This Sunday is the “peace” Sunday of Advent. On Wednesday afternoon I was working on Sunday’s message as I heard the news about the murders in San Bernardino. In the process of preparing for Sunday, I’d been thinking about and praying about and writing about peace. I’d been dwelling on and wrestling with and reading scripture about how the peace that God offers at Christmas is different than the peace the world offers.
Those were my thoughts as I took a break from reading and writing and checked the news online to discover the panic of another mass shooting in progress. It was jarring. The juxtaposition of where my mind had been with the news on the screen was upsetting.
When I first saw the news there weren’t many details yet. Then early reports started to trickle in—at least three people dead, more wounded, no motive, the attackers were still at large.
As I processed the initial reports, I thought to myself, “Thank goodness, only three dead. Thank goodness it wasn’t 12 or 15 people. Then we’d have a real tragedy.”
And I immediately caught myself. “What a sad response. What a jaded way to think—only three people, like that’s somehow acceptable.” Later, of course, it turned out that 14 people were murdered, with even more than that wounded. Later in the day the two killers also lost their lives.
16 people died Wednesday in a senseless act of violence. So now the question is, “What do we do?”
In the aftermath of every shooting, political and religious leaders offer thoughts and prayers and encourage us to do the same. And so we pray and think, pray and think. But what do we do?!?!
Some call for action to reduce gun violence, suggesting changes in gun laws that they think will help. Others call for a different kind of action, suggesting that more people be more free to carry guns so that when someone attacks an office building or a school or a theater the workers or the teachers or the students or the moviegoers will be better prepared for a shootout. Others call for stricter sentencing or more pervasive government surveillance. Our responses, I suppose, can be as varied as our experiences and upbringings.
But when I ask, “What do we do,” I don’t mean what do we want the politicians to do. American Christians will never agree on that. But we should be able to agree on something, shouldn’t we?
So forget the politicians. While Christian political advocacy is important, it is no substitute for personal, individual action. So forget for a second our efforts to lobby the state. When I ask, “What do we do?” I mean what do we as Christians do? What do we as the church do?
Some Christians are already responding to the latest tragedy with hate-filled invective toward Muslims. That’s NOT our response. Or it shouldn’t be. It certainly isn’t Christ’s response. In fact, Christ’s harshest responses in scripture are aimed at those within the faith who shut the doors of the kingdom on those beyond the fold (Matthew 23). So what do we do?
How do we demonstrate a path to peace in a world of violence?
How do we demonstrate hope for the growing presence of God’s justice and righteousness this Advent?
How do we demonstrate love in the midst of hate?
I confess I don’t know what the answer is yet. But I do know this. The answer is more than matching hatred with hatred. It’s more than matching violence with violence. It’s more than engaging in an escalating show of power and force. It’s more than prayers that lack the courage of action.
The church of Jesus Christ is more than that. It’s better than that. As Christians we have a responsibility to shape our culture, but before we can challenge our culture, we must be willing to challenge ourselves.
And maybe the challenge for us isn’t all that complicated. Maybe the challenge for us is simply Jesus.
Maybe the challenge for us in the face of violence is to be people who love our enemies. Maybe the challenge for us in the face of violence is to be people who pray for those who attack and persecute. Maybe the challenge for us in the face of violence is to love ALL of our neighbors and to care for the least of these in our communities.
The first challenge is for the church to be the church, for Christians to actually represent Christ, not just in prayer, not even just in political advocacy, but in individual action. As Pope Francis reminds us, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” So we pray for peace, and then we practice reconciling acts of love that lead to peace. That’s how prayer works.
At Christmas, Christians all over the world will celebrate the redefinition of justice and righteousness and peace through a baby in a manger. That new kind of justice and new kind of peace only work in this world if those same Christians commit to doing what that baby asks us to.
See you Sunday.