Sunday, April 21, 2013

In the Presence of Bleeding Children

I found myself thinking about the Holocaust this week as I watched the U.S. Senate allow a minority of its membership to filibuster the background check for gun sales bill. Polls report that 90% of Americans now favor such measures. Worse yet, it was a minimalist bill lacking the provisions for the return to a ban on automatic weapons and ammunition and mental health restrictions that polls say 2/3 of Americans also favor.

This vote occurred in the wake of the Newtown massacre where 26 elementary school children and their teachers were slaughtered by a disturbed young man bearing legally procured weapons, his mother being the first victim of the rampage. Rachel Maddow’s opening comment on her show that night went straight to the heart of the matter:

The U.S. Senate’s response to Newtown was to do exactly nothing.  

Remembering Every Child Lost

As I sifted through my shock, anger and grief over the failure of the Senate to act in the face of this clear and present danger, I found myself thinking about my visit to Israel in 1994. The Yad Vashem memorial outside of Jerusalem is dedicated to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust (another six million coming from homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses and a wide range of other groups designated less than fully human).

The most moving portion of Yad Vashem is the children’s memorial. One million of the six million Jews systematically killed by the Third Reich and its cowering collaborators in Nazi-held lands were children. In the children’s memorial, one enters a dark hallway surrounded by glass walls within which a candle is burning. The names of the children, their ages and their towns are holographically projected onto the walls as they are simultaneously recited over the public address system. The realization of the scale of this tragedy as one gropes along in the darkness can touch even the most hardened human being to the absolute depth of the soul.  

But the slaughtered children of Judaism have not been forgotten. The response to their deaths has been a fierce determination to provide a safe place for Jewish children in Israel and to insure that the threat of their destruction which nearly was realized during the Third Reich can never become a possibility again. And at Yad Vashem, the response has been to make sure that every single one of its slaughtered children are remembered by name.

How very different the U.S. Senate’s response this past week to the wanton and systematic slaughter of our own children.

Worshipping a Bloodthirsty Idol

20th CE Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has offered a definition of religion as that which is one’s ultimate concern. So what was the ultimate concern of the U.S. Senate last week? Clearly reelection was high on that list. It is the embodiment of the idols of power, privilege and status. But I suspect there is another ultimate concern which lurks in the shadows here.

The discussions of guns inevitably turns on the concerns of pre-conventional moral reasoning – fear of others and the pursuit of individualistic rights to the exclusion of - and sometimes at the expense of - all else. Pre-conventional reasoning routinely demonstrates the inability or the unwillingness to escape the lens of self to honor obligations to others that even the lowest levels of conventional reason understand as simply one’s duty. While the rhetoric of the opponents of even the most minimal gun laws often turns on self-serving fantasies of bravado with the men in white gunning down the bad guys in black before they can harm others, the ultimate focus of all such pre-conventional constructions is always the self.

The practice of any form of idolatry almost inevitably demands sacrifice. And the sacrifice to the bloodthirsty idol of guns has been ongoing and consistent for many years now in places with names like Columbine, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg and now Newtown. There are many more places with names which we’ve never known because they occur in inner city neighborhoods where the countless victims of drive-by shooting and gang turf wars have long since been deemed by our media to be expectable if not normal. The fact that their victims are almost always people of color living in poverty often warrants their deaths as unworthy of major media attention. Over 3000 more victims of the American addiction to the weapons of war have been recorded in the four months since the Newtown Massacre.

For the most part, the governments of the nations conquered by the Third Reich stood by silently as the Reich carried out its deadly genocide that would ultimately claim a million Jewish children. Some actively collaborated in the genocide, liquidating ghettoes and rounding up their residents for one-way train rides to places with names like Auschwitz. In a similar vein, while the Senate chose to do nothing in the wake of Newtown, a number of states have passed laws permitting guns on school campuses and in public places such as churches. They have chosen to become collaborators in the carnage.

But not everyone under the domination of the Fuhrer collaborated or stood by silently. Some chose to resist, creating underground networks, resisting churches, hiding the targets of genocide in their own homes and businesses. Often the cost of such resistance was high, resisters often sharing the same fate as those they sought to protect.

Similarly, some states like Connecticut, still reeling from the massacre of its children last December, have refused to silently acquiesce to the reign of death in their schools, churches and theaters. They have begun to pass the minimalist laws that the Senate refused to even bring to a vote and more. No doubt, their leaders may pay a heavy price at election time from the gun lobby and the corporate interests which have long since supplanted the citizens who remain in the National Rifle Association.

In the Presence of Bleeding Children

One of the most striking statements made by post-Holocaust theologians was offered by Irving Greenberg. In his essay "Judaism, Christianity, and Partnership After the Twentieth Century" (from Christianity in Jewish Terms, ed. Tivka Frymer-Kensky, NY: Basic Books, 2002), Greenberg attempts to create a context in which the Holocaust can be discussed without succumbing to the almost inevitable temptation to cast the discussion in such abstract terms that its true horror cannot be clearly seen. Greenberg thus offers the following:

The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

This is a principle that the U.S. Senate and the countless talking heads across America could well consider in the ongoing discussions of gun violence. To paraphrase Greenberg, the principle would read like this:

No statement about guns - ideological or otherwise - should be made that would not be credible in the presence of bleeding children. 

This is merely a beginning place for a serious discussion about America’s deadly addiction to guns. But like the million children slaughtered by the Holocaust, the children of Newtown and the many others whose lives have met untimely ends due to America’s absolute refusal to come to grips with this crippling addiction deserve nothing less.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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