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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Waking Up
February 22, 2018

On February 14, 1929, our nation was shaken by a mass murder perpetrated with submachine guns. The “St. Valentine’s Day’s Massacre,” as it came to be known, killed seven gangsters caught up in an organized crime turf war over the control of illegal liquor traffic during Prohibition. Though they were hardened criminals, the nation was horrified by their slaughter. That dreadful day has elicited countless books and articles, and at least nine movies and television series.

Seventy years later, on April 20, 1999, the nation was equally shaken by a mass slaying at Columbine High School in Colorado. The tragedy of losing thirteen victims was compounded by their utter innocence. Again, semi-automatic guns were part of the killers’ arsenal. Demands for stricter gun controls billowed, but ultimately failed due to the pushback of well-financed opponents citing Second Amendment rights. The Columbine massacre that shook us to the core thirty years ago now doesn’t even make the top ten list in death tolls of American mass shootings. That’s how far we have spiraled into ever-increasing mass gun violence.

Last week, exactly eighty-nine years after the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre, seventeen people died in a fusillade of bullets from a semi-automatic rifle fired randomly across the halls and classrooms of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This year, Valentine’s Day was also Ash Wednesday. I will never forget the news photo depicting a distraught mother desperately clutching her daughter, with the black X of Ash Wednesday marked clearly on the mother’s forehead. Death, love, and penitence all converged in a single image.

Now merely five days later (as I write), I am stunned at how quickly this tragedy has ebbed from our collective concern. I wonder how many of our sermons on Sunday addressed it. Our church provided some wonderful resources for addressing the disaster in Sunday worship, tied to the Bible texts for the First Sunday in Lent. Yet it appears to me that, after a brief obligatory interval in the news cycle, most of our attention has quickly moved on to other things – the latest tweets from Washington, medal counts in the Olympics, trends on Wall Street, meddling in our elections, and so on. Yes, we grieve with the bereaved; yes, we bemoan our place as the world leader in gun violence. But there is scant evidence that we are seriously grappling with the causes or consequences of such violence. What has happened to our moral consciousness? To our conscience?

People of God, let us wake up! The world may become inured to sin and violence, but woe to us when we yawn and move on in the face of flagrant disregard of God’s Law. I hear nothing from our halls of power indicating a serious reconsideration of gun control laws, despite desperate pleas from our youth for such protections. Who will stand up for their welfare if the church won’t do so? The prophets cry, “Wake up!” (Joel 1:5 ; Isaiah 52:1 ) Jesus urges us, “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37) Paul echoes, “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” (Romans 13:11) It’s more than time for the church to wake up and speak out to the forces of violence running rampant across our land.

Lent is a season of repentance in the face of the cross. It is a wake-up call to change our ways, to conform ourselves to the way of Jesus. It should be no more imaginable for his followers to sit by idly while innocent people are being gunned down than it would be for him to do so. Alas, we have become inured to evil by its ubiquity in us and around us. We have made peace with sin by growing accustomed to it. What happens to us individually also happens to us collectively – we give place to sin because it has become commonplace among us.

Can Lent provide the jolt we need to repent from our personal and corporate sinfulness? We may despair that nothing can change the ways of our gun-intoxicated society, or that nothing can liberate us from our personal captivities to sin. It seems all so irresistible, so inescapable. But as impossible as it may be for us, with God all things are possible. Lent asks us: Are we ready for God to work repentance in us? We may feel it impossible to set ourselves aright, but we can ask the Lord to do in us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is, after all, precisely what Jesus offers us through his cross, death, and resurrection.

Yours in seeking a new way forward,

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

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