The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
“Justice & Gun Violence”
Year A, Proper 27, 23 Pentecost
Zabriskie Memorial Church
12 November 2017
“Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Although I was named after that great prophet, Nathan, I have taken a sort of perverse pride in the fact that I have never, to my knowledge, preached an explicitly “prophetic” sermon. Ever since seminary, I have been somewhat suspicious of my colleagues, who in addition to putting on the stole of the priesthood have also claimed the prophet’s mantle. I have watched “prophetic” preachers who seem to take delight in dividing their congregations over the hot-button issues of the day. I have seen congregations decimated by priests who then turn around and claim that the decline or even failure of their parishes proves the righteousness of their cause. They quote the end of the Beatitudes, which we heard on All Saints, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” I always wonder: are these colleagues of mine truly prophets?
So I have been careful (some, like our deacon, might say too careful) to avoid what I regard as presumptuous hubris from the pulpit, trusting that my reticence will in the end be more edifying than any barn-burning words I might be tempted to pronounce. I am scrupulous never to mention the name of any politician from the pulpit, either in praise or blame. I have never preached with a Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.
My core belief is that if you and I don’t see eye to eye on any particular issue, we both still have an equal claim to being here. We together are welcome here, because it is not I who welcome you but Christ who welcomes us. This is Jesus’ pulpit, not mine, Jesus’ altar, not mine, Jesus’ church, not mine. So bear that in mind in what I’m about to say, because I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and I could be wrong.
But I can stay silent no longer. Last Sunday afternoon my wife and children were over here rehearsing for the Concert of Remembrance. I was sitting alone in my kitchen eating dinner, listening to the radio. Suddenly, there came an announcement: A man had entered a church in Texas and killed twenty-six people, injuring twenty others.
Of course, this is not the first church shooting in the history of the United States. There was also the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in Charleston two years ago, with nine deaths and one injury. And other religious communities, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, have also been affected by gun violence. And the fact that it was a church shooting did not make me care more about these victims than I cared about the victims of the much deadlier Las Vegas massacre. In fact, the one that remains the most horrifying of all in my mind is Sandy Hook, since many of those victims were around the same age our daughter Margaret then was. But the fact that last Sunday’s tragedy was a church shooting brought back some memories that I am moved to share with you this morning.
You see, as I sat at that kitchen table listening to that news, a question came into my mind, unbidden, which I did not know how to answer: When the shooter enters St. John’s, will I regret not speaking up and speaking out? When the shooter enters St. John’s, will I have any regrets?
Now remember: I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I will not presume to tell you that what I say is God’s Word. But I am called to preach the word, and when that word is “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” I may not prophesy, but I’ve got to preach. So here’s what I would regret not telling you:
Back in January, 2011, I was at a church in Washington, D.C. when I heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been shot in the head. That same week, I received three death threats in the same day from the same person, a deranged parishioner. The threats came via an email, a handwritten note left on an altar in the church, and a letter delivered by post. This parishioner was deranged, I say, but at least she was an effective communicator. She made sure I knew that she wanted me dead. The most chilling line, from the email, is one I will never forget: “The next Requiem I listen to will be for you, Humphrey.” At the moment I read that email, I already knew that for several weeks she had been delusional, having previously confided in me that she was the incarnate daughter of God—Jesus’ sister, essentially. When I telephoned my bishop, he advised me to treat the threat as a credible one. At the beginning of that long ordeal, the process server who was to deliver a restraining order while her arrest warrant was being drawn up asked me, “Does she own any guns?” I didn’t know. When I gave him her address, he simply remarked, “She lives in rural Virginia. Everyone in that county owns a gun.” How comforting, I thought.
The following Sunday, while she was still at large, I stood facing the altar, as I do here, while my wife stood at the back of the church in great fear for my life. I imagined that the back of my chasuble had an enormous target on it in place of whatever religious emblem was embroidered at its center. At least in the traditional liturgy, if I was assassinated while celebrating Mass, I’d never see it coming. That’s literally what I remember thinking as I elevated the host and the chalice that morning. I wondered then, as I wonder today, “when the shooter enters this church, will I have any regrets?”
