Sunday, May 29, 2022

HOMILY: "Three Hundred Million"

A Meditation on Memorial Day
Sunday, May 29, 2022
The Community Church of Durham (UCC)

My dad was a Navy guy; and I have vivid memories, bright and happy memories of his piling us into his beloved inboard-outboard, once every couple of summers, and hauling my brothers and me from Boothbay, up the Sheepscot, and across the Kennebec, to Bath, Maine.

And we’d drift out there in the Kennebec River, with dozens of other boats, as the workers at the Bath Iron Works launched a huge naval destroyer…or one of their other colossal naval vessels.  And when the destroyer finally hit the water, its journey into the fleet begun, I’d see something like tears of joy in my dad’s eyes.  Tears of pride and tears of joy.  How he appreciated the hard work, the engineering, the union labor, the collaboration necessary to pull off a project like that!  A boat that would defend the country he served and always loved.

As I’ve aged in the church and in the peace movement, militarism becomes more and more problematic for me.  But for my dad, those huge destroyers made sense, even spoke to a collaborative American spirit.

But when it came to guns and assault weapons, my dad just didn’t get it.  He didn’t get the idea that collecting guns could be fun or interesting in any way.  He didn’t get the idea that gathering them in your basement made you safer and smarter than your neighbors.  And he didn’t get the idea that guns made America, well, America.  “Weapons,” he said to me once, not long before his final illness, “weapons are a scary poor substitute for democracy.”

And I’ve been thinking about that all week.  “Weapons are a scary poor substitute for democracy.” 


If I could have five minutes with the executives at Sig Sauer here in Newington, the same Sig Sauer that produced the assault rife that killed 50 dear and beloved souls at the nightclub in Orlando in 2016…if I could have five minutes with those executives…I think I’d say that: “Weapons are a scary poor substitute for democracy.  Assault rifles are a scary poor substitute for democracy.”

“No matter how much money you’re making on them.”

If I could have five minutes with Senators Cruz and McConnell and Collins, and Reps beholden to the NRA and the gun lobby…just five minutes…I think I’d say that: “Weapons are a scary poor substitute for democracy.  Wake up and grow a backbone.  Assault rifles are a scary poor substitute for democracy.”

In Uvalde, we’re reminded that our public schools are under assault.  In Buffalo, we’re reminded that communities of color across the country are under assault.  And I think it’s time we acknowledge, with 300 million of these handguns, rifles and assault weapons in our homes and cars and basements…democracy itself is at risk.  You simply can’t sustain a vibrant, collaborative, diverse democratic project—when the entire population is armed to the teeth, angry and ready to go to war.  Democracy doesn’t work that way.


And this is an issue for us, for the church, because it’s an issue for peoples of conscience and good will across the land.  We believe in the promise of a vibrant, collaborative, diverse democratic project.  We believe in the capacity of Jews and Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, atheists and pagans—the capacity of a wildly mixed and wonderfully diverse nation for problem-solving and the common good.  In a community like this one, in the long tradition of our United Church of Christ, we believe that it’s God’s intention that we live together in abundance, in generous spirit and communities where participation is everything and equality under the law is guaranteed.  And all of this—this great democratic project—is compromised or even sneered at by lobbies that peddle grotesque weapons of mass destruction…and insist that these are the tools of a safer, stronger, wiser America.  It’s just not so.  And it's just not right.

And, friends, let’s put it clearly: “We will not be fooled!”  Not any more!

Think with me, for just a minute, about the challenges we face in this century, in just this moment, as a nation, as a people.  There’s the terribly divisive tone of our political conversation for one.  Mean and cruel and vengeful.  There’s the ongoing work of addressing and repairing systemic racism, the legacy of racial hatred and oppression that suffocates whole communities and has to be faced.  And, of course, over all of these things, is the huge crisis of climate change and global warming, a crisis we simply must take on with purpose, with unanimity and with grace if we are to pass along a verdant and vibrant planet to our grandchildren and theirs.  These are enormous democratic challenges—for all of us, for the whole world, obviously.  But for us here in the United States, they require democratic engagement, daring citizenship, deep trust among neighbors and institutions.

And 300 million guns, 300 million weapons, 300 million assault rifles—all they do is compromise that work.  All they do is make us angry and frightened.  All they do is make us cynical and skeptical.  See what I’m talking about.  It’s a matter of huge democratic import.  Say what you want about the 2nd amendment.  But these weapons, these gun lobbies and these politicians on the dole with them—they are perverting American democracy.  And putting the whole project at risk.


I’m glad to report this morning that religious leaders across the state—Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Unitarian—are mobilizing this spring to take this project on.  Vigils are great.  Vigils give voice to our pain and our grief.  But vigils are not the end of the story, or the point of this work.  We need to build a moral case, a spiritual case—not just for gun control, but for democracy itself.  It sounds kind of strange, but I really do think it’s true.  If you buy an assault weapon on line and store it under your bed, you’re not a democrat.  If you collect handguns, one for each car, one in every desk, several in the garage, you’re not a democrat.  And by God, if you make these weapons, if you profit off the sale of these weapons, if you market them to sullen, sad, despairing teenagers—you are no democrat.  You are the problem.

So I hope the church—that’s you—I hope you’ll join the rabbis, priests, nuns and pastors who are mobilizing in New Hampshire to cast a renewed and revitalized vision of democracy in our state.  We can and we must learn to trust one another again.  We can and we must learn to collaborate on big issues, and little ones.  We can and we must beat our swords into ploughshares, lay aside our guns and rifles, and study war no more.  For the good of America.  For the good of our kids.  For our own sakes too.

Amen and Ashe.


A Poem by Jeffrey Klenk
Teaches at Columbia University
fear in the school
fear in the home
fear is the rule
fear is the bone 

they throw to the whites 
they throw to the blacks
fear is the blade
that widens the cracks

fear is the life
we live in the states
fear is the strife
the gunman creates

fear is the prayer
fear is the way
hear the soothsayer
fear every day

fear for the past
fear for the now
fear for the future
fear is our tao

fear is our lover
our legends, our lore
fear is our cover
our culture, our core

fear for the children
fear for the young
fear for their teachers
the heroes unsung

the leaders sing words
but hear not the song
the leaders spout freedoms
but see not the wrong

a father cries helpless
a mother screams why
a sister cries sorrow
they all see the lie

enough of your thoughts
enough of your prayers
enough of your words
that lead us nowhere

enough of your gun rights
your freedoms, your lies
it's just guns sales and money
as schoolchildren die

fear in the school
fear in the home
fear is the rule
fear is the bone