The Reverend Kirk T. Berlenbach
Proper VII, Year C
June 19, 2016
49 murders. Since the massacre in Orlando last week there have been a lot of debates and even a filibuster, but by far the most common response has been to hold a moment of silence. Who here participated in a moment of silence for Orlando this week? How did it feel?
Silence. 49 people murdered and in response we were silent. 50 families grieve and we held silence. As a nation silence has become all too familiar. The more I thought about it, the more it disturbed me. And then I saw that a colleague had posted the phrase “silence equals death” on their wall. Those words originated in response to the AIDS epidemic. In the face of death and suffering, the silence of the government, medical establish and of the Church was deafening. And so the only way to live was to come out, face the bigotry head on, and demand action.
But right now, in the wake of the massacre in Orlando the meaning of “silence equals death” has been inverted. By and large the people at Pulse weren’t silent. They were open about who they were and who they loved. And yet silence still cost them their lives.
It wasn’t their silence that killed them. It was ours. We have been silent for too long. We held silence for Columbine, silence for Nickle Mines and Sandy Hook and Charleston. Now we hold silence for Orlando. And it doesn’t matter how meaningful those moments silence may have felt. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were dignified by the presence of family members or clergy. It doesn’t matter whether or not we cried because in the end they were all still inadequate.
Far from changing anything our silence allows us to live with the ways things are. Worse, it actually serves to endorse the very violence and hatred that we supposedly lament. It is time that we recognize that the longer we remain silent the more people will die.
Earlier this week, after the House of Representatives held their obligatory moment of silence, Congressman Jim Himes issued a statement. He concluded it by saying, “All I know is that the regular moments of silence on the House floor do not honor the victims of violence. They are an affront. In the chamber where change is made, they are a tepid, self-satisfying emblem of impotence and willful negligence. It is action that will stop next week’s mass shooting. I will not be silent.”
“I will not be silent.” I could not agree more. But we cannot simply shunt the responsibility for our collective safety off onto our elected officials. That is because we are Christians. And as Christians we have a sacred duty to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. And yet, for the most part the Church been just as ineffective and complicit as Congress in allowing this plague of hatred and violence to persist.
The real question is why? Why are we afraid to do more? Why are we afraid to take action? Why do we instead cower in silence and try to convince ourselves that it is somehow enough when thousands of our children, sisters and brothers are being murdered each year?
I’ve given this a lot of thought and thanks to a wise colleague, I think I’ve identified the problem. Unfortunately, you’re not going to like it. I sure don’t.
Simply put we hold silence because we do not have enough faith in Jesus. Rather than trust in G-D’s grace, love and power to guide us and then stepping up into the breach… rather than confronting evil and naming bigotry for what it really is… rather than trying to be the peacemakers Jesus calls us to be we have instead allowed fear rather than faith to rule our hearts. When it gets right down to it, we just do not believe that our G-D is actually strong enough to save us.
In our desperation we look to our own strength to deliver us. Rather than meeting violence with love, we respond in kind. And so we arm ourselves against the next attack. We build walls and create lists of our enemies in the hopes that this will keep us safe. Then we are somehow surprised that the problem persists. To the contrary, the more we arm ourselves, the more people die.
Thus the problems escalate and we retreat further back into silence, back into enclaves where everyone speaks and thinks just like us because they are the only places in which we can feel safe. Difference is perceived as a threat and thus is met, not with an open mind or compassion but with suspicion or even hostility. Both literally and figuratively, our instinct becomes to shoot first before they can do the same to us.
It is time for us to recognize that the real threat is not an ethnic group or religion, it is our culture of violence. As a nation we have made an idol out of the very thing that is killing us. But rather than confront this madness, we have held silent. Indeed, we have become like the demoniac in today’s Gospel. We are possessed and in need of deliverance. We need Jesus to cast out the demons of fear, isolation and violence that have taken hold over the soul of our nation because we cannot do it on our own.
By giving himself up to death on the cross, Jesus fundamentally broke the cycle of responding to violence with violence. And by rising to life again he showed us that it is possible to live according to a different and better set of values. G-D’s perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and gives us the courage we need to finally break our silence and remind the world that each and every person is lovingly made in the image of G-D; that it is possible to love your enemies and forgive your persecutors; and that in this supposedly Christian nation, that our salvation comes not from guns, but from G-D.
Of course, if we chose to speak out it will cost us. Again, we see it in the Gospel. When the villagers saw the man whom Jesus had freed clothed and sitting in his right mind, what was their first reaction? Did they rejoice? Did they hug their friend? Did they give glory to G-D and ask Jesus to heal them too? No. When they saw that he had been freed from his demons his friends and neighbors were afraid. They wanted nothing to do with him. In fact they were so frightened that they asked Jesus to leave and never come back.
We face just as much entrenched fear today. And if you break the silence… if you start confronting the evil of violence and hatred and naming them for what they truly are… if you stop allowing the demon of fear to possess your heart and run your life there will be consequences. You will be called names and attacked on social media. You will be unfriended. Your patriotism will be questioned or you will be told that you’re hopelessly naïve. Some may even question your faith.
But it is the only way to break free of the demons of fear and hate. More importantly, it is the only way to be true to our calling as Christians. Because we must stop the killing, not just for our own protection but for our children, our nation and for our world.
It starts here and now. When you go forth from this place you need to take action. You need to speak out against hatred and bigotry. You need to contact your elected officials and demand that they stop sitting on their hands and take action. You need to make sure that you are informed and lend your voice to rallies and protests.
You’ll need a thick skin. You will have to learn to put up with heckling and be patient with the cynics. You will have to learn to turn the other cheek when attacked and to set aside your own anger in order to build bridges when others would build walls. But regardless of the cost we can no longer afford to be silent because silence equals death. And our G-D is the Lord of life.
It is time for us to remember that. It is time for us to stop cowering in the closet of fear. It is time to start speaking up and prove that we trust our G-D more than our guns. It is time for us as Christians to come out, face up to the fear that has kept us silent for so long and to finally be true to who G-D has called us to be.