Church is uncomfortable at times. On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day. The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.
The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society. (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.) Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.
Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective. We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t. Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good. It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day. Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime. The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.
I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime. At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside. After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.
Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides. But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal. As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have. When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done. That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.