The following message was delivered by Rev. Jim McConnell at our service on Sunday, May 29th…
I am sick and tired. I am sick and tired of the gun violence in this country. I am sick and tired of news reports that tell of yet another young man, armed with a military style assault rifle and multiple high- capacity magazines of ammunition going to a protest rally, a school, a grocery store, or a business concern, opening fire, and killing innocent people. I am sick and tired of seeing images of parents, friends, and co-workers standing along the curb, or in a parking lot, at the scene of mass shooting, grieving the loss of co-workers, children and friends. I am sick and tired of seeing the faces of the murdered scrolling during the last minutes of the PBS News hour. And, I am really, really sick and tired of hearing all the mumbo jumbo from lawmakers who seem unable to enact any kind of meaningful gun ownership regulations. I am sick and tired of feeling powerless in the face of this ongoing scourge that takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year.
I think most of you are sick and tired too.
I have come to believe that these mass shootings are a symptom of the toxic anger, and hatred in our current culture war and that our society is facing a grave existential danger. We are a wounded nation. The idea of this sermon is: “People of faith, people like us, have a duty to attempt to heal the wounds that our culture of hate and anger have inflicted on our society and on us.” I further believe that healing the wounds in society can only be done by those folks who have healed their own wounds on the inside. That is to have done the spiritual work of addressing the conflicts within.
Recently, there have been mass shootings in Buffalo New York and Uvalde Texas. In both instances more than ten people were killed. In both cases the shooters were 18 years old. Still children, teenagers who should have been thinking about college, how to find a meaningful relationship, and what kind of career they hoped to secure. Instead, they had given themselves over to hate, victims themselves of our conflict infected society. The walking wounded become killers. How broken must one be, how infected by hate must one be to walk into a school and start shooting little children.
My hope for this sermon is that it will be a sort of primer in which we are encouraged to engage conflict, both the inner kind and the outer kind, in a healing way and bring peace to the corrosive culture divisions that gives birth to these mass shooters.
I will start with an example I first used some time ago, in 2016. Before I recount the incident, I must state that while this particular conversation went very well, I have had many conversations with folks on the other side of the cultural divide that have gone very badly. I have, however, learned from my mistakes and have gotten much better at accomplishing my goal which is entering into conversation in a way that does not seek to change minds about issues but allows everyone to see that we may be on different sides in difficult arguments, but we are all human, all operating with limited knowledge, and perhaps acting on false information. My method, instead of acting immediately to refute those with whom I disagree, is to create in the conversation a space for us both to BE. To let a person Be, with a capital “B,” is a fancy theological way of saying to Love. All the political maneuvering in the world will not heal our wounded nation nor our wounded souls. Only Love can do that.
I begin with an experience I had while walking to the convention center in Columbus, Ohio for the first day of the 2016 UUA General Assembly.
My hotel was ¾ of a mile from the convention center. Walking there the first day, uncertain where the center was, I had my head buried in my phone following a street map of Columbus. A young man, who was maybe 19 or 20 and dressed all in black, stepped in front of me and said, “Would you like to take a pamphlet, sir.” as he thrust, into my hand a glossy pamphlet with a picture of a dismembered, aborted fetus on the cover. I noticed that there were other young people, all probably in their late teens or early twenties, college students, 8 of them by my count, dressed in black, occupying the four corners of the intersection and also handing out pamphlets. The young man and his group were there to protest the position most UUs take on women’s reproductive rights. I thanked the young man for the pamphlet, but kept my place on the sidewalk, so as to engage in conversation. I said, “This is a very disturbing picture.
The young man responded, “We are here to educate people on the horror of the tens of thousands of children who are murdered each year in this country.”
“Yes,” I said. “Abortion is something I have a very hard time with.”
“So, you agree,” the young man said, “that abortion should be outlawed.”
“No,” I said, “I do not like abortion, but I dislike the idea of the state legislating what a woman does with her body much more.”
“But,” the young man said, “Abortion is against the will of God.”
I said, “That is a very powerful statement. Would you mind telling me how you know what the will of God is?”
“The will of God is revealed in the Bible.”
“Another powerful statement,” I said. “If you have the time, could you tell me how you know this about the Bible?”
The young man fell silent for a few seconds and finally responded, “I know the Bible is the word of God through Faith.”
“How did you come by this faith?” I asked.
Again silence. “I guess I chose it because it seems like the right thing to do.”
I said,” I too have chosen faith. My faith is in Humanity. I have faith that as frail and prone to mistakes as we humans often are, it is most important that we have the freedom to choose, and that in our choosing the voice of the sacred is heard.”
“How can we ever know what to do then?” The young man said.
I responded. “I think that is a very important question for you. Personally, I don’t think we really ever do know exactly what to do.” That is why it takes faith to live a courageous life. That is why I am thankful for this conversation. I like to imagine that the ‘Holy’ is speaking through you and through me, as we stand on this street corner and wrestle with the ethics of abortion.”
We parted with a hand shake.
I don’t want to dissect that conversation too much, but you can see that it did not take much digging before we found some common human ground that we could both stand on, namely the fact that life is complicated and that it is hard to know on what basis one is to live one’s best life. The conversation created a space for both of us to Be which is, as mentioned before, a definition of Love.
There is an old Hasidic saying: On the one hand, for me, God made the Universe. On the other hand, I am ashes and dust.
This is the human condition: To be not quite gods who are totally free and not quite animals who are completely bound by instinct. We seem caught in this in-between place. How are we to live?
