Hello everyone! This is my Week 2 Blog for Bible in the Public Square, reflecting on how the story of Esther (Hadassah) can summon forth collective courage in people of faith today to answer the call for public witness to end the epidemic of gun violence that has ravaged our nation.
The senseless slaughter at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012 has provoked a multi-pronged call for public witness to end our nation’s epidemic gun violence.
In a February 4 meeting with Minneapolis lawmakers and law enforcement officers, President Barack Obama called for united nationwide public witness to reduce gun violence in our country:
“Now, changing the status quo is never easy. This will be no exception. The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it’s important. If you decide it’s important. If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, hunters and sportsmen, Americans of every background stand up and say this time it’s got to be different — we’ve suffered too much pain to stand by and do nothing.” (1)
In a similar call for courageous public witness, on January 31 Jim Wallis, founder and CEO of Sojourners faith-based social action organization solicited pastors, parents and people of faith to sign a petition to Wayne LaPierre and the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) demanding an end to their “dangerous idolatry of guns .” (2)
Rising from near-death, former Congresswoman, gun owner and gun violence victim-survivor Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have organized a new Political Action Committee (PAC), Americans for Responsible Solutions, as a platform of public witness to pressure elected officials to “stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership.” (3) In her poignant address before Congress on January 30 Giffords said, “Too many people are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.” (4)
At the local level, Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to end gun violence, organizes sustained public witness through peaceful protests in front of gun shops and prayer vigils at murder scenes to raise public awareness and pressure gun shop owners to take steps to prevent the illegal straw buyer purchases that supply guns used to carry out violent crimes. With chapters in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Southwestern American cities located near the U.S.-Mexico border, Heeding God’s Call invokes civic interfaith principles to undergird its public actions:
We embrace Dr. Martin Luther King’s hope for peace and safety in our communities.
We resist apathy to this epidemic of violence, because fear, closed doors, and separation will not end it.
We unite to bring God’s vision of a peaceable kingdom, without the violent loss of over 30,000 American lives by gunfire each year. (5)
Courageous public witness is a cornerstone of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah – recognized by Jews, Christians and Muslims as Divinely inspired—declares a message from God to “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (6)in the face of religious hypocrisy, social injustice, idolatry and injury of the innocent. We need this kind of holy boldness to overcome apathy and confront the gun idolatry which has resulted in the injury and bloodshed of so many innocents in our nation.
More than merely mandating that we speak out, faith resources actually empower us to overcome the human tendency to shut down and shut up in the face of traumatic events and the seemingly overwhelming power of evil. Drawing on these rich faith resources can help us summon forth courage for sustained public witness to stop the gun bloodbath that has drenched our nation.
Take the Hebrew Bible story of Esther, a faith resource for both Jews and Christians. Esther’s people were faced with nationwide slaughter due to the political influence and financial interests of an ambitious man named Haman, who captured the ear of the Persian king Ahasuerus or Xerxes:
Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman … The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.” (Esther 3:8-11 NRSV)
In the cultural setting of her time, Esther was in a position of personal weakness as a woman from a minority people. Esther’s people, the Jews, occupied a precarious position in the kingdom as a conquered nation of a foreign faith. Although named Queen, Esther’s position was only as secure as the king’s favor. Her predecessor, Vashti, had been abruptly deposed when she fell out of favor with the king and his male advisors for taking a bold stand in opposition to the king’s orders. Esther had been plucked from obscurity and placed in prominence through a beauty contest designed to identify a new Queen consort for the king. Her uncle and surrogate father, Mordecai, an official in the king’s court, saw to it that Esther was well cared for and advised her to conceal her ethnic identity for her own safety. According to custom, after spending an initial night with the king, Esther was consigned to the royal harem where she would remain unless the king called for her by name.
Under these circumstances, Esther had every reason to remain silent, keep a low profile, and hope that her thin thread of favor with the king would hold. Creating a quiet life for herself within the confines of the royal court, Esther could console herself with her private faith, comparative material security, friends she won at the palace, and the discreet oversight of her dear uncle Mordecai. While not antagonistic to her people, Esther’s insulated environment kept her ignorant to the full extent of their plight. And even if she knew, what could she do – a lone woman, a secret Jew, hidden in the harem of a capricious king?
…[A]n edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. (Esther 3:12-13 NRSV)
Distress swept the nation as news of the law was published and the full extent of its murderous impact sunk in. A bloodbath was imminent and, seemingly, inevitable. Jews throughout the nation, who would bear the brunt of the bloodshed, wept and mourned over the laws that would decimate their families and communities. When Mordecai found out, he publicly witnessed his anguish by putting on sackcloth and ashes and openly lamenting the legalized slaughter. Then he sent word to Esther. The time for playing it safe was over. The time for bold action had come. Mordecai implored Esther to break with protocol and out herself as a public witness, pleading to the king in the shadow of Haman for the life of her people:
Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:13-14 NRSV)
Esther knew that everything was at stake. If she provoked the king’s wrath, she would be executed. Revealing her identity would put her in the crosshairs of Haman’s decreed carnage. But keeping silent would be suicide, selling out her soul and abandoning her people for a shattered illusion of safety. This was her moment to parlay her precarious position into a platform for potent public witness on behalf of her people throughout the nation. Drawing on the reserves of her faith resources and faith community, she summoned forth courage and resolve for the coming confrontation:
Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16 NRSV)
February 21 marks Ta’anit Esther, a Jewish fast in commemoration of this momentous experience in the life of Esther, Mordecai and their people. (7) Fasting is practiced by people of faith worldwide to discipline human proclivities and draw upon Divine power. It is often employed as an expression of anguish, a cry for help, and even a witness for justice.
