Acts 19:21-32, 20:1
Hear again these words from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 19, verse 23, here in the translation from the Revised English Bible: “It was about this time that the Christian movement gave rise to a serious disturbance.”
A bishop in the Church of England once lamented: Everywhere St. Paul went there was a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea.”
Followers of “the Way,” as Acts calls the early Christian movement, often found themselves at odds with the prevailing culture of any given city. They brought a new message about the God of compassion made known in Jesus—and this good news did not always sit well with people comfortable in their ways.
As we’ve followed Paul around the Mediterranean on these summer Sundays, we’ve encountered a long list of cities in which Paul’s presence was provocative. We watched as a mob in Philippi dragged him into the public square, accusing him of causing a disturbance in the city and advocating illegal practices. In another city they complained to the authorities that Paul was inducing people to worship in ways that were against the law.
And this morning we heard how the silversmiths of Ephesus were enraged and got the entire city into an uproar.
The long list of cities is clear: “Everywhere St. Paul went there was a riot.”
In our time there is a new list of cities.
To the long list that includes Iowa City, Newtown, Orlando, Charlotte, and Las Vegas we now add El Paso and Dayton. The history of our city and the university unite us with many other places—tying us to incidents of violence that shake not only a local community but the nation.
Our souls and our society are weary. And, like that Anglican bishop, we simply have some tea.
We don’t cause a disturbance, but our lives and our nation are disturbed.
Solutions to gun violence seem out of reach even as more of us long for meaningful action.
The long list of assault weapons includes some 150 guns from the Made in the USA Adaptive Combat Rifle to the Zavasta M90 out of Serbia.
Last Wednesday a new poll found that most Republicans would support legislation banning assault-style weapons. Nearly 70 percent of all voters would back such a ban. Support for an assault-weapons ban was higher, at 86 percent, among Democrats. Republicans typically are more reticent to support new gun restrictions, and you know that the president campaigned in 2016 touting his strong support for the Second Amendment. But the poll found that 55 percent of Republican voters were comfortable with banning assault weapons, and 54 percent said they would support stricter gun laws more generally. Ninety percent said they would back universal background checks for gun sales.[i]
But after Newtown, after Orlando, after Las Vegas our laws didn’t change.
And there those who will stand in the way of changes even now, even after El Paso and Dayton.
I’m beginning to see gun violence—and the lack of an effective response to it in our nation—as religious problems as much as political or economic ones.
Gun violence is a problem of idolatry.
Now, for many, idolatry conjures up images from The Ten Commandments of Edward G. Robinson making a golden calf and all the people bowing down. Or with the lesson from Acts echoing in our minds, we think of the silversmiths of Ephesus and their devotion to Artemis.
Of course, we don’t have a graven image problem in the modern word, in contemporary America.
But John J. Thatamani, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary helps us when he asks: “How can we determine whether we are in bondage to an idol? Intensity of reaction is a marker that we traffic with the sacred. We know that the gun has become a sacred object because it commands unquestioning reverence.” Questioning its status triggers anger and even death threats because the sacred calls for unconditional loyalty and obedience.[ii]
Even in the ancient world, the concern about idolatry was not so much about worshipping statues as it was about chasing after other ways, following other paths that denied the creative and life-giving power of God.
The leaders and prophets of Israel raised some of their strongest condemnation against the followers of Moloch, the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice—a god who promised life but demanded death instead. As Amos made clear, the living God calls for justice and righteousness, not child sacrifice.
So Thatamani concludes: “Only by recognizing the gun as an idol can we explain why we stand in helpless thrall to it even though more Americans have been killed by it, children included, than in all of America’s foreign wars combined. Idols are bloodthirsty; they are never satisfied.[iii]
The words of Gary Wills are as disturbing as they are true when he speaks of “the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man—and let’s be honest, it’s men who are doing the great numbers of these killings—crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector.[iv]
This idolatry resembles the worst kind of dogmatic religion in its attempts to squelch thought and questioning. Over twenty years ago Congress eliminated most federal funding for gun safety research and passed a provision known as the Dickey Amendment that prohibited the use of federal money for anything that could be construed as gun control advocacy. Federal agencies were discouraged from even gathering data that might suggest the need for stricter gun laws. And researchers were scared away from a field that was desperate for intelligent inquiry.[v]
Since the Dickey Amendment was enacted, more than 600,000 people have been shot in the United States and tens of thousands have died. Another long list.
No civilians need assault weapons. And, again, the new poll suggests a large majority of people would ban them.
But the gun industry wants to sell as many guns to as many people as possible. Like Demetrius and the other silversmiths of Ephesus, they say: “We get all our wealth from this business…there is a danger for us here; it is not only that our line of business will be discredited, but the temple will be scorned.” And the National Rifle Association, which is now more a lobbying group for that industry than an organization of gun owners, shouts “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” and does not care who is sacrificed—children or parents, young or old, to their idol. Many fearful leaders dare not speak out against a gun industry lobby that has convinced so many that one absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, written in stone for all ages.
With this in mind, we hear the words of Amos speaking to us with a new urgency.
Amos spoke to a nation at the height of its power. The rich were very well-off. The might of the military was obvious and well-known. The cities were elegant; the second homes were extravagant.
At the same time, there was an underside to all of this—there always is. There seems to have been a widespread addiction problem. Violence was evident. Commerce was corrupt and fraudulent. The poor were denied justice.
The words of Amos to such a nation are filled with rage, condemning worship that is simply noise, opposing the violence and the corruption, the excesses of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
We need to remember, however, that Amos was not a scold, he was a prophet. His work was not to chastise or criticize, but to call the people to turn in a new direction, to change their minds and their hearts and their actions, to do something different, to be better people.
The religious word for this is “repentance.” It is an offer of new life.
This life comes to us as we live in relation to others: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In our wealthy and powerful nation, in our land of addiction and injustice gun violence is a religious issue. As people of faith, we are called to be a part of the conversation toward effective solutions. We must call people to repentance and speak of the one true God. We must speak for what we value: living, breathing human beings over cold steel; the right to peacefully assemble, to shop, to attend concerts, to go to school over unrestricted ownership of weapons of death.
We need one another in this work, this ministry. We need as well the peaceful presence of God in the midst of the swirling chaos of our lives. We need the healing and the forgiveness of God for our broken lives. We need the comfort of God when life is brutal—as it often is.
And so once more, in our sorrow and our despair and our anger we gather together. Each day we seek to make real in the world the peace, the healing, and the comfort of God. Each day we live out our faith in difficult and challenging situations, coping with daily experience.
This is not the time for the silence that stifles the outrage we feel.
This is not the time for the silence that stifles calls for change.
This is not the time for tea.
Now is the time to speak.
Now is the time to seek change before the lists grow any longer.