Should We Do Anything About A Murder?

March 17, 2013
Deuteronomy 21: 1-9; Mark 12:28-31

I imagine something like the following conversation took place after a body was found in the wilderness in ancient Israel.

“There’s been a murder. Did you hear?”
“Oh, No. Who was it?”
“We don’t know.”
“What do you mean? We know everyone in the village.”
“But, it’s not one of our people.”
“Well, where is he from?”
“No one knows. . . somebody. . . we don’t know who, was walking way out in the middle of nowhere and found a body.”
“Then we’re not responsible.”
“Oh, yes, we are. Our elders are out in the wilderness now to determine which village will lead worship for our purification. The whole region has been defiled.”
“What do you mean our purification?  It’s not our fault this guy was killed way out in the middle of nowhere.” What was he doing out there anyway? Oh, come on, we’re not responsible for this death.”
“Oh, yes, we are responsible. We’re Jews. We belong to a larger community; each of us bear responsibility for this crime. We must purify the land. Don’t you understand, man. . . someone’s been murdered! Do you want to live in a village where murder is accepted and a killing doesn’t matter, even if the person were a stranger?”

Today’s Scripture is from a law code of ancient Israel. Because the crime scene was far from any village and involved only one death, it would have been ignored in many societies, but it could not be ignored in Israel. Israel’s relationship with God required repentance and cleansing for a murder , even if no one knew the name of the victim or the perpetrator. One of God’s children had been violated. . Community leaders met at the crime scene and literally stepped off the paces from the body to their respective town limits. Priests from the nearest village were appointed to bury the body, conduct worship and sacrifice a young bull to purge away the sins of all who lived in the entire geographical area.

The liturgy in this sacrifice is strange to us. But stranger still is how quickly these ancient people took responsibility for an unknown murder victim whose body was found in a wilderness. How blessed we Americans would be, how hallowed our cities and towns would become if people of faith purified our communities after thousands of people are shot and killed in or near our city limits.

Gun violence saturates all of our lives, particularly the lives of our children. . A child or teenager dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. Every three days we endure the equivalent of a Newtown massacre. More children under 5 years of age were killed by guns in 2010 than law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Between 1978 to 2010, more children and teens died from guns than U.S. soldiers killed in action in the Vietnam, Korean, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. Since the new Congress was sworn in, in January 3,300 persons have been killed by guns.

I’ve been working on this subject for 38 years, since the day one of my members was murdered by a teenager with a gun. This is not a political issue for me. This is a spiritual issue, an ethical issue, a moral issue. Human beings for whom Christ died are being slaughtered in our cities by guns. Each is a precious child of God.

Gun violence is nonpartisan. Guns kill Republicans, Democrats, and Independents every day. The victims are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, whites, blacks, Latino, Asian, men, women, boys, girls, young, old, gay, straight, rich, poor, rural and urban. No category of person escapes. Gun violence is no more a political issue than drunken driving, selling crack cocaine, or arson.

I must ask, when a human being is killed, the family does not call their congresswoman, senator, or civil magistrate. I don’t think so. They call their pastor, rabbi, or imam. Dealing with death and its aftermath is not a political activity. Why would working to prevent violent deaths be a political matter? Oh, how we as a church have excused ourselves from being at the forefront of one of our greatest social problems by calling it a political matter.

But it was the massacre of 20 first graders and 6 heroic teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary that has pushed the Congress and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ to open a national dialogue on gun violence which has been ignored for far too long. Today people of faith are at last waking up and saying, Hey, these are murders. Should we say anything? Do anything… anything at all?

Make no mistake about it, our astronomical gun deaths are not God’s will for America. And know as well that an educated and committed people can stop the violence if we muster the will. It does not have to be this way. Do God’s people today have any less responsibility for purifying and cleansing our communities of violence than those ancient Jews? If they believed their land was defiled by one unknown person’s murder what should God’s people be doing today when 30,000 of our citizens die at the barrels of guns? What is it God would have us do when assault weapons and large capacity magazines are sold to literally anyone with no questions asked at the nation’s 5,000 gun shows?  Should those of us who follow the Prince of Peace say anything, do anything? . . . Anything at all?