To make a long story short, she was arrested and later convicted on criminal charges. I called it “pastoral care through the justice system,” because it was the only way she could be compelled to submit to psychiatric treatment. But for several days I was left knowing that there really was a person out there seeking to kill me. That fact has kind of stuck with me and affected the way I hear the news ever since. So when I heard of the Texas church shooting, I couldn’t help but think that it just as easily could have happened to me. And it still could.
Of course, we would like to think that nothing like last Sunday’s church shooting could ever happen here. But remember the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shooting in September, 2013? The month before that shooting, do you know where the future assailant was working? He was at Naval Station Newport, staying in a hotel just a few blocks from here. On August 4th, just ten days before my wife and I moved to town, police were called to his hotel room because he had taken apart his bed, believing there was someone hiding under it. He sought psychiatric treatment both in Providence and in D.C. in the ensuing weeks. And yet, it still happened. It happened in D.C., but it could just as easily have happened in Newport.
Back in 2011 and 2013, I saw this issue mostly through the lens of mental health. And I agree that much more work remains to be done in the area of mental health. I myself come from a long and brilliant line of crazy people, so I know the issues. And I have seen the full spectrum, some in my own family and some not. I have dealt with suicide and attempted suicides, domestic violence, and the like. One of my friends was affected by a murder-suicide in his family, and someone once confided in me that he himself had entertained fantasies of a murder-suicide.
I myself don’t own a gun, though I went to camp and shot rifles. I am not opposed to hunting or target practice or even, in principle, owning the sufficient means for self-defense, though St. Thomas Aquinas’ principle of proportionality has made me question whether guns should ever be the weapon of choice.
I was brought up to regard our Constitution and Bill of Rights with practically the same reverence with which I treat the canon of Scripture. But unlike the Bible, the Constitution, even the Bill of Rights, can be amended. And in light of America’s recent history with guns, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that whether we want to or not, we need to ask ourselves whether the Bill of Rights as it currently stands actually protects all the rights we wish to protect. This is not to pit myself against the Second Amendment, but to propose that whether you are a proponent of gun rights or gun control, we need to ask ourselves: What’s out of balance about our society—when it comes to guns, and mental health, and domestic violence, and all the related issues—and what can we do to align our laws more faithfully with what we truly value?
As you know, I’ve been teaching an ethics class at St. George’s this past trimester. One of the documents we studied was the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we examined the question: Where do rights come from? My own perspective is that justice is based on a framework of rights, and that we can distinguish between two types of rights: civil rights and human rights. Civil rights are conferred on us by the State and protected or enforced through its laws, while human rights belong to everyone, everywhere, at all times, by virtue of the fact that we are created equal by God. The State is obligated to protect our human rights by supplementing them with civil rights, but it is possible that in conferring civil rights, the State unintentionally creates conflicts between civil and human rights.
Within this framework, we must ask ourselves, for instance, whether the interpretive history of the Second Amendment enshrines a civil right to bear arms at the expense of our divinely-conferred human right to life. For my part, let me be clear that I do not believe that the people who cherish their civil right to bear arms cherish it at the expense of my human right to life. But it may be the case that the Second Amendment has been interpreted in an imbalanced way, a way that has the practical effect of devaluing universal human rights in favor of the civil rights of a subset of the citizenry. Whether that subset (gun owners) is a majority or minority of Americans is beside the point. Even if every American owned a gun, we would still be obligated to ask whether our gun ownership put the human rights of others at risk, and if so, what our personal responsibility as citizens and as neighbors would be to protect the human rights of others, assuming that protecting human rights can always be better effected through nonviolent means than through violent means.
How we accomplish rebalancing the divinely-given human right to life with the state-conferred civil right to bear arms is a matter of our individual and collective consciences to determine. In doing so, allow me to suggest that our wisest guide is not any human law, even one that is two hundred and twenty-eight years old, but that divine law, which was summarized over two thousand years ago by our Lord himself: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Only when we pay attention to the divine law will we see “justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”