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Pastoral ponderings . . .
The most recent acts of mass murder in our country have all of us on edge. In August just days after the El Paso killings, there were people shopping at the ValleyFair Mall and suddenly two loud bangs were heard. Immediately people panicked and ran for their lives out of the Mall. It turned out that something large and heavy had fallen to the floor. But people had already texted loved ones that they had heard shots, and those people were jumping in their cars and driving down to the Mall in a panic as well. Anytime, anywhere in America. We all know that now. It’s happened too many times. And I believe that’s the America my generation has created. My generation chose to get rich by any means possible.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” are the famous words of Jesus. We have our treasure in America today in a place that fills our hearts with fear. And my generation has created that place. “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was right up there with “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” among the most popular shows in the early ‘80’s. My room-mate in college had a poster that said, “You can never be too rich, or too thin.” My generation began looking for ways to “game the system” and they became day traders and hedge fund managers. They found new and ingenious ways to make money off the debt of others. They found ways to “give consumers anything and everything they wanted” including monetized virtual sex, cheaper more powerful illegal drugs, and automatic assault weapons. My generation was living to “Party like it’s 1999” for at least a decade prior to that date. I once went to a Friday happy hour in San Francisco, invited by a friend who worked for a direct mail fundraising company (one of the first of its kind in the 1980’s) that was bringing in cash hand over fist. The bar was packed and noisy, and the TV was on. When the evening stock report came on, the entire place went completely, utterly silent, watching the results of the DOW for the week. People were still as statues. And when the report was over, the place went right back to partying. I thought it was weird. But my friend said “it’s normal.”I was a theology student in my 20’s, and I couldn’t care less. But here were all my peers holding their drinks in one hand and their breath in the other, until the numbers came in.
I’m not that old, but today I often find myself looking back at the America of the 1970s and 80s and thinking “what happened?” Do you ever find yourself doing that? Not just the competition to see who can be the rudest, most offensive public speaker or performer, but the horrific gun violence. It seems to me in my limited memory that we’ve always had mental illness in our country. Growing up in California, I remember when Governor Reagan closed all the state mental hospitals, and all the patients were left to fend for themselves on the street. Untreated mental illness has been with us since the 1960’s, and before. I remember as a kid, playing war games in our neighborhood. Kids have always had toy guns, and played war like they do in video games today. I remember the racist jokes, statements, and hatred of my dad, my uncle, and my grand-dad. We’ve always had racial hatred and white supremacy in America. It seems to me that none of these ingredients is new, anywhere in the world. But now there are countries who are actually issuing travel warnings and restrictions to their citizens, warning them about the danger of visiting the United States.
There are 326 million people in the US today. And because we can buy just about any and every kind of weapon available, there are 393 million civilian-owned firearms. It seems to me, that this is what’s changed since the 1970’s. Racism, hate-speech, war games, and mental illness have always been around. But the number and availability of guns today is simply overwhelming.
My generation got rich selling bigger, faster, and more lethal everything under the ethic that Americans have every right to have fun, however they want, as long as they pay for it themselves. Before coming to Salt Lake City I had a rural parish of five Lutheran churches in northeastern North Dakota. I remember one retired member of the parish inviting me to come out and see his gun collection one summer day. He had built a fairly new house for himself in his retirement on land he’d inherited. He was a retired anesthesiologist, so he had “done well” as they say. Harold Lee took me into a front room in his house, and showed me more handguns, rifles, and assault weapons than I could count. And the ammunition to fire all of them. It was his hobby. It was just something he did for fun.
Robert Kirby writes a humorous column for the Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Vietnam vet and a retired police officer from Utah. His column on the Tuesday after the El Paso massacre was about how he used to think that his gun collection was fun. Until he saw just too many crime scenes, murders and suicides; and as he put it “cleaned too much blood and body bits” out of his hair. He said the bottom line for him, was that the purpose of guns was to turn living things into meat.
“Anytime, anywhere” now in America. That’s what my generation has created. If there’s a market for it, be the first one, and cash in. “Make a killing’, is what we called it. I really think, looking back, that’s what happened. We were allowed to wash our hands of any consequences. Just make the deal, and bank the cash.
Today, I honestly find myself wishing we could Make America Great Again, by returning to the days when we didn’t have to be afraid of random loud noises in shopping malls because anyone with an assault rifle can show up anytime, anywhere and start shooting. Remember those days? Freedom may not be free, but it shouldn’t be a liability to my neighbor. I think civilization is based upon the limitation of absolute human freedom. We don’t get to do whatever we want. There are limits. There are ethics of self-restraint for the sake of a civilized common good. Ethics of self-restraint that we turn into laws through the legislative process. Laws that are enforced with real consequences because we have learned over millennia, that it is human nature to abuse individual freedom for selfish, sometimes evil, motives.
I believe we need a loving God who guides us into that kind of order. Global warming, deforestation, species extinction, the epidemic of gun violence, addiction, and homelessness, all while the DOW keeps climbing higher than ever, fails to convince me that “every day in every way” humanity is evolving toward the greater Moral Good. It’s the case for why I don’t have faith in the goodness of humanity. I have faith and trust in the goodness of God. And in the ethics of God’s wisdom, passed down for millennia; ethics like “Love God heart soul strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ethics that are turned into laws to govern human society. Laws that are debated by a society that is not allowed to be solely led by the profit motive, but by the ethics of the greater common good. Laws that are enforced by real consequences.
I believe that the ethics of God, taught in our case by Christ Jesus in our tradition, are what our tradition calls the kingdom, or reign of God. They are “the treasure that moth and rust cannot consume, or thieves break in and steal.” They are the lamp light of wisdom, that we are given to keep trimmed and ready. Christ tells us we would do well to make ourselves ready in this way because the promise is that something wonderful is coming our way, when we least expect it. The Christ who “dresses himself to serve,” as the parable says; and all who hold their lamps of wisdom recline at the table while the master himself comes and waits upon them. I believe ultimately, that’s what God is bringing towards us: a new creation where justice, peace, equality, and harmony are the norm; not fear, violence, and global degredation of the Earth. Living the ethics of that new creation, even in times of such despair as these, and despite my generation’s best efforts to live contrary to them, might just be the treasure that will never fail to bring us hope. – Pastor David