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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Guns come to the sanctuary

The Shepardsons and Grangerfords were dedicated to killing each other. They were in a feud. They had long forgotten the reasons they killed each other, but it was what they did. They took their guns to church.

Here is how Huckleberry Finn describes the experience:

Next Sunday we all went to church, about three
mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their
guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their
knees or stood them handy against the wall. The
Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery
preaching -- all about brotherly love, and such-like
tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good ser-
mon, and they all talked it over going home, and had
such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works
and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don't
know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the
roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain satirizes the customs Americans clung to from the feudal past. They include slavery and the tradition of violence. The feud was a tradition of violence. The Grangefords and Shepherdsons went to the same church, but as Twain portrays in the passage above, the teachings of the church had little influence on the cherished traditon of violence and lethal force. As demonstrated by the guns resting against the sanctuary walls or between the legs of the worshippers, the violence was with them. But they did not open fire on each other while in church.

Such was not the case Sunday in Wichita. Dr. George Tiller was killed in a church, The Reformation Lutheran Church.. A church is a sanctuary, a place of refuge, asylum, protection. But no more.

I, too, am a Lutheran of the same denomination as Dr. Tiller. I am not a very good one. I once was. I was a deacon and did all those things deacons do like usher, help dispense the sacraments, and sit on the church board, conduct adult education classes. I became a Lutheran after I attended a Lutheran College at which I later taught. The church at which I was a deacon is in the core area of Rock Island, Illinois. The neighborhood had its problems as minority populations lived there and struggled with all those things that the poor and excluded struggle with. A major project of the church was to make it a sanctuary where children could go after school, adults could go when families erupted into anger and violence, where anybody could go if they were hungry or ill and needed help. The church tried to be all those things that Jesus ordained as the principle objectives of what was to become Christianity.

I was raised in a fundamentalist church which I rejected as a young teenager. When I was a child my mother took me with her as she went about the mission of feeding the hungry and ministering to the sick. I recall an endless succession of hobos and homeless sitting on our back porch steps eating scrambled eggs and toast and bacon that my mother prepared for anyone who appeared at our door and was in need. That part of what I learned through the church seemed consistent with the teaching of Christ. But as a child I could not reconcile some prejudices and condemnations practiced by church members with what was professed as the teaching of Christ.

I found the same problem in recent times. My spouse was a staff member for Sen. Tom Daschle. When he lost the election, some people in the church we attended saw fit to make gloating comments. My wife had lost her job, and some people seemed elated. We wondered, why go to church to experience petty hatreds and expressions of ill will? We found at the same time that one of our children was experiencing a full dose of pubescent discrimination in church. She detests church.

The sanctuary had been compromised. No longer was church a place to come for peaceful contemplation of the angers that beset the world outside. The message of good will and peace was negated.

Like most people, I have grave conflicts about abortion. It has been an issue among the students when some young women found unintended, unwanted pregnancies to deal with. All the stories were sad, whether they involved abortion, giving up newborn infants to adoption, or giving up planned lives to provide for unplanned children.

One of the greatest tragedies involved with the abortion question is that churches gave up their status as sanctuaries. Instead, they became hostile camps. The words that have led to lethal force have often originated in churches. Rather than being sanctuaries of good will and peace, churches became the incubator of open hatred and violence. Words, like guns, have consequences.

There is a deadly symbolism in Dr. Tiller being shot down in the vestibule of a church. The church can no longer claim to be a sanctuary, a house of Christ. It is a place where people go for the Word. And they have received it. With lethal force.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States