(Comments shared in a Service of Hope and Healing held at Christ Church on 15 September 2016)
Some will say that it was but another terrorist attack, fueled by a fanatical understanding of a faith that divides all the world into just two camps—the umma and the infidel. And they may be right, but I’m not so sure of that myself, despite what ISIS may have claimed afterwards. Because clearly, the Muslims whom I know do not read the Koran in that way, nor have they championed such a cause in the world beyond their mosques.
So others will say that no, this was a manifestation of unbridled bigotry, an attack on gays and lesbians, made all the worse because it took place in what should have been a safe place—even a sanctuary if we may borrow that term– for them. But I’m not so certain of that either. For though the nightclub in question was primarily gay, it is not clear that those inside were specifically targeted just because of their sexual identity by the gunman, any more than the eighteen who died in the tower of Siloam centuries ago were somehow responsible for their deaths either, as Luke 13.4 reminds us.
And so still others have accordingly said that what happened in Orlando early on Sunday morning was primarily due to mental illness, horribly amplified by the easy availability of assault weapons and the lax oversight of law enforcement personnel who should have caught him sooner. But then I must confess that I don’t know what the mental state of the shooter actually was, and I doubt if anyone else could definitely ascertain that either, at least after the fact.
I don’t know thus if this was a hate crime based upon religion, or one based upon sexual identity, or even simply based upon the perpetrator’s own confused self-hatred. But I do know that whatever the motivation, it was evil, for as Jesus once told his disciples, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” and in this case, that thief stole the lives of forty-nine individuals as well as injuring many others.
And in that sense, it’s important to understand that evil is not simply a metaphorical or allegorical or figurative way of speaking about unpleasant things in life—no, it has a reality and a substantiality and even we may say a personality all of its own.
The Hebrews called it ra’ a’, and by that term they referred to things which cause misery or distress, things which hurt or break other things into pieces, forces which are wicked and which are good for nothing and which only exist to vex and injure others. The Greeks used the words poneros and kakos, and by them they meant much the same, referring to depravity or malignity, a naughtiness or wickedness that is not ashamed to break laws or behave maliciously towards others. We use that first Greek word every time we say the Lord’s Prayer– “and deliver us from evil”– or as you may just as correctly translate it, “the evil one.”
So again, what happened on Sunday morning was evil. But for people of faith, we can stand with that shepherd king named David and say with him nonetheless that “I will fear no evil.” Not because evil isn’t real. Not because we can somehow be immune from its impact. Not because we’re in denial about some of the dark things which happen in this fallen and rebellious world. But because even in the midst of it, we realize that we are not alone, for God is yet with us.
Jesus told His listeners in Matthew 10, in fact, to “not be afraid,” even of those who can kill the body. Quite literally, He said, me oun phoubethete autous– “do not phobiate yourself,” that is, don’t give into your phobias or anxieties or fears about life. Because, you see, whether we may know it or not, God is still in control here, isn’t He? It’s like a priest in war-torn Sarajevo once wrote back in 1993,
“Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.”
And because that is true, we can even walk right through those valleys of shadows and still fear no evil.
Oh, I understand that some will feel the need to do something concrete in response to what happened in Orlando, and indeed, we should. For to remain silent in the face of evil is to deafen our ears to the call of God as well. We should look at the gun laws in our nation more carefully, thus, and if there are ways in which those laws are being flaunted or abused, or if the process is filled with too many loopholes, we should work to make the requisite changes in those laws. A genuine pro-life position would demand no less.
Likewise, we most certainly need to rethink how we are dealing—or failing to deal— with mental illness in our society, for such lies at the root of numerous social ills and all too many tragedies. And yes, even without pronouncing special victim status for one class of people above others, we must ensure that the civil and human rights of all are upheld all across this world. But before we look too closely at the societal causes, we need to look at ourselves and make certain that we have not contributed to the madness that seems to have infected so much of God’s world in these days.
So if we have failed to use our words to proclaim the love of God for all, or more specifically, we have used our words instead to promote attitudes of bigotry or hatred or fear, we need to repent and ask God to change our hearts that we might change our conversation—not to curtail our sincere convictions, but to couch even those convictions in a caring expression for others. For let us be as clear as possible: everyone is a child of God, and there is no one whom He does not love, even those who may choose not to love Him or others in return. So there can be no room within the church of Jesus for prejudice against Muslims or those of other faiths, against gays and lesbians, or those who are conflicted, against immigrants, against the ignorant, against the old or the young, or against anyone who is simply different from ourselves.
To be sure, that doesn’t mean that we must put our stamp of endorsement on every type of behavior or deny what we believe that the Word of God teaches us about how God would intend that our lives be lived. Nor does it imply that everyone is equally qualified for every specific task or status within the church, for plainly, God has called “some to be teachers, some elders, some evangelists,” for example, but not all. But it does mean that along with a passion for God’s truth there must always be in us a compassion for God’s people–all of God’s people.
We have come thus to grieve with those who grieve, to mourn with those who mourn, and to remember that as the Word reminds us, we may cast our cares upon Him, for He cares for us. We have come to repent of whatever part we may have played in corrupting this world so far from the vision which our Creator once had for it. We have come to try and “short-circuit some of the bitterness which has overflowed God’s world,” as Peter Marshall once so eloquently expressed it.
And we have gathered simply to pray and in the ancient Latin words of the church to say “Kyrie Eliason”– “Lord, have mercy upon us.” For even in the midst of sorrow there is hope. Even in the midst of hurt there is healing. And even in the midst of pain there can be peace. So may that peace begin with you and me.