When a community is afflicted with tragedy, many people turn to their churches. They look to religion for healing, for words of consolation and hope, for thoughts and prayers.
But is there a greater role for churches? Specifically, should churches do something to address what seems to be an epidemic of shootings?
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. thinks they should.
For decades, the denomination has debated, studied and passed resolutions on gun violence. Recently they took an additional step, appointing the Rev. Deanna Hollas as gun-violence-prevention minister. Her role is to work with local congregations to be more active and effective at addressing gun violence in their communities.
It is hard to argue with the intention. According to the Centers for Disease Control, gun deaths reached their highest point in 40 years in 2017. And as of Aug. 5, there have been 255 mass shootings this year in the United States.
But the Presbyterian approach is a classic example of mission drift.
It is not that churches should stay out of politics; it is that they should be involved in politics in a different way, deepening our relationship to the world and one another, illuminating the profound depth of our responsibilities. This is distinct from taking positions on issues.
If we think of politics in the broadest sense, it comprises how we work out ways of living together, people with different backgrounds, interests, and abilities all inhabiting a common space, with shared laws, policies and services.
The language we use to negotiate these common spaces is sometimes practical and sometimes spiritual.
Practical language is consequentialist in nature. It uses the terms of cause and effect. It sees the world as a series of problems that require solutions. It groups people along lines of shared interests.
Spiritual language is religious in nature. It addresses the question of who we are, not just what we do. It seeks to inspire, by bringing people together within a shared vision.
This role of spiritual language, as a way to articulate common ground, is what our noblest leaders turn to in times of crisis, when we most desperately need something to hold on to, something that can pull us together when things are falling apart.
Recall for instance, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Or consider the words of Robert F. Kennedy, quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus on the night Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
This is spiritual language. It is spiritual in the sense that its purpose is to inspire — literally, to “breathe into.”
But it is also political. It is political in the sense of a politics that can call us together for higher purposes. It is not the language of deal-making; it is the language of world-making. It is language of the sort the gospel writer invokes when he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
When the church loses faith in the word, when it begins to suppose that the only way to maintain relevance in the world is direct political action, it does not gain relevance, it loses it. After all, there are many kinds of institutions engaging in practical politics by lobbying, campaigning, issuing reports, organizing boycotts and protesting.
But what institution, other than the church, has as its primary role to inspire us to lead better lives, to seek out the depth of our shared humanity, to rise above self-interest, to develop the virtues of compassion, forgiveness and love?
None of this is to say that church members should not participate in politics. But when church organizations begin defining their place in communities through consequentialist reasoning, they abdicate their more substantial role as places to form an underlying unity prior to political bargaining and deliberation.
It is easy to lose patience with the slow pace of political change. It is easy to begin thinking that anything short of direct action is fruitless and that those who refuse to engage in the political fray are complacent.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in one of the notebooks published after his death, wrote: “How can the wind move a tree, since it is after all just air? Well, it does move it; and don’t forget it.”
It is a reminder of the power of words, which are, after all, nothing but air. We often don’t see the effects words have on others. But words do move people. And when it comes to building a better world, we should not forget it.