Prologue. I wrote this piece for the Bishop’s ePistle as a guest author last week before three more mass shootings wracked our nation. It seems more relevant and more difficult as I reread it for this week. But it is no less true.
We are called to live as Christ’s emissaries, fellow children of our Father, in a world that is not yet redeemed from death and violence. We cannot do this alone. We cannot do it by following the world’s ways. We must be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, and we must work together to embody love and work for peace.
Amid the screams, flying bullets and bloodshed that erupted on a warm summer evening at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday, someone shouted a pivotal question at the gunman: “Why are you doing this?” “Because I’m really angry,” the gunman replied, according to Jack Van Breen, who spoke with reporters after performing at the festival with his band, TinMan. -from Los Angeles Times article “Disturbing Portrait Emerges of Gilroy Festival Shooter,” July 30, 2019, By MATTHEW ORMSETH, HANNAH FRY, LAURA J. NELSON, COLLEEN SHALBY, RICHARD WINTON, ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN
In the middle of our last summer in seminary, several classmates drove down from Berkeley to the Gilroy Garlic Festival to take a break from hospital chaplaincy and try garlic ice cream. We also got in a Scottish Games Festival on that trip.
It was a normal summer afternoon in California at a small town fair, extremely local and low key. It was a day of friendship and quirky local fair.
And, yes, the garlic ice cream was amazing.
This summer’s memories of the Gilroy Garlic Festival will be marked not by friendship and flavors, but by senseless violence and questions about motives and gun laws. Or maybe we have already moved on.
For a moment, I want to call us back to this moment and ask to consider our response as Christians. There will be other moments and many closer to home for us to respond to, but this one offers us the opportunity to ask some hard questions at a distance that may later be too close.
Imago Dei, the image of God. At the Creation in Genesis, God makes humanity to be “in our image,” which we usually put in terms of our worth when we say, “Everyone is made in the image of God.” But the idea in Genesis is that we are made to be as God in the created world, to represent God in our care of the garden of creation, and to be a companion to God, and to each other.
I shorthand this to, “We are made to be as God’s children on the earth, to love God, care for each other, and take care of the creation itself.”
We blow it right from the beginning, but the long story is that God restores us in Christ to be what we were made to be in the beginning. This restoration in Christ is at the heart of our understanding of the purpose of the cross as a cosmological redemption and our vocation as Christians.
Humanity was supposed to be God’s theological statement, showing the world who God was by being like God in our worship, companionship, and care for others and the world.
When humanity blows it, God focusses that call into the people of the Torah. The Law of Israel is all about revealing God to the world in how the Israelites lived with God, the Creation, and each other, especially the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land.” The Law gets into some places that we are uncomfortable for us today, because we have made religion stay in its box, separated from our politics and personal freedoms, which we want to believe only affect us.
The Bible has no problem addressing our politics and personal freedoms because we are called to be something more. So when we make our personal choices, they are supposed to reveal God to the world as Christ revealed God to us. This is what it means to be made in God’s image, live as God’s children, and to pray and act “in his Name.”
This is why some moments of community and friendship resonate deeper than folly and become like sacraments of holiness, our vocation as human beings set free from sin and death to live in Christ. That day in Gilroy almost twenty years ago was a theological statement as surely as anything we read in class or uttered in a hospital room as beginner chaplains. It was a sacramental moment.
Now, for many people mostly far away, Gilroy will be a sign of another reality, of anger, of violence, of a fallen world. And part of the fascination have with these events is driven by the need to understand what reality is being expressed in these acts. Was it white supremacy or some other psychosis?
For us Christians it is worth asking not just what the shooter intended in his act, but what our acts in response represent in the world. Is our response mere passivity in the face of violence or can we act faithfully in a dangerous world not yet whole or wholly saved? What do we do?
Anger in Our Lives
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Jesus calls us into these deeper questions, calling us not to just avoid murder, but to give up anger, insults, and condemnation. As a simple command, this seems unreasonable and implausible especially in a time like we are in. But the reason and logic of the whole Bible is at play.
We are called to live as children of God, and we do not need to live angry, vile, and condemning lives because we represent a reality where we are cared for, loved, valued, and where we human beings are made to love, value, and care for others. We hold that reality out in our lives as our witness, our theological statement about who God is in the face of a world that does not seem to agree with us. This is why we talk about faith, trusting Christ’s teaching in the world now.
White supremacy is therefore a theological impossibility for a Christian. It is heresy that leads to death. It is not the only heresy on sale these days. It is tempting to make a menu of heresies that I hate for you, but that is the way of the angry man, and it leads to death too.
The letter to the Colossians holds open another way. I implore you to memorize the first seventeen verses of chapter 3; commit them to your heart and let them become your instinct: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” should be our aim as his followers. We are called to live differently than the world around us, and Paul and Timothy’s letter tells us to watch what we think about, turning our attention to those things that are above.
They did not mean to think about clouds and angels, but rather to see from Christ’s perspective, seeing human beings as children of God, representing their Father in heaven on earth, living in his Kingdom now because we have been set free from anger and death.
Let us grieve Santino William Legan a young man who made his life and death a sacrament of anger and death, whose hell we hope to never know. He failed as so many of us do, only he took his anger to its full end.
Let us rather choose to live sacramental lives of love and life, taking every thought captive to Christ, training our hearts and hands to live as human beings, making our days communion and salvation for the sake of the world that God made, loves, and for which Christ laid down his own life rather than others.
Closer to home we will have opportunities to choose the path of life in personal choices, politics, and simple acts of companionship and joy. Let’s go to Gilroy sometime and have ice cream.
*The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:21–22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.