A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Breaking the Impasse
In my August 1 letter, I mourned yet another instance of senseless gun slaughter in our community, this time far too close to home, as it snatched the life of a local minister just blocks from our presbytery office, the Rev. Sheldon “Sarge” Stoudemire.
Then last weekend happened. Again, then yet again, the trauma of Tree of Life was reopened for us, as we heard of unspeakable horrors unleashed by gunmen armed and committed to kill masses of people – first in El Paso then a few hours later in Dayton. As I write, thirty-one people are dead, many more injured. How long must we endure this unrelenting assault on innocents via the hands of civilians boiling over with rage? How much more of this can we bear?
In the immediate wake of these horrific events, the National Council of Churches lamented “the near certainty that our elected officials will not respond in any meaningful way to this violence, for they are collectively and shamefully within the captivity of the gun lobby.” Some time ago Pittsburgh Presbytery issued a declaration pressing our legislators to create stronger laws governing the proliferation of weapons whose sole purpose is to destroy multiple human lives. Nothing I have presented publicly on behalf of our presbytery has generated more hateful response than this declaration.
We are at a deadly impasse. We helplessly watch the lives of innocents snuffed out by assailants whose rights to bear their deadly firearms are enshrined in our Constitution. Legislators are complicit by refusing to make any meaningful changes to laws that protect our culture of wanton arms proliferation, fearful of offending the mighty gun lobby. How bad must things get for lawmakers to set aside politics to swear off our toxic love affair with unbridled gun ownership? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tuesday editorial calls this a Pearl Harbor moment, a time when the assault we have undergone is so great that lobby-driven party politics must be set aside in order for us to take decisive legislative gun control action for the common good. Would that it were so.
How does God call us in our present circumstances to be salt and light in our world, making a difference in our communities as we seek to follow Jesus, especially in face of the outrage and destruction that mass murderers have inflicted upon us? (Matthew 5:13-16) If we are truly salt and light, we will effect change in our world by gradual yet ineluctable transformation rather than by force. It’s all we can do. But it is far from inconsequential.
It is imperative that we address this impasse legislatively from the top down in response to this ongoing scourge of wanton mass shootings (more than 250 have occurred already this year). Yet the most crucial task of changing hearts and minds toward the “other” rises from the ground up, as we embrace the hard Christian discipline of hospitality, of opening ourselves to others unqualifiedly in acts and words of welcome reception. Everyone. No exceptions.
It begins by considering how we speak of and to one another across lines that we have allowed to separate us. How do we cultivate respect for those who differ from us on important matters, when we keep ourselves safely sequestered in our own “tribe” of people who look, think, love, and act just like us?
The “Westminster Catechism” calls us to affirm the integrity of others rather than deny it, something it derives from the commandment against bearing false witness. It enjoins us toward “a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them; …studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.” (Book of Confessions 7.254, citing Philippians 4:8) We promise to be guided by our Confessions, of which this counsel is part.
Can we, at a minimum, affirm the integrity of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
A modest proposal: That we live and speak in this way, at least for starters, with fellow-Christians. It cannot stop there, but it needs to start there. Whenever we speak ill of others in our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination, or the larger world of those who confess Jesus as Lord, we fail to live up to the way of Jesus. Cutting ourselves off from others, we become fertile ground for seeds of suspicion that grow into words of discredit that nurture discourses of malevolence that breed wells of hatred that explode in acts of violence.
We need to stop this train at its source, by refusing all forms of demonization. It is the opposite of reconciliation, which is the core of the Gospel to which we bear witness. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
Yours in the hard work of reconciliation,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister