For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid. (John 14: 27)
Welcome to Advent 2021 in the land of the free and the home of increasingly normalized threats and violence. Even the briefest examples illustrate the country’s religio/socio-political dilemma.
“The Secretary of Homeland Security has issued a new National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin regarding the current heightened threat environment across the United States. The homeland continues to face a diverse and challenging threat environment leading up to and following the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well as religious holidays we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence. These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.” (Summary of Terrorism Threat to the U.S. Homeland, Aug. 13, 2021)
“An epidemiologist who is also a pastor’s wife has received death threats for encouraging people to become vaccinated against COVID-19.”
“Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality.” (Washington Post, Nov 9, 2021)
“’It’s been a barrage every day’: U.S. election workers face threats and harassment.” (The Guardian, Nov. 1, 2021)
“In Vermont, a man who says he works in construction told workers at the state election office and at Dominion Voting Systems that they were about to die. He shouted at election officials: ‘This might be a good time to put a ‑‑‑‑ing pistol in your ‑‑‑‑ing mouth and pull the trigger.’” (Reuters investigates Campaign of Fear, Nov. 9, 2021)
“Threats against members of Congress are skyrocketing: It’s Changing the Job” (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 2021) That LA Times article includes statistics from the U.S. House Sergeant-at-Arms documenting the rapid rise in violent threats against members of Congress:
- 2016 — 902
- 2017 — 3,939
- 2018 — 5,206
- 2019 — 6,955
- 2020 — 8,613
(Source: Sarah D. Wire, U.S. Capitol Police, House Sergeant at Arms)
In American public schools, threats have become reality.
On the first Tuesday of the Advent season, four students were shot down in a hallway of Oxford High School, Oxford, Mich.; a 15-year-old classmate is accused of their murders and of wounding a teacher and eight other students. The dead included two males, ages 16 and 17, and two females, ages 14 and 17.
“In this Advent season, we learn again that American children are experiencing firsthand the normalization of violence in the country’s public schools.”
On the day of the shooting, concerns about the alleged shooter’s mental health were raised by teachers and counselors, who summoned his parents to the school. When the parents resisted taking their son back home, the teen was returned to class, then went to the restroom, and came out shooting. Authorities believe the murder weapon, a 9mm Sig Sauer SP 2022 pistol, was purchased by the boy’s father as an “early Christmas gift” on Black Friday, just four days before the shooting. The parents are now in jail, charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed by a student at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, said of the Michigan murders: “We are raising a generation of kids who expect to be shot.”
In this Advent season, we learn again that American children are experiencing firsthand the normalization of violence in the country’s public schools. In many cases, the murderers also are children.
In a Facebook posting the week of the Michigan shootings, Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor with her spouse, Paul Duke, at First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote of their twin sons’ experience in another Michigan school system, forced to close due to threats following the Oxford event:
They were 7 when Sandy Hook happened.
Active shooter drills are a regular part of their education.
They know how to build a barricade.
They know to jump out a window if a shooting actually happens. It’s what all their teachers have told them to do.
They know to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
They make sure to know where all exits are.
Their school system is closed today due to a high volume of threatening social media posts.
They will graduate in six months, but they will carry these experiences with them for the rest of their lives.
What are we doing to our kids? They deserve so much better than this.
(Their teachers do, too.)
(And so do their parents.)
Pastor Simpson Duke concludes: “We are failing our kids. It is outrageous and sickening and most of all heartbreaking. All these years after Columbine, and the situation with school shootings has only gotten worse — because we, as a collective, have allowed it to.”
Such failure deepened only four days after the Michigan shootings, when Thomas Massie, a Kentucky representative in the U.S. House, posted a photo of his family members, including several young people, each holding what appear to be high-powered rifles. The card reads, “Merry Christmas. p.s. Santa, please bring ammo.”
The congressman and his family are certainly free to post holiday greetings that highlight their affinity for high-powered weapons. Yet to apply the appellation “Merry Christmas” to their fully armed family is to undermine the heart of the Bethlehem story visually, theologically and spiritually. The firearms they embrace are perhaps a 21st century equivalent of “gold, frankincense and myrrh” offered, not to the Christmas Child, but to a pagan deity of our own creation, proof-texted from an inerrant Second Amendment that brooks only the slightest humane interpretation.
“I’ve come to believe that American Christians now confront perhaps the greatest test of our word and witness since the Civil War.”
This Advent, “and on earth peace” seems as illusive in Kentucky as it was in Roman-occupied Bethlehem two millennia ago.
And what of Advent?
As Advent 2021 moves toward Christmas, I’ve come to believe that American Christians now confront perhaps the greatest test of our word and witness since the Civil War, as talk of secession and “bloodshed” expands and children shoot down children in their classrooms. What gospel mandates call us to action? Are our congregations themselves too fragmented to respond?
In the spiritual wilderness of this “bleak midwinter,” we go looking for Advent hope, peace, joy and love to undergird our accompanying action. Isaiah said it first:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
And John’s Gospel answers back: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:5)
Not yet at least.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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