By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie on Sunday, December 16, 2012
William Bullitt was born in Philadelphia to family of wealthy lawyers and railroad magnates. After graduating from Yale in 1912, he covered the First World War as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledgerand later joined the State Department.
In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson took Bullitt with him to attend the Paris Peace Conference. Bullitt and six other diplomats soon resigned protesting the terms of the Versailles Treaty. “This isn’t a treaty of peace,” wrote Bullitt. “I can see at least eleven wars in it.”
President Roosevelt appointed Bullitt as the American ambassador to France in 1936. Bullitt witnessed the storm clouds of war building across Europe. Four years later, when the French government left Paris on June 10, 1940, the streets were silent. The stores were shut. The French left Bullitt, an American, in charge of Paris.
As he attended a prayer service two days later at Cathedral of Notre Dame, Bullitt was seen weeping for the city that he loved. The Secretary of State urged him to leave Paris, but Bullitt believed it his duty to stay and take a stand. Paris was surrounded by the German army. When a Frenchmen fired on German truce officers on the outskirts of Paris, the Germans ordered an all-out air and artillery assault to destroy Paris the following morning.
Bullitt had only a few hours to save one of Europe’s greatest cities. Two and a half hours before Paris was to be destroyed, Bullitt persuaded the Germans to call off the attack His intervention spared the City of Lights. He took a stand and made a difference. One of the greatest things that you can ever do in your life is to stand and make a difference.
Sometimes evil lurks on the horizon, and we can see it slowly advancing. We saw it with Hitler and Stalin. We have watched it recently in Syria and see it in Russia, China, North Korea and Egypt. Other times, evil bursts out of nowhere without warning as it did on Friday when a psychologically deranged young man killed 26 people – most of them children. It was the second worst school massacre in US history. “Our hearts are broken today,” said President Obama. He spoke for all of us.
“Evil visited this community today,” said the governor of Connecticut. He was right. Innocent children had their lives cut short. This morning, I ask you, “Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference to prevent senseless violence?”
In response to a reporter’s question about whether this was an appropriate time to speak about gun control, President Obama said, “Today is not the day.” I admire many aspects of our President, but I think that he was categorically wrong. We keep postponing the conversation about gun control. To speak about it now is not to politicize the shootings or to take advantage of them for any reason, it is rather to say we must stop this madness. We must take a stand.
How long can we live in denial? How long can we shed our collective responsibility? How long can we allow our elected congressman, senators, governors and president to be more focused on re-election than protection, on securing campaign funds than securing our children’s safety, and on kowtowing to the National Rifle Association instead of doing the right thing?
Friday’s attack comes after a year of fatal shootings in movie theaters, shopping malls, street corners and city sidewalks across America. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 there have been over 40 school massacres in our country and hundreds of potentially similar acts that were stopped before they were carried out. Have we grown so accustomed to reading and watching violence that we expect it to be part of our daily life and even school life?
I for one am sickened by our country’s proclivity for weapons and violence. We feast on violent films, police shows and violent video games such as Assassin’s Creed, which shows you how to load assault weapons and kill, and we wonder why psychologically disturbed Americans mimic what they see and what we know to be wrong. The problem is complex. It involves an entertainment industry that grows rich on providing violent content. We are wrong to purchase, and we are wrong to watch it. It involves how we fail to care for the fragile and psychologically disturbed, to identify people who could be dangerous and reach out to help them.
There are complexities involved in protecting people’s freedom while insuring that they cannot harm others. We have to do a better job. I believe that we must also develop stronger gun laws. The killer in Newtown fired over a100 rounds of ammunition in a few minutes. No one should be allowed access to guns that can do such damage. His mother was also culpable for owning and not securing weapons of such force and taking her son often to a shooting range.
Our Founding Fathers never dreamed of assault weapons and this kind of firepower we now have when they called for the right to bear arms in the Constitution. You and I can go out and buy a semi-automatic weapon today quicker and easier than renewing our driver’s license. American politicians are silent and impotent on this issue. They are in the pocket of the NRA. I am told that starting halfway across Pennsylvania our commonwealth becomes ultra conservative with hunters who won’t support any gun control. Do we lack the spine to stand up to them and make a difference?
Each year 100,000 Americans are shot by a bullet, and 30,000 of them die. We grieve that more than 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam, but every two years more Americans die from gun violence. It is senseless. Our nation is pouring billions of dollars into protecting our citizenry from terrorism, yet our own citizens are terrorizing us with guns.
Thirty years ago, I worked as a police reporter. I had an office at the newspaper and one at the police department. On my office wall at the police department was a poster with a red, white and blue revolver. It read, “Last year, handguns killed six persons in England, two in Scotland, five in France, 11 in Germany, 14 in Australia, and 23,431 in the United States. God bless the United States.”
