In the last several months, awareness of the epidemic of gun violence is catching up to the reality. Terrorist-like shootings in Charleston, Chattanooga and Lafayette capture our attention, rip open the heart and ramp up the fear. Police shootings of innocents in Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston and Cincinnati rile the psyche and provoke the paradoxical question: how can a civilized society be so uncivilized?
An average of 30,000 lives are lost in America per year because of gun violence. To give a sense of scale, that is taking out the whole town of Livingston, NJ. With guns. In one year.
Most of the deaths are homicide. Many are suicides. All are tragic, and beg more of a response than disdain and righteous commentary.
While at General Convention, 1500 people marched against gun violence early on a Sunday morning, in an event organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence. We decried the unholy Trinity of poverty, racism and gun violence - and in solidarity professed our commitment to Jesus, hope and peace. It was a great visual. It brought the work of the church outside. Yet it was not enough – unless it inspired people to continue to make a witness in their local contexts.
Which is what I am proposing that we do in the Diocese of Newark. Sunday, December 13 is Gun Violence Sabbath, so chosen because it coincides with the third anniversary of the Newtown, CT murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In addition to special prayers, I am inviting congregations to participate in “Memorials to the Lost,” which makes a visible witness – outside the church, to the scourge of gun violence.
Memorials to the Lost present T-shirts on poles displayed outside the church – with the names and death dates of people who have been shot and killed in that municipality or county. The display serves to alert viewers to the real toll of gun violence and to commemorate those who have died from guns. The display also provides a place of reflection, worship and prayer for those who pass by or visit, while inspiring those who install and host them. The Memorials attract significant attention among passersby and local media, presenting an opportunity to educate the public about how guns reach the street. The displays seek to unite people and communities of faith in the sacred responsibility to protect our brothers, sisters and children.
Memorials to the Lost have been displayed outside many religious communities in the mid-Atlantic states. Bryan Miller, the originator of Memorials to the Lost, and the leader of Heeding God's Call in Philadelphia (a broad-based advocacy group), is coming to the diocese on Tuesday, September 8 at 10 AM to outline how congregations can prepare and participate in Memorials to the Lost, thus creating awareness and witness – and the inspiration to do more. The gathering will be at Episcopal House in Newark.
Years ago I learned from theologian Walter Brueggemann that a primary function of liturgy is that it offers the public processing of pain. The words in the Eucharist are very descriptive of Jesus' pain, and the words of the Eucharist invite our own pain into the pain of Jesus – and then symbolically, mysteriously and wonderfully transform the pain into hope through the gift of the Resurrection. It doesn’t happen all at once, and it doesn’t always happen. But the offering is there, for us to receive.
Brueggemann also makes the case that every despotic regime throughout history has forbidden the public processing of pain. In totalitarian societies people aren’t allowed to share their stories or their oppression, because to do so creates solidarity and power, is a threat to the powers that be, and might, just might, bring about transformation.
We in America do not live in a despotic or totalitarian regime, although some families of shooting victims may think otherwise. But we can do more than process the pain through blogs or prayers or liturgies inside buildings. We can process the pain outside.
There is, of course, much more to do. And much more is being done. Many are joining the work of Faiths United Against Gun Violence to advocate – at every level, for universal background check. Many are participating in the “Don Not Stand Idly By” campaign (which is an national interfaith effort) to provide economic incentives for gun manufacturers to create “smart” weapons and reduce gun magazine capacity. Many are working at reframing the conversation from a Bill of Rights debate to a public health issue.
But our witness is important. It can alter the landscape. It can make a difference. And perhaps can inspire us to do more.