We believe in God. That makes us optimists . . . even eternal optimists. Even so, little by little something terrible is happening to the American character and we are forsaking the values that come straight from God’s Sacred Book. . . . The value of loving neighbors and the value of insisting on just and safe communities. Instead we gradually accept violence as our way of life. Too many Americans trust in guns to keep them safe and that is a religious construct. Nevertheless, that which we trust to keep us secure does not and cannot keep its promises.

The demonic power of violence will not let us remain the same after Aurora, Oak Park, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, Columbine, Tuscaloosa, and Southeast Washington, DC. And Sandy Hook Elementary School. We cannot remain the same. Violence changes us. Violence eats away at us and transforms individuals and communities. Living with violence causes us to reject love as the most important reality in our lives; and when love is rejected and neighbors are feared instead of cherished, we lose our character and our humanity.

Many verbally scorn the violence, but simultaneously suppress our rights to live, work, and play on safe streets; we no longer live into the vision of a community that is safe and not threatened by scores of handguns and assault weapons. We simply practice our lockdowns and intruder drills in our schools and dream even smaller dreams for safer tomorrows for our children. The nation that can put a rover on Mars sadly surrenders and says, “All we can do is pray. We’ve got a gun culture and we have to respect that. There’s a Second Amendment and ” Gun rights, you know. Meanwhile there have been 130 school shootings since Columbine. And it won’t be long before there is another mass shooting; and it’s not a matter of if but when; and the Congress and the NRA will ask us to pray out of respect for the dead and those who mourn. They will pray until such time as they tell us again, we need more good guys with guns in our schools and bars, and churches, and national parks, and movie theatres. Does that sound like something a gun owner would say? Well, I’ve owned guns for 50 years and I have an NRA membership card in my pocket.

I don’t agree with the spokespersons for NRA. They do not represent the opinions of their membership. They tell us the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun. Are we to ignore the New York Police Force which is one of the best trained police units in the country who regularly practice marksmanship at shooting ranges. But when they use their guns for real they hit their targets 28.3 % of the time. These statistics put the lie to the claim that armed guards with far less training can keep our children safe from a bad guy with an assault weapon when all around is utter chaos. As Isaiah said, “Come let us reason together.” Wouldn’t it be far wiser to keep the bad guy from getting such a gun in the first place?

Friends, we are in a spiritual battle with a gigantic evil, and it is not finished with the recent vote in Congress. Nevertheless, we should have great hope. There is a sea-change of public opinion today in America on the place of violence and assault weapons and large capacity magazines in our society. Over 70% of NRA members and gun owners agree with us. Unfortunately, The church did not start this wave. I wish we had, but we didn’t for a host of lame excuses; but at least, the church can catch the wave and use our moral authority to bring change to our country. We must speak in Jesus’ name loudly and clearly on behalf of two Constitutional rights: the right to have a gun which is the law of the land; and the right to live in safety free of gun violence. It’s called domestic tranquility in our Constitution, and pursuing life, liberty, and happiness in our Declaration of Independence.

I began working to prevent gun violence thirty-eight years ago, motivated largely by rage over my church member’s tragic murder and my country’s sanction of 30,000 gun deaths per year. I began this calling from God in anger, but I stay in the movement because of my hope in the love of Jesus Christ who will usher in the full and final victory over violence and death. That is our living hope. Our Christian faith compels us to say that love is stronger than hate; life is more powerful than death; peace is more compelling than violence; and God’s promises are more influential than guns. Guns can only kill. Love can bring new life; love can bring a resurrection, even after a Newtown. Working for a safe society is love in action.

Friends, there is nothing more Christian, Biblical, or Presbyterian than devoting ourselves to right this terrible wrong. Listen to John Calvin speak on the meaning of the 6th commandment: Thou shalt not kill. “Since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each. All violence and injustice and every kind of harm from which our neighbor’s body suffers, is prohibited. Accordingly, we are required faithfully to do what in us lies to defend the life of our neighbor, to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm and when danger comes to assist in removing it.”

Brothers and sisters, there are thousands of murders every year. Should we say anything? Do anything? You know in your heart we should. Let’s go to work in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ with energy, intelligence, imagination and love and stop the killing.