Somebody goes into a darkened room where a single spotlight illuminates a canvas. Some paint being nearby, the person picks up a brush, dabs in color, and starts to apply it to the canvas. Suddenly the lights come on in the room and the person is horrified to see that his impromptu little project has messed up a masterpiece, only a small corner of which had been illuminated. That image, from J. B. Phillips, the great Bible scholar and preacher of the last century, has become my standard way of understanding what happens when the lights come on and the truth is revealed. The word for that in the biblical vocabulary is judgment. It is a word that, generally speaking, we hate. Only unless and until we find ourselves in a predicament—plaintiff in a lawsuit, for example—looking for judgment in our favor, pleading for an act of justice that will set wrong to right, do we like the idea of judgment. Otherwise we equate it with sentencing or condemnation, and few people like the idea of being sentenced or condemned.
Friday morning the lights came on in a place I know well: Newtown, Connecticut. You now know the name of that town, and you are not likely to forget it. It will now quite likely become a reference point in a thesaurus of places and dates, ranking alongside or even above Columbine, Laramie, Oklahoma City as the cite of an atrocity past all comprehension, too horrible for words. I lived in Newtown, Connecticut during a formative period in my life. For thirteen years I was Rector of Trinity Parish, which sits atop Church Hill, squared off in front of the Newtown Meeting House, the famous flagpole in the middle of the street between the two of them. In this idyllic town I often say I grew up. My two daughters did in fact. One of them played soccer sometimes on the field at Sandy Hook Elementary School, now a place of unspeakable emotional wreckage. Newtown is still a major place in my psychic landscape, as my soul still wanders in my dreams among the stores and houses there, revisits the events that punctuated my life there, touches the spirits of friends I still cherish there.
The shadow side of Newtown has long been the fact that people expect life to be ideal in such a place, and are always somehow puzzled that horrors happen and tragedies strike, shattering the peace and quiet of the town. Of course, the ideal is an illusion; for the forces that devastate Littleton and Denver and Portland and New York City and Washington, DC are lurking insidiously in the crannies and caverns of the hearts of Newtowners just as they do everywhere. Perhaps that has something to do with the heaviness of my own heart today. I know how awful it is to find that evil and chaos have been unleashed in one’s own Eden, wrecking the heart of creation, and taking grief to depths unfathomable.
Yet still the lights come on. And this time they come on for the nation as well as for Newtown. The vulnerability of even the “best” communities, model neighborhoods, exemplary school systems: exposed. The inadequacy of accessing our mental health system: exposed. The bitter fruits of a violence-soaked culture: exposed. The cowardice of politicians: exposed. The insistence of people that the right to own a gun supersedes the right to be safe from one: exposed.
I Responding to Judgment
Let’s look first at how we respond to judgment and what happens when the day comes in whose awful light all these things and more are exposed. That is exactly what today’s gospel confronts. John the Forerunner appears in the desert of Judea proclaiming nothing short of judgment. Notice, however, that, though he predicts a wrath that is coming, his is in fact not a message of doom. Rather, his is a call to repentance. “Produce fruit, fruit worthy of repentance,” is hardly a sentence or a condemnation. John’s counsel is utterly practical. Don’t start making excuses, he warns. Trees need to produce good fruit, and so do people. The effect of John’s preaching is to turn on the lights. His purpose is to prepare the Way of the Lord by inspiring change of heart and life on a massive scale.
Note that the crowds are not full of questions about what the awful wrath is going to be like. Actually they have only one question, which they ask insistently: “What shall we do?” That rings true. People all over the country today are asking, “What are we going to do to change all this violence?” And we are off to the races. We already know what the debate is going to look like. Some will argue for more and better gun control. Some will argue that that is no answer at all. Some will vilify the opponents of gun control and make them out to be demonic. Others will swear that President Obama arranged the whole thing as a pretext for taking away the guns from those who have a right to bear whatever arms they want to. And on and on and on. Taking a cue from John the Baptist, we can conclude that there really are some things we can do to respond to this judgment, this exposure of the truth, and they are not all that hard to figure out. Share your tunics and your food, collect nothing under false pretenses, be content with wages and don’t resort to extortion and blackmail: these were the simple answers that John gave a crowd anxious to know what to do. Renew the ban on assault weapons; make it impossible to sell guns, even in private shows, without a license; set safety standards for all guns the way we set safety standards for dolls and teddy bears; make the mental health care system accessible not only for those who seek it but, for example, to parents of mentally disturbed adults whose behavior may well be presage violence. Listing these things is easy. Accomplishing them is not necessarily so. Yet these are some of the things we can do to respond to the awful cloud of judgment that erupted in Newtown and now rains down upon us all.
