As I’ve mentioned before, I was in fourth grade when twelve students and a teacher were murdered at Columbine High School. I was too young at the time to fully understand the repercussions that the event would have on the rest of my education, but I did know that I could never again assume that I would be safe at school.
But I think that what might scare me even more as an adult, more than two decades later, is that I genuinely have no idea what measures my school district ever took to keep me safe, or my state, or any other body that should have been invested in the futures of my classmates and me. I vaguely remember grown-ups comforting us with a message that yes, what had happened was sad, and scary, and deeply unfair, but that it would never happen at our school. How could they know that? How were they making sure of it? What actions backed up their words? What did anyone ever do to keep me safe?
I remember reading an article in a teen magazine once about what to do in an active shooter situation, and I’m disappointed to say that a teen magazine was more informative and comprehensive on the subject than any adult in my life.
I’ve been very lucky. I myself have never lived through an active shooter situation, but I know people who have. What did anyone ever do to keep them safe?
Whether or not a new policy or safety measure or recommendation or screening process or training or law actually worked to prevent or diminish violence, I would have more trust in the generations that raised us if I knew that they had done something. Instead, I grew up against a backdrop of arguments and lobbies and name-calling and laws that weren’t passed and endless debates on tangential themes. People took sides and it felt like there was a greater priority placed on being right than the priority of keeping kids like me from dying. My safety became politics and nothing was done because there weren’t enough voices pushing through the fog of politics to make real change.
Where were the voices speaking up for me? Where was the voice of the Church?
In 1963, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr wrote these words from behind bars in an eloquent document published as “Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with.'”
Since I read Dr King’s letter in college, I have often thought of his disappointment in white churches and wondered whether I would have had the courage to stand up for justice, had I been his contemporary. I don’t know how Dr King was spoken of in the churches I have loved and attended and to be honest, I would be nervous to find out, because most of the churches I have loved and attended have been predominantly white, in geographic areas where racial issues wouldn’t have felt as immediately pressing as they might have in different parts of the country.
I don’t ever want my niece’s generation to grow up to be disappointed by my inaction. I don’t ever want to be a part of the Church’s silence on matters of justice. I don’t ever want to be among ministers, my colleagues, who say “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with.” The gospel has everything to do with social issues because the gospel is about how we treat each other. We cannot live out God’s command to love our neighbors while at the same time looking the other way when some neighbors have been mistreated for generations. We cannot live out God’s command to love our neighbors while at the same time dismissing the words of some neighbors when they call us out for supporting systems that hurt them. We cannot live out God’s command to love our neighbors while at the same time pretending that everything in our society is fine just the way it is and that we don’t have to make any uncomfortable changes.
There are things in this world that matter, and if we can’t believe that the gospel calls us to address social issues, then we can’t say that we believe the gospel.
So this week I want to ask you to do two things. First I want to ask you to watch a different news channel, read a different newspaper, or talk to a different group of people, so that you can hear another perspective, even if it’s one that you don’t always agree with. Then I want you to think about a social issue that matters to you. How do you think Jesus would respond to it? Do you know whether the PC(USA) has a formal stance on it? Why is this social issue important to you? When a younger generation asks you what you did to work on that social issue, what will you be able to tell them that you did in order to make the world better for them?