“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? …Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” – Micah 6:6-7
Two weeks ago in our Gospel reading from John we heard John the Baptist calling Jesus, “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” I pointed out that sin, in this passage, was singular. Not sins, plural, but sin, singular. I acknowledged that it might, indeed, be a collective singular—a singular noun that functions as a plural, but then I asked, “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?”
In his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defines sin as a culpable disturbance of shalom. Shalom is the peace of God, the natural order of balance and harmony in creation and in society. Rob Bell wrote, “Shalom is how God wants things to be. Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth and with God.”
As I write this on the 26th day of this new year, God’s shalom is not merely disturbed, it is shattered. There have already been 40 mass shootings in our country, three of them here in California. We are the only country in the world where firearms are the leading cause of death for children. As of 2018 there were more than 393 million firearms in private hands in the US—120.5 guns for every 100 people. The next highest rate of gun ownership among developed nations is Canada at 34 per 100 people.
Statistics compiled by the American Journal of Medicine are disturbing, to say the least: “US homicide rates were 7.0 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher. For 15- to 24-year-olds, the gun homicide rate in the United States was 49.0 times higher. Firearm-related suicide rates were 8.0 times higher in the United States, but the overall suicide rates were average. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6.2 times higher in the United States. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10.0 times higher. Ninety percent of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.”
Clearly we need to do more to regulate gun ownership and reduce the number of firearms in this country. The horrendous statistics about gun violence correlate directly to the horrifying statistics about gun ownership. The guns are absolutely a problem, but they are also the deadly expression of a deeper problem.
Let’s go back to that question: “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?” It’s tempting to say that the central singular sin is violence. Violence is addictive, and we seem to be hooked on it in this country and throughout the world. It’s altering our neurochemistry and our neurological pathways. But violence is a symptom of something deeper.
We live in a culture where media, politics and economics seem to almost conspire to pit us against each other. We are constantly pressured to segregate ourselves into neo-tribal groupings: right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, rich vs. poor, my race vs. other races, my religion vs. other religions. There is money, power and influence to be had in manipulating this tribalism, and when the manipulation is allowed to go unchecked it ends up force feeding us a toxic cultural soup of fear, anger and mistrust which poisons our vision until we begin to see others as something less than fully human. And that leads inevitably to violence.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
God has told us what is good, said the prophet Micah, and what does the Lord require of us—what does God’s shalom require of us but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God—and with each other? Love your neighbor as yourself, said Jesus, quoting Leviticus.
If we want to stop sacrificing our children on the altar of violence, if we want to stop sacrificing the fruit of our collective body for the sin of our collective soul, we need to find better ways to show the world what kindness and love look like. We need to find ways to make “love your neighbor as yourself” at least as attractive and addictive as violence. We need to lift up the vision of God’s shalom, the peaceable kingdom, as a way or restoring balance and harmony among diverse and divergent peoples. And maybe we could start by doing something about the guns.