The answer to that question is: we must learn to cut ourselves and others a little slack by creating a space for Love. Love is the only way that can bring peace to the battle fields of culture. Love is not some mushy sentiment. It is the space out of which the Universe is created
Creating Love for yourself and others begins with your spiritual life. It is a cinch that if you cannot love yourself, you will not be able to Love others.
Where to begin the spiritual work?
We are often beset by difficult feelings that are hard to bear. We all, from time to time, feel sad, glad, mad, or scared. These difficult emotions, that often unbalance us, are the starting point for standing on the side of Love. Most of us most of the time have so much trouble bearing difficult emotions that we scapegoat the other, especially those people who are different from us politically, racially, ethnically, or in terms of gender. It is this escape from personal responsibility for one’s emotions that is the root of the division in our country and to a large extent why we have the kinds of things that happened last week in Texas. We now, thanks to the internet and cable news, have pundits, who make a handsome living playing on people’s fears by stirring up anger at people of a different political or religious persuasion. The internet and the airways are full of this scapegoating dreg. Eric Fromm in his book, Escape from Freedom, explores this phenomenon in some detail. Ginning up fear and offering the easy way out by scapegoating those who are in some way different, is the opposite of creating for another a space to Be. Scapegoating crams the other into a tiny graceless space and uses them as targets for the misery and darkness in our own lives we are unwilling to bear. Hitler was, in a well-known for instance, able to politically galvanize much of the German population by scapegoating the Jews. Our previous president did much the same thing by scapegoating nearly everyone who was not in his base.
The prescription, instead of dumping villainy onto the other thus relieving temporarily one’s own difficult feelings, is to create a loving space for those feelings so they can become our teachers. The more one does this the stronger one becomes. It does, though, require that one do some suffering. It is hard, instead of sweeping difficult feelings out of the conscious mind, to let them in and sit with them for a while. If you are able to be open to your uncomfortable, difficult feelings you will find that you have created for yourself a space within yourself for Love, and with that, the capacity to truly love those who oppose you. You will also become immune to the fear mongering of the boys and girls on MSNBC and Fox News.
My grandmother used to say, Life is great if you don’t weaken.” It takes some strength to bear one’s difficult feelings and start standing with Love. My conclusion is to err on the side of the Gods and treat everyone, no matter how disagreeable I find their politics, religion, or general attitude towards life, with as much kindness and grace as I can muster. My goal, in any discussion I have with someone I really disagree with, is to create a space for Love to work by encouraging the recognition that there are a lot of unknowns in Life and that we are all just fumbling along. In fact, finding agreement, with a disagreeable other, that we are just human beings struggling along to do the right thing with very incomplete information is, in my book, a win.
A couple of weeks ago, Patty and I traveled to Arizona to pack up my 93- year-old mother-in-law’s household so she could move to an assisted living facility in North Dakota where, except for my wife and I, all her family lives. While in Arizona I happened to have a fairly lengthy conversation with one of my Mother-in-law’s friends. He is a gentleman in his mid-70’s and a retired Chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank one can attain in the U.S. Air Force. I was, in my early adulthood, an Airforce Navigator. So, we had a lot to talk about. My initial take on the sergeant was that he was an intelligent and kindly individual, who had accomplished much in his life. I took note that he was wearing a very nice leather belt with a large buckle that identified him as a member of the National Rifle Association. After some reminiscing about our times in the Air Force, the conversation turned the war in Ukraine. He advanced the theory that Bill Gates, in collaboration with Vladimir Putin, had orchestrated the war for financial gain. My initial unspoken response was: “Wow, that is just crazy.”
Fortunately, I remembered who I am and what I stand for. And further, that it is my job to bring grace and healing, to stand on the side of Love, and not to be an irritant to already inflamed wounds.
I said, “I had not heard that. Where are you getting this information on Gates, and Putin?” The Sergeant, informed me that he had heard it from his favorite “Preacher,” a person who calls himself a Jewish Christian who occasionally speaks at political rallies and holds services around the different retirement communities in Phoenix and Mesa. I replied, in a calm manner, “Gee, it is hard for me to believe that Bill Gates would involve himself in something like that, given his rather extensive record of philanthropy. His foundation has, for instance, given my son, who is a scientist, quite a lot of money to develop a vaccine for a troublesome micro-organism called Acinetobacter, a virulent pathogen that is passed around in hospitals and causes many deaths a year. It just seems unlikely that he would do something like invoke a war to make more money.”
I continued, “Where does your preacher get his information?”
The sergeant fell silent for a few seconds and then said he did not know but that he, the preacher, seemed very confident about the information.”
I sighed and said, “It is just hard to know what the truth is.”
Interestingly, the sergeant mimicked my sigh and said, “It is really hard. I guess you really can’t be sure of anything.”
Our conversation moved on to other less flammable topics.
I considered the conversation a win, not because I changed the sergeant’s opinions, I didn’t, but because it will probably be more difficult for him, and me, to in the future to involve ourselves in scapegoating others and contributing to our current national crises.
The bottom line of this sermon is: Don’t try to escape your difficult emotions. Invite them in and let them teach you about grace. When Love becomes your way of connecting to yourself and others, you gain a sense of mastery because you have stopped contributing to the toxicity. Further you may find yourself feeling really thankful for just being alive and you may even, from time to time, catch the vision that we truly are all one.
All this bounty comes from standing with Love.
Maybe Jesus was on to something when he said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and bless those who curse you.
Rev. Jim McConnell
Berrien UU Fellowship