Rev. Howard N. Dana, Interim Minister
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 10, 1999

San Francisco Chronicle: Thursday, September 16, 1999
Fort Worth, Texas--A gunman walked into a sanctuary full of young people at a Fort Worth Baptist church last night and opened fire, killing eight people, including himself, officials said.

The shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church occurred at about 7 p.m., during a rally related to "See You at the Pole," a nationwide prayer initiative, that attracted hundreds of teenagers from several area churches.

The man, using a large-caliber handgun, fatally shot three adults and three teenagers in the church and wounded at least eight more before he killed himself, said Lt. David Ellis of the Fort Worth Police Department.

How many times have we seen this story? How often has the headline of the morning paper included the phrase, "Gunman kills X number of people." You fill in the blanks. The numbers vary, the violence does not. The stories are always accompanied by photos of shocked and grieving people. News helicopters buzz around. People speculate on the gunman's motives. The nation is in shock--for about 12 hours. Then we go on with our lives, subconsciously anticipating the next shooting, wondering where it will take place. The current attack soon has little more effect on us than and undesired outcome of a football game or a bad day on the stock market or an earthquake in some remote country. The real life shootings just blend in with the shootings we choose to watch on television or at the movies. We just feel lucky that we were not the ones shot. And we go on.

When I lived in Michigan, I went almost weekly to the birth-place of the modern massacre as we know it. I patronized the Royal Oak post office where, early in the 1980's, a disgruntled postal worker took a machine gun and executed a dozen postal employees and customers. His actions coined the phrase "going postal." His murderous rage is the first of many to join frustration and firepower. The first in a trend that shows no signs of slowing. We are living in end times. We are living the edge of a bloody chasm into which American culture may easily slip.

There have been a whole spate of popular movies recently decrying the angst middle class white Americans are suffering. The formula is the same--show a group of people driven to extremes by their own alienation and wrap it up with violence. Movies like "Your Friends and Neighbors", "Ice Storm", "Happiness", and the recently released "American Beauty" show us the death that comes from increased alienation from work, neighbors, family, and spouses. Each movie shows fairly well-to-do white folks bored to the point of desperation. Each character cries out to be seen, felt, touched, recognized. Each is willing to dump the whole lot for something real, something they can feel. But in each movie, feeling comes through violence. One of the characters finally erupts in violence. The pot boils over and puts out the fire. The tension ends when someone dies. The cinema gods are satisfied with the sacrifice.

And the Lord had regard for Able and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

Why is it that these banner-headline shootings take place in the suburbs? Why Littleton, Colorado? Why Fort Worth, Texas? Why a Jewish school in Los Angeles? Why Royal Oak, Michigan?

We know that there are killings every night in black neighborhoods in Oakland. We know that black and brown young men prey on each other. This does not get bold headlines. This does not elicit sympathy from politicians. We know there is racism involved. As long as they are killing each other, we don't care very much. But what about white people killing other white people? What about people with monetary power and presumed privilege opening fire on groups students or workers or customers or worshippers? Who has put the gun in their hands? Who is responsible for this blood?

I tell you we are. You and I are responsible for Littleton, Colorado and for Fort Worth, Texas. You and I are responsible for Hollywood's fascination with gun violence. We are responsible in that we think we can live in a safe world. We believe we can make a world that is safe for our children. We believe we can make our homes safe. We believe we can make our schools safe. We believe we can make our suburbs safe. Well, I do not believe we can truly make one square inch of our lives safe from violence. A gunman could just as easily walk through the door to this church as he did at the Fort Worth Baptist Church.

Song writer Tracy Chapman sings in her song "Bang Bang Bang,"

What you go and do?
You go and give the boy a gun.
Now there ain't no place to run to.
Ain't no place to run.

Now we'll all be at his mercy
If he decides to hunt us down.
Cause there ain't no place to run to.
Ain't no place to run.

If he wants the chances that you took from him
And nothing that you own.
Then there'll be no place to run to.
There'll be no place to run.

And if he finds himself to be
A reflection of us all,
Bang bang bang,
He'll shoot you down.

We have placed the guns in the hands of young black men who really wanted jobs. We have placed guns in the hands of teenagers who really wanted to be listened to. We have given guns to our own children, and our neighbors, and our co-workers. Like the Lord in Genesis, we smugly ask, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?" We seem somehow surprised when we read of shootings in the morning paper, as if we were not aware that there was anything wrong in the first place.

So, if we have placed guns in the hands of the young and the lonely and the disenfranchised, how do we disarm them? How do we stop the escalating violence? How do we live in a world where we are truly never safe from violence?

We start where we are. We start with what we know. We start here in church. If I did not think there was anything to be done about the violence in our lives, I could not stand up here and talk to you about it. I am a Communitarian. This means that I believe the only way to solve the violence and alienation in this world is to be an active part of a community. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams talks about "voluntary association." By this he means the circles that we chose to move in. The activities that we care about and become involved with. Here is where Adams finds God. Here is where I find hope.

As a Communitarian I believe very simple things can change the world. I believe in walking. Walking in your neighborhood, seeing what is there, acknowledging people you meet on the street. I believe in using and promoting public transportation. I believe in libraries and community centers and parks. I believe in murals and in street theater. I believe in petitions and demonstrations and protests. I believe in co-ops and independent businesses and public schools. I believe in churches and synagogues and temples. I believe in being a good citizen and in obeying the law and in good manners. It is not hard to change the world. We vote every time we spend a dollar. We send a message every time we get in our car. Rudeness turns us into arms dealers. Kindness turns us into ambassadors for peace.

We are not safe. We will never be safe in this life. We who live in the suburbs have it harder than our rural and urban brothers and sisters. We have gone much farther down the road that leads to massacres and suicides. We have already anesthetized ourselves with the illusion of security. We are married to our cars and our chain stores. We are the Americans most at risk for loosing our souls. When you walk out of this sanctuary this morning, Fremont may not seem like a dangerous place. But I would venture to say it is the most dangerous place. Its illusion of security makes it psychically a far more dangerous than any neighborhood in Oakland or San Francisco.

And Fremont is where we can make a change. Take a walk. Go to the library. Play in the park. Say hello to someone on the street. Smile. Invite someone to church. Take the neighbor you have never met some cookies. You will be doing the work of disarming madmen. You will be stopping assassins. You will be working for peace. May we work together. May we find strength in each other. May there be blessings in our work. Amen.

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