It is now several days after the largest mass shooting in modern US history. It almost goes without saying, but it still must be said, that our hearts and our prayers are with the victims of this horrific killing spree. Several Sundays ago, churches that follow the lectionary heard a reading from Romans 12. One phrase from that reading, it is from verse 15, reminds us that Christian communities are places where we “weep with those who weep.” Yes, we do. What makes the sting of this event sharper, at least for those of us at a distance, is that it does not stand by itself. It was only last year that dozens were killed in Orlando. Earlier this past weekend Canadian news told us about a brutal attack in Edmonton. Now the internet, radio and TV are ablaze with one question: What are we to do? Part of the answer is obvious: elected official need to enact meaningful legislation that makes it more difficult for those who want to kill massive amounts of people to do so. It is our duty as citizens to encourage our representatives to do this. But beyond our responsibilities as citizens, what is our task as members of the church?
Churches are not at their best when they see themselves primarily as vehicles for legislative change. Pastors on both the right and the left make the mistake of instrumentalizing the communities they serve. They turn the church into a lobby group and then seem dumbfounded when everyone realizes they don’t need the church anymore. The central work of churches when it comes to this rampant violence is different. It is slow work. It is discouraging work. It is work that is rarely celebrated. In the immediate context of life-threatening emergencies we expect governments to take the lead in re-establishing order. Church communities will play a part in alleviating suffering. They will share food, provide shelter and their members will weep with those who weep. The bulk of our work, though, is done far upstream.
Our work as church communities impacts public life as we form people that abhor such acts of violence. When a church’s life is vibrant and hospitable it is a place where we learn to think beyond ourselves, where we learn to value others. And value them, not for some thrill they can give us (either in life or death) but for the simple reason that they are held dear by their Creator. Church is a community where we remind each other, week after week, that our lives are gifts and that to handle such gifts requires us to learn patience and forgiveness. Church is a community where men (these killers are almost always men) learn that gentleness is not an absence of strength and that costly love is more meaningful than short-term gratification. The life of Jesus teaches us this. In churches we also learn to live toward truth.
I think it is this type of work, done well upstream of bullets and alarms, that can weaken the grip of nihilism. Nihilism is an ancient threat, newly armed in our cultural moment, which cannot be controlled by legislation. The beast of nihilism is cut down by liturgy and worship—the cultivation of the sense that our lives, and the lives of others, matter.