One day, I attended a gun show as a reporter and slid my reporters pad into my pocket. “Looking for an automatic weapon, buddy,” asked one gun dealer. “This is a semi-automatic weapon, but a guy over there sells a kit that can make this into go automatic.” Another dealer tried to sell me a device that would allow me to launch a grenade from a rifle. No citizen should have these things – not one.
Gun dealers are a danger to our society, and I deeply regret not having done more as a priest to speak out and do more to prevent violence. Hillary and I are meeting on Tuesday with local clergy who have committed to address this issue. We want your ideas about how we can make a difference. Tell us how we can work together to make a difference.
What if we could start a movement with churches to promote gun control? What if we took a stand? Could we make a difference? Like Ambassador Bullitt intervening to spare the City of Light, could we do the right thing? We launched The Bible Challenge in 2011. Today, over 2,000 churches in 30 countries are participating. Could we do something similar for gun control?
Our church in particular and Episcopalians in general are great with outreach. We serve the poor, and we brighten futures. Working to change society and pass legislation, however, is slow, unglamorous work. It doesn’t bear quick fruit or make us feel good overnight. We may wait for years to see any result. Waging war on guns is an action that we must do together. Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference?
I was at a party several years ago with Governor Rendall, and we spoke about how politicians and churches could work together to reduce violence. He agreed. I gave him my card. He promised to have someone contact me. I never heard a word. Like most politicians I think he lacks the courage to stand up to the National Rifle Association.
The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in America. I believe that the NRA is a force for evil. Jesus knew that evil is often masked as something good. When the NRA lobbied to stop the government from banning “cop killer bullets,” I knew that they were immoral. Every NRA supporter must bear collective responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year.
While it may not cheer you to hear a sermon like this before Christmas and I don’t relish doing it, we must use our pulpits to speak out. Jesus must be shocked by our inability to speak and act. The Prince of Peace is meaningless in a world that has succumbed to violence. Who wants to join a church that doesn’t fight for things that are right? Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference?
The prophet Zephaniah writes, “I will remove disaster from you…. I will deal with your oppressors…. I will save the lame, and gather the outcast and I will change their shame into praise.” These words ring hallow unless we work for safety and call our politicians to accountability, demand that they reach across the aisle and do what is best for our nation.
Without being prophetic, the Church is impotent. For too long we have majored in minor issues while being silent on the big topics of our day – topics like the proliferation of weapons, the possibility of nuclear destruction, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS that kills 1,800,000 people each year and the gross inequality of wages where an athlete, entertainer or executive can earn $25,000,000 a year while a worker cannot feed his family. Is there no accountability, no shame, no guilt and no moral compass left in America? Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference?
If the crowds were to ask John the Baptist today, “What should we do?” John would say, “If you have a politician who won’t support gun control, vote him out of office. If you have church leaders who fail to do what is right, don’t follow them. If you know someone who thinks that individuals should be able to own assault weapons, tell them they are immoral. Jesus would never pack a weapon. If you know someone who is mentally unstable and dangerous, warn others and insure that they get help. Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference?
Jesus condemned violence at all times. He chastised a follower lifting a sword to strike an oppressor and immediately healed the injured party. Jesus died rather than fight his oppressors. That is our ultimate role model.
The media does not help. The press refuses to print positive stories about the Church. The Philadelphia Inquirer no longer has a religion reporter, but scores of sports reporters. What does that say about our culture?
Years ago, James Forbes, one of America’s greatest preachers preached at the consecration of an Episcopal bishop. He said that when he was a child his mother took him to attend a bishop’s consecration that was held in a big athletic center because there were too many people to fit into the cathedral. During the service, the man who was being made a bishop knelt down alone. The bishops stood around him in a circle and placed their hands on him. Forbes could not see what they were doing. He leapt to his feet and shouted, “Mama, mama, what are they doing?” She said, “Son, they are taking out his spine.”
Do you have a spine? Does the Church have backbone? Can we take a stand? Can we make a difference? My friends, on this Third Sunday of Advent which we call “Stir Up Sunday” because the Church calls our faith to stir us up, the Church doesn’t need anymore spineless politicians. We don’t need any more church leaders or Christians without a backbone. What we need are people who have the courage to take a stand and to make a difference. The Prince of Peace is coming. Smooth out the valleys. Straighten out the crooked roads. Prepare his way.
Will you stand up and make the world safer? Only if you say, “Yes,” and mean it in your heart and do something about it, can we utter the words of the prophet Isaiah and trust in them when he says, “Comfort, O comfort, my people” and know that comfort will come to us and to our nation. Amen.