The Land That Never Has Been Yet

After a week of listening to the responses of religious leaders to the El Paso and Dayton shootings, I’m sad to say that religious voices haven’t had much to offer. 

I don’t hear any good news. 

What’s given are the typical feeling expressions (“Broken. Sad. I don’t have words.”), calls for prayer (which I believe matter, if Jesus’ teaching on prayer is to be believed), laments (“How long, O Lord?”— an unanswerable and unhelpful question), and appeals to the common good (which require no sacrifice).

We can expect these same responses when the next shooting occurs.

I don’t want to sound like they’re not important. It’s just that I believe that as bearers of the gospel, we should have more to contribute. 

What does the gospel — the good news — say that has the latent power to heal our land, today and moving forward?

Ultimately, the gospel is rooted in a different reality. It audaciously points to an alternate vision for how society operates, one grounded in the benevolence of God as the foundation of being, with tangible outcomes to make life better. Redemption isn’t just personal; it’s corporate.

It’s a big vision for a bigger way of being.

The prophet Isaiah spoke a bold vision to a people who could only see bleakness. In exile, they could see no way forward, no way home.

In Isaiah 58, God says that if the people returned to justice — when bread is shared with the hungry, shelter given to the wanderer — then, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear.” (58:8)

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry 

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…

your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairers of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets and Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:9-10, 12)

Isaiah speaks of restoration, safe lands, support for the weak, and overall shalom for the world.

That’s good news for a world that seems really, really stuck.  

Jesus’ furtherance of that vision went well beyond a call to serve the common good, which Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island said is noble but still passive, “too vague and too tame to put our passions to death within us.” Additionally, a vision of the common good “gives us no strength, teaches nothing either about life or about God.”

Jesus, conversely, gave his life — made a sacrifice — so that men and women could be free, reconciled to God. Then He poured out his Spirit into the hearts of those who believe.

This Spirit is far from passive. It protests, urges, insists, cries out. It moves the will.

Too many responses to mass violence only present baptized versions of calls for the common good, or worse, religiously-couched entrenched partisan answers. But Jesus never got mixed up on a political side. He pointed to the sacred value of souls, the need for grace, and the surrendering of self.

So I believe that one way that Christians can be true to Christ in this crisis is to return to and point to a broader, trans-partisan vision, one centered in Biblical justice. 

Without clear vision we won’t know how to act. 

Don’t hear me say that action doesn’t matter. It’s just that as a country, we have lost a vision for the value of life and on the psychological impact this continued violence has on our children and grandchildren.

This is where the church needs to be the church. Not preachy, not partisan, and not passive. In spite of our own failures of racism, sexism, and mimicking consumeristic culture, we need to reclaim our sacred role of lifting the vision for humanity. Or perhaps give voice to it for the first time.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) wrote Let America Be America Again as a call to reclaim vision while admitting inherent failures and contradictions.

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

He points to the vision of what America can be, a kind of promise it holds, founded on freedom. But then he acknowledges:

(America never was America to me.)

It has never lived up to the high hopes that bring people to America in the first place. Still, he cries out:

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

So let the good news ring out. Let the church be the church, for the healing of the land — for the land that never has been yet.