as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 16, 2023
Monday afternoon I spoke with an old friend. He was two blocks away from the mass shooting in Louisville when the guns went off. He heard everything. Thankfully, he was uninjured. But he was badly shaken. He knew the owner of the bank building. The day’s violence was all too close.
How many of you have had a similar phone call? Or worse? I know that some of you have lost loved ones to gun violence. I know that some of you are victims of gun violence yourselves. All of us have been traumatized by it. I know that every time I learn of another shooting or hear of another tragic, unnecessary, death something in me goes numb.
One of the tasks of the prophetic religious community is to pull us out of our numbness, our malaise. A congregation like ours should be place for comfort, yes. It should be a place of joy and celebration, yes. But it also should be a community where we challenge each other to understand that things which we have come to accept as normal–almost 50,000 deaths a year from gun violence, school shootings, mass shootings, lockdowns, safety drills–are abnormal. It is to recall and live into the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you too ought to be maladjusted.”
We should not be adjusted to gun violence. We should not think that it is normal. We should be maladjusted to it. We should never come to accept that it is normal to live with the fear that any of us, at any time and in any place, might perish from the barrel of a gun.
Some of you might recall that a few years ago, after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, I preached a sermon in which I warned that the United States was on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state ruled by a neo-Confederate regime.
Here in Texas, where the politics of cruelty seem to reign supreme, we are all too familiar with the neo-Confederacy. A visit to the state capital in Austin can easily lead to confusion about which side won the Civil War or why the war was fought. And do not get me started on the ways in which so many state policies–like the Governor’s refusal to expand Medicare–are obviously rooted in commitments to white supremacy.
But I suspect many of us are a little less familiar with the nature of totalitarianism. The word gets tossed around sometimes in public discourse. People of all political persuasions like to disclaim it. I worry that its widespread use has evacuated it of its actual meaning.
In totalitarian societies no one is ever secure. The threat of arbitrary violence haunts every waking. People who live in such a society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that regardless of who they are, or what they have done, they may meet a terrible end.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt told us, in totalitarian society, “nobody … can ever be free of fear.” “Terror,” she warns, “strikes without any preliminary provocation … its victims … objectively innocent … [are] chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.”
Do Arendt’s words evoke something that seems familiar to you? I know people who are hesitant to go out to public places–or send their children to school–because they are afraid of being shot.
Certainly, for me, Arendt’s statement reflects what it is like to live in a country beset by an epidemic of gun violence. What it is like to live someplace where, as the poet Lisel Mueller, feverishly wrote, we are each haunted: “Someone who does not know you / somewhere … cleaning is rifle, / carefully weighing the bullets.”
Yesterday, in recognition of the awful moment this country has come to, and in hope that something might be done about it, we held a day of mourning for the victims of gun violence. If you did not make it, you might have seen something about it on Fox 26 last night.
In a service timed to coincide with the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, we honored the dead in Harris County. We heard testimonies from survivors, and in one instance a former perpetrator, of gun violence. Representative Ron Reynolds and community leaders shared words of compassion and encouragement. Religious leaders offered prayers. Rev. Scott, Chelsea, and our guest artist Keeheon Nam, guided us in musical meditations. Sarah Sudhoff provided performative meditation. Leslie Morrison and Denise Whitney did an outstanding job of organizing participants. But mostly we sat–sometimes in silence, more often to the sound of names of the dead–with the weight of our society’s awfulness. And did what we could to provide a space for healing and hope for those in need of it.
It was a powerful experience. It caused me to further question why the epidemic of gun violence has become so normalize. Why do so many people seem resigned to living in a society shaped by the violence of totalitarianism? Why have we become so well adjusted to something that we should be maladjusted to?
As both a minister and a scholar of religion, it is my belief that one of the tasks of the prophetic religious community is to help us wake up to what is. During the Easter season I often remind you that the purpose of prophetic religion is to cause us to experience the “revelation of what is.”
Inspired by the Hindu poet Mirabai’s enjoinment, “Get up, stop sleeping–the days of a life are short,” Jesus’s teaching, “God is not God of the dead but of the living,” Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s claim, “All actual life is encounter,” I call this waking up the resurrection of the living.
I sometimes think about my understanding of this purpose of our communion when I hear politicians declaring their “war on woke.” The observation is certainly not original to me, but the strange thing about people who declare themselves devoted to the opposite of woke is that they seem to be demanding that we all stay asleep. In religious terms, they appear to be calling for us to stay living in a world structured by illusions instead of experiencing the “revelation of what is.”
The revelation of what is, it is not normal to live under the constant threat of gun violence. Gun violence is something we should be maladjusted to, not something we should accept as inevitable.
I was reminded of the absurdity of this country’s culture of gun violence this last summer when Sadé, the boys, and I were in Europe. I arrived in England a bit ahead of them, right after yet another mass shooting had made the news. When I got there it was like this weight, this tension, that I had been carrying suddenly disappeared.
England has very different gun laws than the United States. You will never see someone openly carrying a firearm down the street. Few of the London police are armed. The number of firearm deaths is minuscule. In 2016, the most recent data I found available, 107 people in the United Kingdom were killed by a bullet. That year, almost 40,000 people in the United States died the same way.
The United States is an absurd outlier when it comes to gun violence. No other country with an advanced economy is experiencing a similar epidemic. It simply does not have to be this way. There is common sense gun legislation that will make a difference. We know that policies like closing background-check loopholes, limiting access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and funding violence intervention programs work.
But we can cast a larger vision. As a prophetic religious community, as a community of faith, we are called to make a way out of no way. We are called to wake each other up, and we are called to wake society up, to the absurdity under which we live. We are called to unleash the imagination and dream a world free of gun violence into being.
