The news was as startling as it was horrifying as it filtered out on Sunday, November 5. In a tiny Texas town, Sutherland Springs, a man had walked toward the First Baptist Church firing a rifle where believers were gathered for Sunday worship. The incident, I believe, stands as a challenge to those of us who can effect change at a time when acceptance of such horror is not tenable.
As most now know, the assailant, Devin Patrick Kelly, killed 26 people and wounded 20 more. Christians throughout the U.S., just returning from Sunday services, listened as details trickled out through the afternoon. Once again, a house of worship had been turned into a slaughterhouse. The pastor’s 14-year-old daughter was among the slain. Texas Governor Abbott declared it the worst mass shooting in Texas history. Spiritual gifts of thoughts and prayers poured in from around the world, including those from President and Mrs. Trump. Vigils were held.
In the week that followed, Americans learned more. The killer had a history of domestic violence. A fractious relationship with his mother-in-law, a member of the church where he committed the atrocity, could have been a factor. By the end of the week, America knew that Kelly’s record in the Air Force should have prevented him from buying a gun, but those responsible for alerting the FBI did not do so, whether by choice or error.
The brilliant political theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote many books of great weight and importance, rarely read outside seminaries and divinity schools. Classics such as Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Nature and Destiny of Man, The Children of Light and Children of Darkness, and The Irony of American History, all lauded for their profound analyses of the human condition, are rarely taken up outside classrooms. But Niebuhr wrote a shorter work that’s so well-known most people are unaware he wrote it, though it has probably been recited millions of times.
Niebuhr penned the following: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In its various forms, The Serenity Prayer, has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. It stands as one of the most famous prayers the world has ever known.
But the key to the Serenity Prayer is in the third petition, Niebuhr’s call for the gift of wisdom to discern the difference between what must be endured and what can and should be changed.
That leads back to Sutherland Springs. What must Americans accept with serenity because it cannot be changed, and what must we screw up our courage and face?
It is time to take up the plague of gun violence that sets America apart from other nations. Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks and laws that would stop domestic abusers from easy access to the weaponry that turns their impotent rage into deadly chaos.
Both Democrats and Republicans support these laws, but the string of deadly events occur repeatedly. We can name the towns as a litany – Sandy Hook, Orlando, Charleston, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs. No town wants to join this list that nevertheless keeps growing.
Each time these massacres occur, Americans are told that it’s too soon to discuss regulating the weapons that enable these mass slaughters. Our less-than-courageous politicians repeat the mantra: “This is not the time to politicize these horrible events, but our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their loved ones.”
Gun violence of this magnitude does not have to be endured. We know this because literally no other industrialized country on earth puts up with it. Christians and those of other faiths who peacefully attend worship should not have to wonder about whether they need take arms to services. While they should be allowed to express their first amendment right of devotion to their God, they should not have another’s second amendment right to keep and bear arms destroy the sanctity of worship.
We have arrived at a moment of discernment. This is not a time to speak to worshipers. This past Sunday, I led my congregation in prayer for all those touched by the unspeakable violence in Texas, as did pastors at houses of worship across the country where few among us have moral confusion about this issue.
Nor does it seem necessary to address Democratic representatives and senators. In today’s polarized political climate, those on the left already know their support for some form of gun control will gain them electoral success in blue districts. Democrats in the House and Senate already know that the time is long past to address this national scourge.
No, today, judgment falls to those Republican men and women who serve in Congress. I ask them to think about those things that cannot be changed, those things that through courage must be changed, and the effort to find the wisdom to know the difference. They hold the power in Washington with control of the legislative and executive branches. They also face the greatest backlash from their party’s base, the chance of being blackballed by the NRA, and the possibility of facing primary challenges.
I know that this is a tough mountain to climb. But the words of the Serenity Prayer repeat my mind like a grindstone working away at a stubbornly dull blade. We have a choice. Either we enact policies and legislation to bring about change, or we will accept that this is an immutable state of affairs. If we do the latter, however, we admit that the next Sutherland Springs will not be a tragedy, but another unpleasant occurrence about which, sadly, we simply shake our heads. We might hear of a mass shooting with multiple deaths and think of it in the same way we think of a heat wave in the South, or a cold snap in New England. When we arrive at that stage, we may also have to accept that our national soul has died.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of World Religion News.
WRN Featured Contributors are comprised of two groups: A) The official spokespersons affiliated with a religion or religious organization or B) WRN hand-picked religion and theology writers from around the web. If you would like to be a featured contributor, please contact us here.