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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 9, 2011

TREMBLING BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD
A Meditation on the Attempted Assassination of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the Necessity of Speaking Truth in Violent Times


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The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband's family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

My husband's family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

That would be a mistake.

If we don't speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.


— Diane Butler Bass

Saturday morning at ten o’clock Arizona time in a Safeway supermarket parking lot in Tucson, an apparently deranged young man, Jared Lee Loughner came up to Representative Gabrielle Giffords and put a bullet through her head. He then continued shooting into the crowd. Federal Judge John Roll, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush was killed on the spot, as was Gabe Zimmerman, the Representative’s local director of community outreach. Christina Taylor Green, a nine-year old girl died a few hours later during surgery desperately attempting to save her life. Including Congresswoman Giffords, the judge, the child and four others who have died it seems at least nineteen people were shot. A number of the survivors are in critical condition. Details are still confused.

However, already blame is being assigned. One conservative writer wanted to make sure people knew Loughner listed the Communist Manifesto among his favorite books. Ignoring, of course, that the same list included Mein Kampf. People on the left point to the poisoned political atmosphere, much of it associated with the right wing Tea Party movement. So, far, the slender evidence currently available points to someone mentally unbalanced, following his own inner demons. The best that can be discerned at this moment is some sort of vague grudge against government.

On the other hand our political atmosphere is indeed poisoned. Sarah Palin’s distasteful website targeting vulnerable democratic congressional seats by putting up cross hair target graphics, as well as her rhetorical flourish on a tweet calling upon her supporter’s to “not retreat, instead reload” is an egregious example. The worst example, however, from the recent election is probably Nevada’s Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle’s calling for “second amendment remedies” to political issues. Even Representative Gifford’s opponent in the last election held a fundraiser at a shooting range, where he fired an M16 while calling upon supporters to help remove her from office. This political atmosphere is oxygen for the crazed and violent.

However, while the rhetoric of violence has mostly been associated with the American right, it should not be missed how politicians right and left have stood with the representative and her family at this horrific time, as best I can tell without hesitation. Republican House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged his horror at the shooting, saying “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” Democratic Minority leader Nancy Pelosi called the shooting a “terrible act” and a “national tragedy.” I heard a Republican congressman whose office was near Giffords,’ being interviewed, and while speaking of her and her staff, breaking into sobs.

Representative Giffords was, forgive me, is a Blue Dog, a moderate, in some areas liberal, in others conservative. She took a much stronger stand on immigration than I feel necessary, although she did oppose that abomination SB 1070. In another crunch I am deeply grateful for her vote for health care reform. The night of that vote the glass doors of her Tucson office were shattered by a vandal or vandals, a small fact not to be forgotten. Our political atmosphere is poisoned.

She was, is, also well liked in the House, and while it is to be assumed politicians of right and left from the Governor of Arizona to the President of the United States would speak of her as a personal friend, it well may be true. Gabby, as she is known to friends and constituents is a genuinely likeable person, hard working, and difficult to categorize. Not the obvious target even in these terrible times.

But these are terrible times.

So, what it means is far from clear. What to bring here to this Meeting House isn’t at all obvious. I know a vague disgust mixed with anxiety for the Representative, for our republic, for all of us. Perhaps you share this, or your own mix, possibly including anger, maybe fear.

National Journal editor Matthew Cooper notices this is the first American woman politician to be shot. “It's a reminder that female politicians,” Cooper observes, “Are no more protected than female cops or firefighters, soldiers or corrections officers. And yet the first time we hear about a mother killed in the line of duty or a female POW, it curdles the stomach, not because of paternalism but because it marks a new barrier of decency that's been broken.” He adds, how now, “We live in a country that's more like Indira Gandhi's India or Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan than we had thought.”

We are in times of great upheaval. So much has happened, so many social and economic changes over these past decades. When I was young my mother explained how there would never be a woman national news anchor because their voices couldn’t command authority. So sad that she thought such things. So, amazing that such a thought is alien to most of us today. And now a female politician has been shot.

A few colleagues exchanged notes on Facebook about this, and what we should say from our pulpits. One said, whatever people do, don’t go for “let’s all be nicer to each other.” Don’t call for a silencing of debate. And I agree. While I believe in common decency in how we relate to each other, in the power of civil discourse, and how dialing back some of this rhetoric is important, I agree with my friend the issues are too important to allow the crazies to shut us up.

My faith is grounded in a belief in the preciousness of the individual in all our passing glory and in how we take our being, each and every one of us out of some great and mysterious unity that we are all part of, a glorious radically interdependent web. No web no individual. No individual, no web. We are one. And the expression of that knowing is love.

This means when I leave this Meeting House I am informed in profound ways about what is important. And inside this Meeting House and outside I must speak from that place of intimate experience. It is the possible healing of this world, of this country, of our individual hearts. This is the way of love, not a simpering, maudlin love, but a dynamic and challenging love. A love that calls us to know we are all in this together. I need to proclaim, to speak. I will speak for individuals. I will speak for families. I will speak for this lovely country. I will speak for our precious planet.

And I will not be shut up.

Economically, it means not allowing our trending to capitalist excess to own the day. If we had a socialist movement, I would be critical of it. But we don’t. Never have. Instead our shadow in this country is economic greed, and there is a constant pull to unfetter business, to disallow regulation, and to let business do the business of business no matter the social cost. I have no brief against business and economic activity. It is a human thing. It can be glorious. And, it has deep shadows, including the inclination for the rich to simply continue getting richer while the poor get poorer. The growing gap between the fabulously rich and the rest of us, and the increasing uncertainties needs to be noticed, needs to be challenged. And challenged from a pulpit informed by a deep knowing of our intimate connections, all of us. The average American is being taken for a ride, hearing the false witness of conservative and libertarian economists and other apologists for the rich, pretending we all might get there, too. For the sake of the many, for those who have never benefited from the business of business, as well as those who have succeed in this enterprise but remain of good heart for all, who show us how it can be done, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for the poor who have broken one law to cross our borders, to become a part of the dream of possibility, who provide the hardest labor upon which this country’s comforts are built, but who live in shadow and fear and become the scapegoat for those who would rather we not look into the dark hearts of those who are making most of the money, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for a fair and equitable access to healthcare for every one of us, I will not be silenced. Speaking for access to a good education for all, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for those who are given second class tickets to the feast of life because of their color, and who continue to struggle, having to be twice as good to get to the first rung of our society’s economic ladder, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for women who have finally, in this country, at least, and some others, achieved most of the rights we assume are human rights, but whose positions are still fragile, who need men to stand with them, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for lesbians and gays and bisexuals and the transgendered, people who have been for too long the easy scapegoat for imagined ills, whose love has been denied for vastly too long, and who now stand at the edge of genuine freedom and an authentic place within our culture, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for our precious planet, beautiful and fragile, ravaged by our human hands, and in need of healing, I will not be silenced.

Speaking for this wondrous country of possibility, acknowledging its long shadows, and its astonishing potentials, a republic of dreams, a home for the birds of paradise, celebrating it for its good and chastising it for its crimes, I will not be silenced.

And, neither should you.

Our faith calls us to look deep within our own hearts, to see who and what we are, and to sense who and what we might be, to take nothing for granted, to challenge all authority, very much including that which is proclaimed from this pulpit, but even more that which resides within each of your, of our hearts.

We must embrace the open way if we should ever hope to heal ourselves, our country, our world.

And we should not let those with guns with threats of guns silence us.

The price for that silence would be too great.

The need for us to stand up and speak is too important.

This is the way of love. This is the call of our faith.

Amen.