You probably recall that firearms are the leading cause of death of children and teens in Texas. You possibly know that bullets killed almost 5,000 people in the Lone Star state. You might remember that women suffering from domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed by their partner if they live in a home with a gun. But do you know anything about the economic costs?
I do not want to go there. Every human life, as a survivor testified yesterday, is an infinite universe, a beautiful unique experience of personality, love, and complication, into itself. But we live in a market economy where most human interactions end somehow getting monetized–getting calculated in dollars and cents.
The dollars and cents cost for gun violence in the land of the longhorns, $51.3 billion last year. $51.3 billion. Now, there are something like 22 million guns in the state of Texas, the most in any state–which is probably why we are number one in gun violence. So, here is a totally ridiculous act of imagination. What if we demanded that the virulently pro-business lobby over in Austin sponsored a statewide gun buyback as a matter of good economic stewardship. If the state government took the $51.3 billion in economic damage that gun violence causes each and every year and bought back each gun in the state for $2,000 we could get all of the guns off of the streets and out of homes. Then we could spend $51.3 billion every year in the years to come on something useful like public schools, healthcare, green energy, or, well, anything. Maybe we could just have a state financial windfall like they have in Alaska. The folks in Austin could give us each $2,000 a year for living in the gun free state of Texas.
I realize that I am being ridiculous. The $51.3 billion does not come out of the state coffers. It is the aggregate cost of medical bills, lost quality of life, lost wages, lost lives, funeral expenses, police and emergency responses, court fees, and all the rest that comes from gun violence. The actual direct costs to the state are but a fraction of $51.3 billion.
But that does not we should not talk about the economic costs of gun violence. Nor does it mean we should not imagine a world without it. Martin King, after all, said that he had a dream–one which we must admit has yet to be realized–not a finely balanced set of books.
As the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, we say that our vision is to widen love’s circle. We widen love’s circle by offering survivors of gun violence a place to mourn and heal. We widen love’s circle by drawing more and more people into the circle of love.
Drawing more and more people into the circle of love–encouraging them to wake up and experience the resurrection of the living, to come to the truth that we are each members of the great family of all souls–demands that we offer bold hopes for the world. An end to gun violence is one of mine. What about you?
Waking up to what is, I anticipate that many of you have been following the story of the three bold legislators in Tennessee who led a protest on the floor of their state house there against gun violence. If you have, you likely know that two of them, young Black men named Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, were expelled from their seats by the white supremacists who represent the state’s majority party. And that in blatant show of racism, the third lawmaker, Representative Gloria Johnson, was allowed to retain her seat.
You probably know that Representative Jones was reseated on Monday when the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to reappointment and that Representative Pearson was reseated on Wednesday when the Shelby County Council made a similar vote. But you might not know that Representative Pearson preached on Easter at the First Unitarian Church of Memphis.
His remarks are powerful. I urge to go find them on YouTube or elsewhere and give them a listen. One line that he repeated often has come to me as I have been giving this sermon. He said, over and over, “the sermon has already been preached.” Now he did this in part because he was the third preacher for the service that day–he followed both my friend Sam, who is the minister there, and his own father, who is Baptist minister.
The sermon has already been preached, the thing that he was also saying was that the words that he had to give last Sunday were words that generations of preachers of love and justice have spoken before. The sermon has already been preached, his word was meant as a reminder that we have been here before. We have struggled before. And that no matter how difficult the hour, there have been moments of victory, moments when human hands have united in faith to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
The sermon has already been preached, he spoke out against the politics of cruelty in his state. He linked resurgent white supremacy to anti-Blackness, to anti-LGBTQ legislation, and to the targeting of the trans community. He linked resurgent white supremacy to gun violence and the frightening truth, though he did not use the word, that we are living in a society creeping towards totalitarianism. We are living in a society where we might be victims of gun violence at any time. And we have the power to lessen the violence in this country.
The sermon has already been preached, our second reading this morning was from James Baldwin. As I have told you before, Baldwin is a bit like scripture to me. His words about the brutality that is at the core of this country’s racial order–and the possibility of love to disrupt it–are something that consistently challenge me to wake up to what is.
This morning’s text came from an essay he wrote while he was living in Europe. In it he reflected on how his time away from the United States had given him a certain clarity of vision. That vision included an understanding of the ways in which so many people in this country are devoted to denying reality–are opposed to waking to what is. He was writing specifically about the structures of white supremacy and how they have been maintained across time. Like most good scripture, his words can be reinterpreted to relate to the epidemic of gun violence. He told us, “It is only now beginning to be borne in on us … that … [the American] vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. … it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.”
Moral high-mindedness, a devotion to the second amendment above all else, for reasons that have little to do with having weapons for self-protection and hunting. Moral high-mindness, a strange choice, on display at the NRA convention in Indiana, to conflate God with guns. Moral high-mindness, a belief that somehow it is divine to be armed.
And then Baldwin goes on, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Those are some words, “remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead” turns people into monsters.
The sermon has already been preached, we already know the kinds of action necessary to reduce gun violence. We can have radical acts of imagination and envision ending it. It is up to us to have faith that a way can be made out of no way. We might be filled with doubt. The situation might be desperate. It might seem impossible to imagine a world without phone calls like the one I had on Monday. But there is another truth, a truth to which King pointed when urged us to be maladjusted to awfulness of the world. There is a better way. Together we can wake up to what is and do our part, no matter how rough the road, no matter how weary our feet, to bring a little more love and justice into the world and lessen the amount of violence in it.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.