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Life as Performance Art

   We know the well-established choreography after every mass shooting: Politicians, police officers, and other head to the microphone and trot out the well-known, safe and approved line, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims….”  Immediately afterwards there is the kickoff of the usual and obligatory debates over how we can prevent this from ever happening again. One side wants more gun laws and enforcement of those laws, or banning guns; the  other side wants to shovel more money to help the communities.  A few weeks later it is all but forgotten, and we move on in life. This time there wasn’t even sufficient time between grocery store shooting in New York and the school shooting in Texas for everyone to have their say.
    Along with the mass shootings at schools, they happen at houses of worship, malls, parks, and elsewhere.  Add to the mass shootings, the drive-by shootings, the one-on-one shootings, the domestic shootings.  It is a very gory, tragic, and wrong cycle of violence.  The worst of it is that we have become accustomed to it.  So far, neither the more heavy-handed enforcement and more stringent law motif, nor the proposals of spending money have produced good results.
    We play the blame game:  Violent video games, unfit parents, drugs, alcohol, poor quality of schools, gangs, racism, and the catch-all mental illness.  After an autistic young man shot up a school a couple of politicians thought all autistics ought to be identified and kept under surveillance.
     In the words of the late Bob Marley, “Stop this train, I’m leaving.”  We need to break this cycle of murder.
    The way I see it, the time has come to change both the agenda and the vocabulary.  The first thing is to drop this gun culture chatter.  We’ve heard it all before. And we know that a small group of Michiganders proudly carried their multi-round assault rifles into the state capitol to assert their rights not to wear a mask, get a vaccine, and buy tomato plants for your garden.  There are more guns than people in this country.  Enough is enough, just pipe down, would you, please?  We’ve heard it all before.
    . The next thing is to get rid of this artificially created division between “our people, my guys, my tribe, people like us” and all of “you people.”  This is the big one.  It dates to when President Washington was about to retire from public life. He looked across the Atlantic to England, and saw how the two political parties, the Tories and the Whigs were so divided from one another it was destructive.  He didn’t want that in America.  Our ancestors didn’t listen.  We are still not listening. We still find all the possible words to emphasize our divisions.
    We have political parties that have made their doctrines their deities.  Adherence and advancement of the doctrine becomes more important that what is in the best interests of the nation.  Even the mere mention of compromise is political heresy.   Right now, both parties are in that “something must be done stage,” but they will drop it the moment it threatens their ideology and doctrine. Both parties are equally notorious for it
     And the other institution that demands absolute loyalty to their doctrine is organized religion. One preacher shouted that if anyone was a member of a specific political party, they were no longer welcome in his church.  Another denominational leader smugly told me that there was no room, anywhere, in all of west Michigan for a member of a specific party.  It sort of makes you wonder if the ushers ask if you want to be seated on the left or right side of the aisle.
     Can anyone cite chapter and verse from the Bible that justifies creating that we-against-them mentality?
    It really starts at the individual level when we see someone and instantly make a decision whether or not they are “our people.”  If you drive a Tesla and see someone driving a rusty old pick up that needs a valve and ring job to stop the smoke, and think, “thank goodness that isn’t in my neighborhood” you just added on to the divisions our country now faces.  Or, if you drive the old truck and sneer at the Tesla, you’ve done the same stupid thing.  You just made yourself part of the problem, not the solution.
     We can use music, vacation choices, work, or anything else into a way of dividing ourselves from one another.  It is not good for us because it is based on pure intolerance.
    It is a lot harder to shoot if they are ‘our people’ rather than anything else.
     One way to do that is to return to the three opening words of the US Constitution:  We the people.  Period.  There is no division – we are all one people.  Our people. Say it with me:  We the People are all our people. And practice saying it and living it every day so when you see someone who doesn’t look like you, they are still “our people”.  And yes, there will be a test; lots of tests, when people want to draw you into their tribe, and scold you for being too open-minded and liberal.
     I watched my father and a newcomer teach that to a whole city one Sunday morning.  The Gibbs family were going to be Rochester, Minnesota’s first permanent African American residents. That Sunday, they walked into our church and every head in the vestibule turned toward the door.  No one knew how it was going to turn out.  That didn’t matter.  Father set the agenda when he walked over to Mr. Gibbs, right hand out, smile on his face, and looked him in the eye and introduced himself.  A few minutes Mr. Gibbs motioned his family to join them, and Father did the same.  That was the end of the anxiety for our city.
    My father was not a great civic leader, but a respected businessman. It was a reputation he earned over his entire life, and at that moment people seemed to understand that if Fabian Stoppel could greet an African American man the same way he greeted them, and if Eleanore could freely chat with Mrs. Gibbs, then they could, too.  That’s ‘our people’ put in action.
     The concept of every person we meet as “our people” is something I wish my fellow clerics would pick up and use in the pulpit.  It’s something that can be taught in school, sports team, dining room table. and in the workplace.  Right now, it is the most important thing we can do, because when we intentionally change the words, we use we change our attitude.  Change the attitude and perhaps our idolatry of guns and violence will diminish.
     Maybe this idea will work, and maybe it won’t.  I don’t know. What I do know is that repetitious “thoughts and prayers…” and “something must be done” aren’t getting us anywhere.  Let’s at least give it a chance.

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