This Sunday, as you no doubt know by now, dozens were killed and many more wounded in a mass shooting inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Yesterday, I could not keep the tears from streaming down my face as I listened to NPR's descriptions of 18 of the 26 killed--grandparents and little children among them.
And when I go online and look at our collective response as a nation, if I'm honest, my hopes are not raised. It seems like we are having the same exhausting and seemingly unproductive conversations we've been having after shootings in Vegas, on university campuses, at elementary schools and in movie theaters. What will shake us up enough to dislodge us from our partisan certainties, and open us to dialogue about real changes? If this doesn't do it...It's hard to say what will.
But this week, tempted by despair that anything will change, I actually found renewed faith in the writings of a self-described agnostic (which surprised this pastor, but maybe shouldn't have). In her book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Lesley Hazleton portrays faith not as the opposite of doubt, but of despair. Faith, as Hazleton describes it, is not so much certainty about propositions as it is staring into the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and believing they'll be overcome anyway.
We are sometimes presented with a choice: reasonable despair or irrational faith. Hazleton writes:
"What we believe affects how we act. If we believe that Middle East peace is impossible...then we will act in such a way that we make it so. We will create a self-fulfilling prophecy of unending conflict, born of the nihilism of despair. And this I refuse. In the face of the despair that threatens to overwhelm me at the latest news, I have no choice to but to insist on the possibility of some form of peace, no matter how unlikely I know that to be."
She calls these "times of creative irrationality."
We cannot embrace the despair that can set in when it seems like the conversation will never change, like mass shootings will just keep getting more prevalent and more extreme. To do that, as rational as it might seem given the evidence, would be to condemn ourselves to the violent world to which we're growing all too accustomed.
Instead, we need a faith that goes beyond the facts of the present to creatively imagine a more flourishing future. This is what the prophet Isaiah was able to do when he spoke into a world of war a vision of nations beating "their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." He could embrace that creatively irrational vision because he believed in the powerful love of a God who would not abandon his world to violence, no matter how bleak the future looked. It's the same faith that enables Christians to see beyond the tomb to the resurrection.
When we go on Ceasefire Night Walk's we remind each other that the neighborhoods we walk in are not violent neighborhoods. They are neighborhoods where violence happens more often. We remind ourselves of this to help us imagine the safer, more peaceful future of these places we are walking to create.
Friends, regular mass shootings do not have to be our future. Our nation's addiction to violence could be undone. Our certainty that only more potential violence will make us safe could be replaced by a vision of swords being beaten into plowshares. Partisan posturing and meme throwing does not have to be our future. Creative, goal-oriented debate could dominate our conversations about mass shootings, leading to real, workable changes that are supported regardless of which party or politician would get credit. These changes might not be total or perfect, but they might be better than the violent spiral of national despair.
May we reject despair, embrace faith in a better future together, and therefore act as if we live in that future already so that someday...we will.