’ve reached the point where we can’t send a loved one to school or to church or to work, to a mall or to a nightclub or to a concert without concern they could be the next one gunned down by a person wielding a gun. Our streets and our offices and our churches and our nightclubs and our public squares are spattered with more blood every day.

What seem to be the loudest voices are not the “peacemakers” – those whom Jesus called blessed. Rather, the loudest voices, seem to be those who continue to propose and sell guns as the solution, believing we need more “good people” with greater firepower and better aim.

This illustrates we have fallen for the age-old lie of redemptive violence. We believe somehow more violence will bring about peace. If this were true, one would have to believe that with all the wars, deaths, murders, bombs, guns, bullets and fights that humanity has engaged in over thousands of years, we would be experiencing, right now, a time of prosperous peace. We have refused to recognize violence cannot bring peace; violence only gives birth to more violence.

AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT VIOLENCE.

Because the conversation isn’t just about guns, although that’s certainly a hugepart of it. We need to look at the bigger picture of how we’ve made violence our norm and how we endorse and encourage it in so many ways.

Our children shoot imaginary people in video games; treating killing as entertainment. We normalize violence through our television shows, movies, and our national monuments. Murder on the screens is commonplace. Hollywood’s version of justice is the murder of the “bad guys”.

We struggle to tolerate some forms of violence against life portrayed on film. We have not accepted scenes of rape or spousal abuse. We will not tolerate scenes of child molestation, but we are curiously and comfortably numb to gun violence that results in murder constantly shown in motion pictures. We watch it, we take it in, we yawn and we change the channel.

Forget about “In God We Trust.” Our country’s motto should be “In guns and violence we trust.” I say this because we applaud warriors and dismiss peacemakers as out of touch. We conclude that the one with the most bullets and bombs should get their way, so we as a country spend mountains of money making more of them. And we have become the world’s leading arms dealer, selling weapons to other countries proliferating violence around the planet.

We herald the founding of our nation, one earned through the violence of war, and we extol and cheer on our military because we are the world’s most powerful. Our collective arrogance and hubris regarding the extent of our violence seemingly knows no bounds.

This is evidenced by the fact that as a nation, only relatively recently have we apologized that the foundations of our country were built upon the backs of those who were kidnapped from their homes on a continent across the sea, were shipped like cattle to a land they had never seen, (because of this millions lost their lives in the middle passage) and forced to work a foreign land under the constant threat of violence.

We have only recently sort of confessed to the mass genocide perpetrated against First Nation people who had long lived and worked the land we stole from them. The only expense to get this land was our bullets and their blood. It is a rare thing for the United States to repent for the violence our country has been responsible for in our own land and around the world.

And this is not out there in “the world” or our culture. This is in the hearts of those who faithfully attend church each week and call Jesus Christ their “Lord and Savior.” We claim, in the Church, to worship Jesus. A King, who when interrogated by Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not like the Kingdoms of this world … if it were my servants would take up arms, fight and use violence to prevent my arrest. As it were, my Kingdom is not like the Kingdoms of this world” (My paraphrase of John 18:36).

It often seems that Christians in America have no time for a God of Peace; instead we worship the god of war. It’s the mighty Roman god of war, Mars, in whom we have placed our faith; not the Mediterranean, Jewish peasant named Jesus, the humble Son of God, who was a peacemaker.

We have chosen to brazenly use his cross, the cross of Jesus Christ, as flagpole to fly the American flag. We bow our knee at altar of the American Military, and glorify the founding of our country. And then have the gall to Tweet glib offers of thoughts and prayers in the midst of continued and normalized violence.

How did we get so lost?

We must talk about this, and the pulpit must be part of the conversation. We need prophets like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who forced us to confront the way we, in our culture, glorify guns and violence and thus create a “morally inclement climate”. He wrote about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and assassination of President John Kennedy in the “Death of Illusions” in his autobiography. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase what he said about violence then, to apply it specifically to the violence we experience now.