II Practicing Repentance
But, second, let’s get down to the hard stuff: practicing repentance. John preached repentance. That does not mean getting down on your knees and saying you’re sorry. Repentance means changing one’s heart, mind, and direction. Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers distinguishes between a technical fix and adaptive change. The challenge for this society is that we frequently opt for a technical fix when what is required is a systemic change. There are sometimes when a technical fix is exactly what is needed, as when you have a broken bone and it needs to be set. But in the case of the violence now so thoroughly exposed to be the danger and the evil that it is, more is needed. A change of attitude, a change of heart, a complete shift in cultural attitudes would be true repentance. And it can be done. We have done it before. Take, for example, the matter of smoking. Plenty of people still do it. But about 1970, American society began to take a turn towards a systemic change in the way we approached cigarette smoking in particular. We could scarcely have imagined then that the day would come when in major cities cigarette smoking would be banned in public buildings, restaurants, and countless venues. The tobacco industry was a powerful lobby. But that did not stop a gradual, persistent process that led to enormous social change.
The problem with gun violence and the rest of the cluster of things exposed so gruesomely in Newtown is that a great many people want to prescribe or proscribe what others do rather than to look critically at ourselves. Unlike cigarette smoking, the culture of violence, which nurtures acts of carnage, is far more insidious. Not only is it linked to war (how many times do we unleash American firepower to do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan like horrors to what Adam Lanza did in Sandy Hook?), but also to sex role stereotyping (we support guns for little boys to play with and glorify as heroes males who commit violent acts), to the entertainment industry where cartoons, video games, and movies glorify violence and demonstrate how to perpetrate it. Do we want to change? The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and we have felt its gash. What more do we need? Terror and horror are not going to disappear from our lives unless and until we create a culture that will sustain and support peace as a viable way of life.
III Deepening Community
But there is a third thing we might think about today, and that is the way of deepening community. See yourself for a minute standing among the brood of vipers that John the Baptist thundered at on the Jordan riverbank. Israel of John’s day was hardly a unified community. They were a factious bunch. Pharisees practiced a strict interpretation of the Torah, the Law, built on deep commitments faithfully to keep the Covenant that they understood firmly to be God’s will. Sadducees were another group, if anything more conservative than the Pharisees, less willing to embrace new interpretations of old scriptures and practices. Zealots were those who were convinced that violent revolution was the only plausible option towards running the Romans out of town. And just a stone’s throw from where John was doing his baptizing, the Essenes were a monastic community busily composing what we now call The Dead Sea Scrolls, awaiting the appearance of a new order inaugurated by God. Soldiers, tax collectors, and ordinary Jews, not to mention foreigners and Gentiles here and there rounded out the society, contentious and fragmented. It is not easy to undo or redo that kind of social reality.
Yet in forming a community initially by calling disciples and teaching them the basics of living and praying together, Jesus threw in his lot with a new community under the rule of a single commandment, to “love one another as I have loved you.” That is what the Church needs to be doing all the time: being a community that models how to be inclusive, how to live with differences, how to be in communion despite disagreements, how to put common endeavor above individual achievement, how to pray together, how to make safe spaces where people do not have to hide their identities nor tell lies in order to survive, how to confront one another in love, how to confess and be wrong, how to confess and be reconciled. These things are the staples of our life together. Our country and the world need us to share them. It would be wonderful if everyone without a faith community were to find one, but that is not going to happen. The question before us now is how to tell our story convincingly and helpfully to people who need to hear a word of hope and to see how living justly and peaceably actually works.
The very same heart of mine that is broken over the Newtown tragedy is a heart that found peace and healing in Newtown time and again when people taught me some basic lessons of Christian community. Some of my hardest moments in ministry included times I sat on the lawn and listened as teenagers grieved the death of classmates in automobile accidents; when I stood at the altar and celebrated a eucharist for a woman brutally murdered; when I wept in the sacristy after a particularly painful annual meeting. It is in such places as those that we practice and thus learn to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the things that last from the things that ultimately fail us, the wonderful way in which Christ Jesus baptizes us with the Spirit of a holy consolation and at the same fires us to get up and do something to help the nation and the world heal.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012