The Penlee Cluster of churches’ Lent book (A Bigger Table – Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community by John Pavlovitz) continues to lead me to think about contemporary issues, and today it is the recent tragic events in a Florida school and the words about faith and action in the letter of James. In the second chapter of that letter we read (verses 14-16), “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

For those of us a decade or more older than the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida will remember the 1999 shooting at Columbine where two people, before killing themselves, murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21, while three others were hurt attempting to flee the school.

That dreadful event no longer sits in even the top ten of the deadliest mass shootings in the US. In a country where schoolchildren undergo “’active-shooter’ drills”, and where they can wear “bullet-proof backpacks with child friendly colours and patterns”, the five deadliest mass shootings have occurred between 2007 and 2017. In those five events 192 victims have died along with five perpetrators at a music festival, a nightclub, a church, a university and an elementary school.[1]

In the immediate aftermath of those attacks and again after this one in Florida those who challenged the moral legitimacy of America’s gun laws were accused of insensitivity to the grieving, and yet, in the short time that passes between each attack nothing changes, no more than it has to any great extent in the two decades since Columbine.

After the Florida attack and in the face of widespread protest once more about American gun laws, “Fox News Commentator Tomi Lahren (Tweeted) ‘Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda?’”[2]

One is reminded of the old saying attributed to various people from Rabbi Hillel to Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan: “If not now, when?” Is there a suitable period of silence which should be respectfully kept, and if so, is that shorter than the time to the next atrocity?

The gun lobby in America is led by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) whose influence on the country’s legislators is clear through their funding of politicians.

After last year’s shooting in Las Vegas (where a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured), Senator John McCain said, “Cindy & I are praying for the victims of the terrible #LasVegasShooting & their families.” Sen McCain has received according to the New York Times in a list entitled “Thoughts and Prayers and NRA Funding”[3] financial support totalling $7,740,52.

And there you have the nub of the problem, echoed again by President Donald Trump, also funded by the NRA, when he offered this Tweet, “My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”


At the time of writing this, a review of sorts is suggested of background checks, but certainly, as yet, no root and branch reappraisal of the validity of the 2nd amendment in today’s America.

One of the survivors of the Florida attack has a very clear response to these expressions of prayerful support, followed by inaction. As reported by The Slate[4]: “Emma Gonzalez, …, gave a blistering speech at an anti-gun rally on Saturday about the politicians complicit in the murder of her classmates.”

She spoke directly of Mr Trump:

“If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy, and how it should never have happened, and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association. But hey, you want to know something? It doesn’t matter, because I already know: $30 million. … To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you!”

The Slate continued to report her speech thus:

“Gonzalez’s grief and righteous fury electrified the crowd, which broke into chants of “Shame on you.” She was especially incensed at Trump’s attempts to attribute the shooting to mental illness, given that the president specifically acted to make it easier for mentally ill people to purchase guns:

In February of 2017, one year ago, President Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with certain mental illnesses. … I don’t need to be a psychologist to know that repealing that regulation was a really dumb idea. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was the sole sponsor of this bill to stop the FBI from performing background checks on people adjudicated to be mentally ill, and now he’s stating for the record, “Well, it’s a shame that the FBI isn’t doing background checks on these mentally ill people.” Well, duh: You took that opportunity away last year! The people in government who we voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS.

Gonzalez then led the crowd in a spirited call and response, running through a pretty comprehensive list of lies and excuses from the gun lobby and their lackeys.

Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers nowadays, saying that all we are is self-involved and trend-obsessed, and hushing us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation? We are prepared to call BS!

  • Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA, telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this: We call BS!
  • They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence: We call BS!
  • They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun: We call BS!
  • They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars: We call BS!
  • They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred: We call BS!
  • That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works: We call BS!”

And BS it is. What use those prayers if not followed by action? According to Christianity Today,[5] “Two out of five self-identified white evangelicals (in America) own a gun, higher than any other religious group (and higher than those of unaffiliated faith or none), according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. Four out of five have fired one.”

How about if guns were a feature of New Testament times and that passage from James read thus: “Suppose our brothers and sisters are threatened by gun violence and many of them lose their lives to gun violence. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; stay safe,” but does nothing to keep them that way, what good is it?”

The NRA and other proponents of the right to bear arms seem reluctant to give up that right, even if that when it would appear to many that the ready availability of guns and particularly the sort of guns used in these attacks, must be part of the cause. For many of them the answer is not fewer guns but more, including for some putting guns in the hands of every class teacher. For the good of all, gun toting Americans may have to give up their individual rights.

And this is where we come back to that inclusive, bigger table and the Lent book. To include at that table those whom we have not included previously, we may have to give up something.

Think about it physically. You and a group of friends have met in a crowded bar and just about fit around a corner table when a latecomer joins you. What do you do? You budge up; you make space. You might make yourself a little uncomfortable, you might have to give up some of your space, but you want to include your friend so it’s a small price to pay.

That’s just what we have to do to make space for others in our churches and secular societies and in our wider communities.  To be more inclusive we may have to lose a little ourselves, we may have to give way a little, make some mental space, let something different take space in our thinking.

A church had a notice outside saying “everyone welcome”. I was pleased to see the sign, but I knew that the theology of that church’s leaders did not allow a positive or accepting view of homosexuality. Everyone welcome (if you’re like us)? Everyone welcome (if you’ll change)? Any “budging up”, and mental shifting would need to be done by those coming in; no space would be made for them.

That’s not inclusivity. That’s not building a bigger table. Our signs, our prayers, our intentions are meaningless unless we make that physical and mental space for others.

Time to budge up!

[1] Article by Amanda Holpuch in The Observer, 18-2-1018

[2] Article by Amanda Holpuch in The Observer, 18-2-1018





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