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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

June 16, 2016

Friends, this letter is different from most of my weekly letters. It was my intention to make this letter all about our church’s upcoming General Assembly, which is our June prayer focus, but I find myself compelled instead to write what follows.

Sunday morning brought news of the deadliest mass shooting of civilians in American history. Forty-nine people who went out Saturday evening to enjoy a party in Orlando never came home. The gunman’s death brought the toll to fifty, with many more injured. The massacre joined several white-hot streams of hatred into a single inferno – a volatile, unstable man; incitement by the international terror group known as ISIS; deep-seated racial resentment; religiously-based demonization; and antipathy toward gay, lesbian, and transgender people. All of these factors, troubling as each may be, would not have combined to result in the horrifying death of scores of people except that the perpetrator wielded a gun whose sole purpose is mass killing.

A similar assault-type rifle was used to snuff out six lives at a family party in our own community of Wilkinsburg just a few weeks ago. Likewise, recent massacres in San Bernardino (fourteen dead), Aurora (twelve dead) and Newtown (twenty-eight dead) were perpetrated with similar rifles.

Our presbytery voted unanimously last month to petition lawmakers to tighten controls on the purchase of guns in our commonwealth. That petition has been distributed both to key state legislators and to local media outlets. Our petition focused on tightening up our system of background checks of gun buyers, especially those seeking to purchase assault-type guns.

Alas, our world seethes with hatred that seeks justification under the banners of religious mandate or national interest. Restricting gun sales will not eliminate such hatred, but it can help protect innocent victims from wanton slaughter.

How many people will have to die before our legislators summon the courage to enact registration laws that will better protect us? Enough already!

While the church may not be able to change civil laws, we can and must do something to stem the tide of hatred that is rising within our own precincts. Tragically, this hatred is sometimes justified and fueled by appeal to so-called “Christian” values. It is egregious enough when Christians categorically judge people of other faiths, nationalities, races, or sexual identity as our enemies purely because they are not like us. We betray our calling as Christ’s disciples even further when we channel those judgments into hatred, forgetting utterly our Lord’s command, “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)

The way of love is, of course, far more difficult than the way of hate. It requires us to see others as their Creator sees them, and to adjust ourselves to them, rather than insisting that they adjust to us.

We may not carry guns in church, or rail publicly at those who do not belong to our own demographic or ideological circle. Yet whenever we judge another who professes faith in Jesus in such a way that enables us to justify shunning them, we are harboring seeds that can ultimately yield the bitter fruit of hatred that expresses itself in violence.

So I invite us to a modest, doable task as a first step forward: Let us refuse to speak hatefully or dismissively of members of our fellowship who also place their faith and hope in Jesus. It turns out that this is after all an appropriate word as we go to General Assembly this week – can we, amid all our very real differences that a General Assembly may surface, continue to bear with one another in love? (Ephesians 4:2) Can we assume good of one another, blessing rather than cursing each other? I am convinced that if we intentionally cultivate seeds of respect and love amongst ourselves, especially when we disagree, we will do more than we can imagine to make a difference in a world intoxicated by hatreds that breed violent, wanton destruction of lives that are precious in God’s sight. Lord, help us toward that end!

Yours in longing for peace,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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