Speak Up

by | May 31, 2022

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.           Matthew 15:28

This last week brought new horrors on top of the horrors of the week before.

It wasn’t enough that folks could not go to their neighborhood supermarket, or to church, without losing their lives to gun violence. In yet another example of people going about the most basic of life activities—little children going to school, teachers going to teach them—more innocents were killed by another teenager with a gun.

The shock and agony was felt by anyone with a heart, but the pain was all the more acute for parents who think of their own little ones. And then there was the news that the killer was able to legally purchase two semi-automatic rifles within a few days of his 18th birthday, as well as 1,657 rounds of ammunition. And there was evidence of his violent tendencies on social media, and he was even reported to the platform, but nothing was done about it.

For myself, the most sickening revelation was the non-response of the dozens of first responders on the scene. The shooter was at the school for 80 minutes. There was some initial fire in the first few minutes, but later there was a span of 47 minutes while at least 19 officers waited inside the school, while students called 911 repeatedly for help, shots were heard, and more officers were outside, restraining parents from trying to go in and get their children. They all waited because one person— the chief of the 6-officer Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police—told them to wait.

It triggered for me the memory of the three police officers who watched for 9 minutes 29 seconds as George Floyd was being killed. Other than two questions that perhaps he should be rolled over, there seemed to be more energy spent holding Mr. Floyd down and keeping the crowd from helping him.

There are people who seem to take comfort focusing on the one perpetrator for these tragic deaths. We don’t need to consider the idolatry of guns (as poet Amanda Gorman wrote, “The truth is, one nation under guns”), or the racism that is woven into the fabric of America, or the hatred that is fomented on social media, or the number of people who did nothing in the midst of a killing spree. Instead, we just need to restrain the “one bad guy with a gun,” possibly with a “good guy with a gun.”

This focus on condemning one individual, while assuming everyone else can go about their lives unchanged, fails to recognize the brokenness that plagues all humans—and human institutions. The Calvinist in me appreciates the tenet of mutual accountability which is foundational in our Presbyterian system. We all have vulnerabilities, and no individual is capable of making correct decisions every time. This is why I am disturbed that there seems to be so little questioning of decisions we make in our presbytery. While many people are uncomfortable with what feels like conflict and distrust when we Presbyterians debate decisions, I consider this engagement to be healthy and important (as well as it is done with respect, humility, and faithfulness to Christ’s guidance). As members of a connectional church, I hope you are also gravely concerned when people sit back and watch an unjustice being done, without speaking up.

Now the defense for this behavior is the protocol for obeying a command, even it is dangerously wrong. While rapid crisis response usually benefits from a clear command structure, in our church we count on the intelligence and awareness that come with multiple individuals sharing their wisdom. I love the story referenced in Matthew 15:22-28, when even Jesus makes a response that seems devoid of wisdom or compassion. Indeed, when a woman—a foreign Gentile, at that—persists, and even challenges Jesus, she is rewarded. It was probably her desperation to save her daughter that caused her to talk back, but she spoke up, and saved her daughter, and changed the scope of Jesus’ saving call.

Thank God I have never personally seen extreme violence in the life of the church, though the selfless response of Dr. John Cheng probably saved many lives at Irvine Taiwanese, though he lost his own. For the most part our churches suffer from the actions of minor bullies who use menacing tones of voice or emotional abuse to get their way. Sometimes I think that is the important work of leadership, to stay the hands of bullies, but that takes the courage to speak up when you see wrong, and a thick skin (and/or the protection of God) to withstand the reaction. But it can be done, and with practice, it can be done with love and respect. And the earlier it’s done, the less difficult the correction.

May we be open to living out our faith, with love and respect for the body of Christ which is the church—and all the members of it. And let us pray, fervently and without ceasing, for Christ’s comfort for all who grieve, and for protection for all our most vulnerable neighbors and siblings.