Sunday, December 13th is the Third Sunday in the season of Advent, a season of hope-filled preparation. Hope is a tricky thing because it is so often confused with optimism. Optimism is a positive outlook on life that flows from an experience of things going well. It’s opposite is pessimism, a despondent outlook on life flowing from an experience of fear. Both optimism and pessimism result from what we see as we look around us; how what we see makes us feel. Optimism and pessimism have a direct effect upon our capacity for imagination and what we fill our imaginations with.
Many of us grew up in a world where whatever may or may not have been happening in our personal lives that left us either optimistic or pessimistic, our collective outlook on the world was essentially optimistic. We lived in a nation that was the winner and our expectation was that life could only get better and better. We believed that our destiny was to win and we enshrined that belief in a doctrine known as manifest destiny. We firmly believed that the accolade of the winner was the divine gold medal that was the surest recognition that as a nation, we were God’s favorite.
Whatever America had to do in the world, and sometimes that involved getting our hands dirty, we willingly, as part of a deliberate national and foreign policy, performed actions that would otherwise have stained our collective conscience but for the fact that we knew we were right. We unquestioningly assumed that the way to peace was to talk sweetly and carry a big stick, and when necessary, distasteful though it was, to use our big stick in the cause of right. This attitude was embedded in the American national psyche from the very outset of the Republic and probably long before that, carried to these shores by its Puritan and Adventurist settlers.
However, it took on new impetus and meaning following the Second World War, when emerging victorious and intact America donned the Anglo-Saxon mantle inherited from the British as the world’s policeman. Yet, there has always been another voice that could be heard sounding within America’s consciousness as a nation. This was a voice of protest and it found a concise articulation in the words of Bob Dylan in his song Blow’n in the Wind, particularly in the lines:
How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?” The answer my friend is blow’n in the wind, the answer is blow’n in the wind.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWwgrjjIMXA Whether as a nation acting on the world stage or in our internal domestic spheres, the belief is the same – that right is achieved and safety assured at the end of the barrel of a gun. Our children are reared and always have been reared within this overt as well as subliminal message. From the Cowboy and Indian comics of yesteryear to invasion by aliens often in cyborg form stopped only by the superhero of today’s children’s TV cartoons, this message is continually reinforced. The truth is that the Lone Ranger can only remain the Lone Ranger as long as he has an identifiable enemy in his sight, an enemy evil enough to be dispatched with his silver bullet.
The answer my friend is blow’n in the wind
As well as December 13th being Advent III in the Christian Kalendar, the cover of the New Yorker Magazine reminds us that December 13th is also the Sunday that falls within the National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend, The Rev. James Atwood has given voice to his long-time opposition to America’s love affair with the gun in his book America and Its Guns. Atwood notes:
When our leaders are absent or fail us; when our God is invisible and from all appearances absent in our lives; when we don’t know how we can keep going; when we are consumed by our fears and threatened by those who are not like us, those are the moments when new idols are imagined and fashioned and desperate people give them their ultimate concerns, devotion, and focused attention (p. 24).
Around 2006, the then Senator Obama was pilloried after saying:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
No community enjoys being identified in this way, but Obama’s words apply to so many communities across the land. The ferocity of many reactions to his comments only bear testimony to their uncomfortable truth. The bitterness and disaffection of so many Americans is the fertile breeding ground for fascism that lies dormant beneath the surface of all societies. As we see in Western Europe with the rise of parties from the extreme right, America’s current experience is not unique. But the unrestricted access to guns including those designed only for combat situations is what makes America unique. Even Justice Scalia, with whose worldview I am generally not in agreement, has declared that the right the bear arms is not an unencumbered right exempt from regulation.
History and politics or how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?
History and politics are converging in an increasingly frightening scenario as the people who believe that right is achieved and safety protected at the end of a gun are now becoming increasingly afraid. What we embody as individuals we also embody as a culture and hence many no longer find Donald Trump frightening as he dons the mantle of the demagogue who says that which in saner times would remain unthinkable.
The statistics supporting the views of spokesmen like James Atwood and the many, many preachers within the mainstream Churches are so unimaginable that stunned by their magnitude they no longer raise alarm. 
Religion and culture or the answer my friend is blow’n in the wind
America has long indulged in a love affair with the history of Ancient Israel as recorded in the earliest parts of the Old Testament. Mesmerized by an image of itself as Ancient Israel, America, God’s favored nation is largely unconscious of the way it has perverted the symbols of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition into a piety that champions redemptive violence (Walter Wink) evidenced by the deafening silence of large swathes of American Christianity in the face of the alarming statistics.
History, politics, religion and culture converge
Culture has a long history of donning the mantle of religion. When this happens idolatry results. James Atwood speaks https://vimeo.com/61185293 of violence, not Christianity as the real religion of America. As God’s appointed guardian of world peace, we seem ready to use violence to ensure righteousness. Believing our motives are beyond reproach, redemptive violence has become an instrument of peace. He says that when you give a person a gun you leave them struggling with two opposing feelings, one of omnipotence, the other of fear. In steps the NRA philosophy that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.
The answer my friend – an authentic Christian response
In a sermon in 2012 titled Repentance means becoming human Michael Marsh spoke of Luke’s account of John The Baptist’s announcement of the coming of the Messiah:
The crowds have heard a word in the wilderness of their life. It is a prophetic word, a word of deep insight, by which they recognize that all is not well in their life and their world. It is also a word of hope and rejoicing, a word of God, that says all can be well. It is a word that joins the wilderness and paradise and makes them two sides of the same reality.
The teaching of Christianity is very clear on the issues of guns. There is no ambiguity here. The teaching of Jesus speaks into our fear and desperation as a word in the wilderness of our lives. Simply put, Christianity sees no justification for guns as instruments for the abhorrently perverse doctrine of redemptive violence. Even the sharp and judgmental tongue of John the Baptist, in some ways the very epitome of an evangelical style of religion, which in this country continues to remain deafeningly silent on this issue of gun violence, when asked by the crowds what should we do? told them:
- Share what you have with others
- Do not monopolize control over more than you need
- Espouse nonviolence towards others
- Refrain from financial extortion, threatening behavior, making false accusations against others
- Be satisfied with what you have
Could the message be any clearer?
The Prophet Zephaniah is this week’s voice of the transgenerational vision of God’s dream for humanity. Let our waiting in this present time be fruitful through planting the seeds of hope for a future which we may not see, but which we long to bequeath to our children and their children’s children. The enemy of hope is fear. Fear has a direct effect upon our capacity for imagination and what we fill our imaginations with.
Advent reminds us that the season of hope is not same as the season of optimism. Hope is always for that which we as yet we cannot see, but which we know we are in dire need of. As T.S Eliot penned in the lines of his poem East Coker: hope is believing and loving in the waiting (my paraphrase). Advent is the season of hope, and when all the preparations are done what remains is the most difficult thing of all, the waiting!
St Augustine said: Hope has two daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way the are.
How many deaths will it take till [we] know that too many people have died? The answer my friend is – one is too many.