We live in a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is a climate where people cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder … So in a sense we are all participants in the horrible acts of school shootings and many more mass shootings that tarnish the image of our nation.

By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of gun violence with gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.

Shootings on the university campuses, at high schools and middle schools in places like: Santa Fe, Texas; Palmdale, California; Ocala, Florida; Raytown, Missouri; Lexington Park, Maryland; Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Parkland, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Oxon Hill, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Benton, Kentucky; Italy, Texas; Winston Salem, North Carolina – all of which have occurred on school campuses in 2018 alone – each has something important to say to each of us. And how many were not mentioned in the news? How many school shootings were not in the headlines?

Whether reported in the media, or not reported, they have something to say to every politician who has failed to act while receiving millions of dollars from the NRA, and to those politicians who use gun control only as a platform while doing little to enact any real change.

They have something to say to every clergyperson who observes gun violence, division and hatred yet remains silent behind the security of stained glass windows.

They have something to say to the devotees of guns and those who cry out for their right to bear arms who use irrational fear to rally their supporters – those who brand everyone Anti-American with whom they disagree.

 They have something to say to those who do little more than waste words each time there is a shooting, but fail to work toward any sustainable solutions.

The lives lost have something to say to all of us … that this virus of violence has seeped into the veins of our nation, if unchecked, will lead inevitably to our moral and spiritual doom. Thus the epitaph of the students’ lives illuminate profound truths that challenge us to set aside our grief for a season and move forward with more determination to rid our nation of the vestiges of gun violence and the epidemic of mass shootings. 

The spat of recent school shootings killed not only young people, but a complex of illusions. It demolished the myth that hate and violence can be confined in an airtight chamber to be employed against but a few. Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity. There is a plague afflicting our country, and it appears its perils are not perceived. 

We were all involved in the death of those students and teachers earlier this week. We tolerate hate; we tolerate the sick simulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerate the differential application of law. This may explain the cascading grief that floods our country every time the media informs us another mass shooting. Yes, we mourn the lives of those lost, but somewhere deep in our bones we grieve as well for ourselves because we know we are sick.

For too long, religious leaders – including myself at times – have shied away from challenging our communities to do better. Instead, we look the other way when it comes to our culture of violence.

Churches are well known for speaking out on other issues. For example we campaign to protect life in some forms, but fail to acknowledge that all life is sacred as it is imbued with the breath of the Almighty God.  We deliver sermons about our religious freedom; at the same time trample the religious freedoms of others who do not share our faith. Somehow, we refuse to give the same attention to the lives extinguished and the rights erased by the pull of a trigger.

God, forgive us. God, forgive me. Forgive us who have been called to vocational ministry, but for our cowardice, have chosen to remain silent. Yes, the pulpit is a good starting point, but we all need to promote this conversation. We need to say in as many places, and as many ways as we can: THIS MUST CHANGE.

We must put away our weapons. We must stop glamorizing violence. We must give up our infatuation with conflict. We must stop adding to division and violence by spewing toxic words and vitriol on social media; for every word uttered or typed against someone else only adds to the downward spiral of violence.

And we must know, when words fail we turn to actions. We ought not to be surprised at these atrocious acts when we wound others with our words. We ought not to look away in horror when we destroy one another with name calling. “If you call your brother or sister a fool,” Jesus said, “it’s as though you’ve killed them” (my paraphrase / interpretation of Matthew 5:21,22).

We must speak out to our loved ones, our classmates, our teachers, our families, our elected officials and to our pastors. And we must have the courage to do this face to face, not sitting behind the anonymity offered by a keyboard on Facebook.

If we don’t say it, if we do not speak out against violence, if we refuse to confess our complicity in the violence of this country, then we, at the very least, should have the courage to admit our faith is nothing more than noise, or as the Apostle Paul said, nothing more than “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

If we remain silent on what plagues our country, then we should be honest and admit our faith is simply a self-serving, self-help program designed to make us feel better. If we refuse to preach this from the pulpits of our churches, then we must confess that our churches are nothing more than a leisurely country club experience designed to make us feel better while the world around us burns in the fires of violence.

