Tuesday night, May 24, 2022. Election night. I turn on the TV to watch the returns come in. The polls close in five minutes. Before I can even get comfortable in my easy chair, the “Breaking News” sign, the crawler at the bottom of the screen, and the shaken, somber look on Joy Reid’s face tell me something is amiss.
My eyes enlarge. My mouth drops open. My forehead drops into my hand. My mouth opens and out pops some profanity where a prayer ought to be. Another hell-conceived school shooting — in Uvalde, Texas. Sixteen (later raised to 19) third and fourth graders and two of their teachers are dead. Murdered by an 18-year-old boy celebrating his birthday by exercising his Second Amendment right to carry an AR-15.
For a short sliver of time, the sound of silence fills the classroom where moments before there was teaching and learning and talking and laughter. Then another blast of gunfire and the young gunman falls.
Fifty-one years ago, on Easter night — a day we celebrated the power of resurrection — I preached my first sermon. That urge to speak something in God’s name is still there, saying, “Speak up, you fool! Raise up your voice and speak to the fools around you.”
After several days, the words came from a grown-up Baptist boy from West Virginia, a graduate of Nashville’s Baptist school, Belmont University. Brad Paisley now lives and works in Nashville. He goes to a Baptist church, where my college classmate, Mike Glenn, is his pastor. He sings to all Americans, asking:
How do we honor those who have fallen
And died for this dream?
I’m sure of one thing: It’s not with gridlock.
With more civil religion and American exceptionalism than I feel comfortable with, he nonetheless reminds us of explorers and adventurers who “fought tyranny” and “brought liberty.” Yes, he leaves out the “tyranny” we “brought” to Africans and Native Americans, but then he remembers his little boy:
Outside the other night, you should’ve seen the moonlight
It was enough to make you squint your eyes.
So my 5-year-old had learned about the lunar landing
And he walked out and started staring at the sky.
Stood there for a while, got a great big smile, and said:
“Dad, I think I can see it, can you?
I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and said,
“Yeah, son, I think I do”
A singer’s bridge follows, and then another admonition once again to do some of the marvels our nation has accomplished in its past. And then we hear a choir of children —children, like the ones now dead in Uvalde. The children pick up Paisley’s challenge. Then come the words, the preaching we need so desperately to hear, “out of the mouths of babes”:
Tonight I dare you to dream
Go on believe impossible things
Whenever anybody says
There’s anything we can’t do
Cause after all, after all
There’s an American flag on the moon.
Is it just an empty pipe dream?
Are we just ginning up a belief in impossible things?
Can we follow Jesus’ law of self-sacrifice instead of pledging our allegiance to the Second Amendment?
“Can we demand that in God’s name Congress will enough political sanity to make it at least as difficult to buy a gun as it will soon be for an American woman to get an abortion?”
Can members of the House and Senate who normally vote to protect the power of the gun lobby imagine their own granddaughters and grandsons lying in pools of one another’s blood?
Can they feel what parents in Sandy Hook or Buffalo or Uvalde have felt and vote accordingly?
Can we find our “better angels” and believe in impossible things long and hard enough to join a Second Trail of Tears — a million people from every state, meeting at the U.S. Capitol, weeping for sons and daughters slaughtered by enough school shootings to disgrace a nation of cannibals?
Can we demand (no more “thoughts and prayers,” please) that in God’s name Congress will enough political sanity to make it at least as difficult to buy a gun as it will soon be for an American woman to get an abortion?
Today the weeping parents and grandparents dare you to dream and believe impossible things — that we can ban assault weapons. And finally start to fulfill Isaiah’s dream of God’s People “beating AR-15s into plowshares.”
After all, there is an American flag on the moon. Can a nation that did that find a way to stop the carnage in our own classrooms?
Let it be, dear God. Let it be. And God help us if we don’t.
Andrew M. Manis is emeritus professor of history at Middle Georgia State University and author of A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. He is currently working with Mark V. Puroshotham, producer and director of Mercy Pictures, on a documentary based on the book. Learn more about that project by emailing [email protected].
On another classroom full of murdered children | Opinion by David Gushee
White supremacy and firearm idolatry: America’s Baal | Opinion by Bill Leonard
Guns, the elders and the children | Opinion by Susan K. Smith