What if people of faith and concern across our nation joined in a fast of solidarity on Ta’anit Esther, February 21, to summon forth extraordinary courage and united resolve for public witness to end the gun violence that has ravaged our communities, slaughtered our children and marred our national heritage?
For too long, too many of us have remained silent about gun violence, safely ensconced in our private enclaves of faith and imagined cul-de-sacs of security while others of us, scattered in urban war zones across the nation have borne the brunt of the bloodshed – 331 in Philadelphia (8) and 500 in Chicago (9) in 2012 and more than 30 per 100,000 in Washington DC, our Nation’s Capital for gun violence, with the highest per capita gun death rate in the country.(10) Behind the bloodbath are laws permitting the proliferation of military-style assault weapons – laws fueled by the political influence and financial interests of a powerful gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) .
Now with Newtown, news of the awful toll of gun violence has touched the highest echelons of our society, the innermost circles of power. No one escapes. Everything is at stake. The time for playing it safe is over. The time for bold action has come. As people of faith and concern across the nation, we, like Esther, must break with our self-protective protocols and out ourselves as public witnesses to plead for public safety through the prompt enactment of sensible gun legislation to take weapons of mass destruction off our streets, check the background and mental health of those who want to purchase guns and monitor large-scale purchases of ammunition.
Yes, we can come under fire for our stand. But keeping silent is tantamount to committing national suicide— selling out the public good to protect an illusion of personal propriety. The tide is turning. Change is on the way. But will people of faith lead with bold public witness or trail with weak public apologies for failing to take timely action? To paraphrase the poetry of Nazi-era German protest theologian Martin Niemoller (11) :
First, the drug dealers shot the crack-heads
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a drug dealer or a crack head.
Then those gangsters in the ghetto shot each other
And I didn’t speak out because I’m not a gangster and I don’t live in the ghetto
Then I heard a young girl was shot in crime scene crossfire
And I didn’t speak out because she had no business being out in the street at that hour
Then 21 students were shot and 12 killed at Columbine High School in 1999 (12)
And I thought, that’s what happens when young people are saturated in internet violence
Then 32 people were shot and killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 (13)
And I felt bad, but it was a fluke, the work of a mad man.
Then they shot Gabby and 18 others in a supermarket parking lot in Tuscon in 2011. (14)
And I mourned the 6 deaths privately but I was so glad Gabby survived.
Then 58 people were shot and 12 killed at a theatre in Aurora, CO in July, 2012. (15)
And I wondered if it would affect the box office returns for Batman
Then 20 Sandy Hook School children & 8 adults were shot dead
in Newtown CO in December, 2012 (16)
And I said to myself, that’s not supposed to happen to those people there.
Then they came for me.
But I was already dead inside, numb and dumb from keeping silent for too long.
God forbid that this should be our collective faith fate! Who knows but that the rich resources of our faith traditions have prepared us for just such a time as this? Who knows what might happen if we, as people of faith and concern, join in fasting and prayer on February 21 to prepare for the powerful public witness called for by our President, faith-based leaders like Jim Wallis, principled political activists like Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelley, and community-based movements like Heeding God’s Call?
“Too many people are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. [We] must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on [us].” (17) paraphrased
 http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/01/31/pastors-parents-and-people-faith-game-changers-gun-violence Accessed 02/05/2013
 http://americansforresponsiblesolutions.org/ Accessed 02/05/2013
 http://www.facebook.com/AmericansForResponsibleSolutions Accessed 02/05/2013
 http://www.heedinggodscall.org/content/about-us Accessed 02/05/2013
 Isaiah 58:1 (NRSV)
 http://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/article_cdo/aid/1502/jewish/The-Fast-of-Esther.htm Accessed 02/05/2013
 http://articles.philly.com/keyword/mayors-against-illegal-guns Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://www.statemaster.com/graph/cri_mur_wit_fir-death-rate-per-100-000 Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://www.martin-niemoeller-stiftung.de/4/daszitat/a46 Accessed 02/05/2013
 http://history1900s.about.com/od/famouscrimesscandals/a/columbine.htm Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://www.virginiatechmassacre.com/ Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://voices.washingtonpost.com/blog-post/2011/01/arizona_shooting_victims_the_i.html Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_21124893/12-shot-dead-58-wounded-aurora-movie-theater Accessed 02/06/2013
 http://www.facebook.com/AmericansForResponsibleSolutions Accessed 02/05/2013