Jesus lived in times that were soaked in violence, weapons, and conflict. His homeland was occupied by the Romans who killed for domination and pleasure. Crucifixion was commonplace. The religiously observant also advocated violence – death by stoning to those who broke certain rules. In the midst of this, Jesus told those who were bent on execution to drop their stones. He told his zealous follower to put away his swords. He invited his followers to resist the temptation to treat anyone as an enemy.

And when violence was done unto Him; he forgave those who perpetuated the violence against him. He did not just say to blessed those who persecuted him and loved his enemies – he practiced it. Jesus wept over the city that would be the site of his violent death.

In imitation of him, therefore, Jesus followers should not only pray for and bless our enemies; we must use our hands to heal wounds, not to wield weapons. We must use our voices to pronounce forgiveness and peace, rather than stir the pot of division and violence. Never forgetting we need to hear the message of love, grace, mercy and peace again and again, even if it’s widely unpopular in our culture, our homes, our schools, or our particular brand of politics.

And I contend this must begin with us and by us publicly confessing our failure to address the violence that lurks in our hearts, the violence we have embraced and accepted in our culture and how we have flatly ignored the violence that is fixed on the mantle of the living room of the United States of America.

May we confess that we have not taken the time and not been moved enough to care to act – to make a phone call, send an email to our elected officials. May we confess that we walk past people everyday without giving them a moment of our time or a shred of our presence. May we confess all the ways we collectively shrug our shoulders as a way of saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

Quoting Dr. King once again, who preached these words the night before his life was ended by a bullet:

“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period … in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up … we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history …”

May it be said of us that it was dark enough and we saw the stars. May it be said of us that we are responding, we are rising up and we have been forced to a point where we have to grapple with the problems that plague our land.

I once heard a proverb, “Don’t ask God to feed the hungry family down the street when you have a cupboard full of food.” These words came to mind when I heard reports of another mass shooting. Of course, prayer is important, but I often wonder when we ask God, “When will you do something about this?” God may well respond, “When will YOU do something about this?” We have “food in the cupboard”, so to speak, and we can do more than simply offer condolences, thoughts and prayers after another shooting.

We can cease adding to the violence in word and deed. We can sew seeds of love, thoughtfulness and peace in all conversations we have. We can learn of the dignity that all human being possess and dignify them with respect – honoring others as ourselves – even in the midst of disagreement.

We can repent on behalf of the violence our nation has perpetuated over the centuries – a nation that has long claimed to be a Christian nation, yet does not resemble Jesus.  We can pursue justice for those who have long been oppressed by systems of racism and marginalization in our country. And we can live as peacemakers, seeking the wholeness, goodness, love, beauty and light in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our churches and in every place our feet take us.

In doing this, we must begin with ourselves and deal with the plank in our own eyes, before we ever seek to deal with the speck in our siblings’ eyes. We must look within and confess the way we hold violence, division and hatred toward the other and seek reconciliation where possible. In this we might learn to live differently, for then we may have the courage to speak to the other, speak out, make our voice known to our elected officials and begin denouncing violence – the very thing our country is built upon.

We must be led to compassion, mercy, kindness and befriend the lonely, the forgotten, the left out and the bullied – and speak out for those who have been relegated to the margins by this country. You may be wondering, “What can we do?” And I will remind you the sermon is always the start of the conversation. As we sit together asking, “What can we do?” My hope is you will ask that question of your community in the days and weeks and months to come.

For if we take Jesus at his word, then we will do greater things than Him (see John 14:12). May we believe these words to be true. And may we glorify Jesus, our King, not violence, in the days to come so that we and our world may come to know peace. And may we not just long for, but may we all work toward a time when we will see, “People beating their swords into plowsharesand their spears into pruning hooks and their guns into farm tools … may we work toward the day when nation will not take up sword against nation,nor will they train for war anymore and all will sit under their own vine and fig tree” (see Micah 4:3,4). And may we never tire in that work – so that together we might see the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so … amen and amen.

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