The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is still fresh in our minds- or if it’s not, it’s yet another reminder of how even the most horrific events can become momentary blips in Western humanity’s nonchalant excursion through life in a globalized world; and a reminder too of why issues need to be addressed while feelings are raw.
In the aftermath of the shooting, I made a couple of comments on Facebook. I felt they were moderate, if challenging. I asked what rights were being infringed through gun control compared to the rights that were being extinguished through lack of it. I said that after 40 years struggle to take the gun out of Irish politics it was about time the US at least tried to do the same.
Anyway, I took the posts down because a US pastor I respect greatly was angered by them, accusing me, among other things, of “opportunistic politicking’. Ironically, having taken them down, I received numerous messages of disappointment that I had done so and criticisms that I had “caved in” to a US constituency that doesn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room, and uses the rawness of emotions in the aftermath of a shooting to defer debate and stifle opposition.
That was unfair. I have no idea what my pastor friend’s views on the subject are. As far as I know he is not a member of any “lobby”, just a pastor. He was protesting against what he saw as the politicisation of a human tragedy. To him, my comments were injudicious, insensitive and untimely.
However, this is where I had – and still have – a problem. On this subject, I am even less politically involved than he, since I am not even a US citizen. While I wouldn’t have brought up the subject with anyone seeking to pastor in Connecticut at that time, I was writing to a general audience of people like my friend who live thousands of miles away.
Yes, we were all affected and numbed by what happened. Part of trying to bring some good out of such evil lies in asking the hard questions of ourselves and others. To say that these questions are inappropriate and should not be spoken of at such times is surely to remove them from the very context that should stir us to action. While it is true that decisions should not be made in the aftermath of such events, the process and questioning can and should begin. History unfortunately shows us that our collective and selective memories are such that if we do not begin corrective action when the horrors of an event are still fresh in our minds we have an amazing capacity to let our memories and consciences be dulled until something similar happens again.
But my main problem lay on another level. It was the struggle in differentiating between what is prophetic and what is political opportunism; what is pastoral and what is insensitive. I have to admit that two months on, after mature reflection, I am still unconvinced that it was pastorally insensitive, in an open forum to a general audience, to ask the questions I did. This is why.
The horrors of Sandy Hook occurred during our own latest descent into pettiness and tribal violence here in Ireland, in the form of the Northern flag protests and riots. Amid calls from some (who should have known better) that we needed “to understand the sense of alienation felt by the protestors” I refused to be silenced. Along with many of my colleagues I made comments denouncing the attempted murder of a policewoman and the death threats made to local representatives. To me as a Christian leader, no amount of alienation could justify what was happening, and no amount of understanding or pastoral sensitivity could lead me to a different conclusion. This was simply wrong and needed to be exposed as such. Was this political opportunism or faithful preaching? Certainly, over the past 40 years in Ireland too many preachers were silenced in their desire to speak out against sectarianism, tribalism, violence and national idolatry on the grounds that “politics should be kept out of the pulpit”.
In the midst of national tragedy, massacre and mayhem, Jeremiah’s tears, Ezekiel’s dramatic identification with his people, Nehemiah’s fasting did not prevent them from speaking judgement while still caring and crying for their people. “Weeping with those who weep” does not nullify the equal need to “rebuke and correct” – in season and out of season. The prophetic voice can be singing in harmony with the pastoral voice, even if our filtering ears block out one of the melodies.
My friend accused me of “lecturing Americans.” I will be first to acknowledge that I disliked Americans making thoughtless moral judgements about the Irish troubles: but sometimes – sometimes – what they said in (what we dismissively called) their “naivity”, was exactly what we needed to hear.
Similarly then, surely the right to question a “right” that to the rest of the civilized world appears bizarre, anachronistic and just plain dangerous, cannot be dismissed on the grounds that only Americans can really understand the issues. Furthermore, the right to question it when the victims of that so-called freedom (and they are nearly always the innocent, weakest and most vulnerable) are fresh in our memory is not just appropriate, but kairotic, and may just be the most fitting tribute to their memory?