Stopping The Nonstop Bad News

Epiphany 4A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Most mornings, I wake up and start scrolling thru headlines. This week was rough. Police violence. Mass shootings. War in Ukraine. Political strife. What would it be like to wake up to good news? The prophet Micah seems to wonder the same thing. These leaders, he wrote, “tear the skin from my people,” and “break their bones in pieces” (3:2–3). They despise justice, distort the right, take bribes as a matter of course, and are “skilled in doing evil with both hands.” Even worse, the religious leaders, who should have known better, approved and legitimized this unholy status quo, proclaiming that it was God’s will.

The news was just too much even for God. The prophet Micah imagines a scene in which God takes the people to court. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6:3). Like a prosecutor God examines their actions, recounting the signs of mercy and loving kindness shown to them from generation to generation, searching for a sign that they are living up to who God called them to be. Headlines shouting about violence, suffering, and inequality are not only bad news the prophet reminds us, but such news is also an indictment of our faith. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

The antidote God proffers to end the cycle of bad news is faith. A recent poll revealed the number one issue among Chicago voters is crime and public safety. Gun violence and police reform. Carjacking, police staffing, and police wellness.

Preying on this fear, the gun industry had record-breaking sales in 2020 and early 2021. Marketing for guns shifted from adds about hunting toward offering pistols for personal safety and military-style weaponry aimed mostly at young men. The sales pitch has been incredibly effective. Personal protection ranks #1 on gun owners’ list of reasons for owning a gun. Yet homicides are more than two times higher in gun-owning homes. Suicide risk is four times higher for children and teens who live in gun-owning homes. Men who own guns are eight times more likely to die by gun suicide, while women are thirty-five times more likely. It’s more likely that a gun in your home will be used to harm a family member than for protection. The leading cause of death in the year after getting a handgun is suicide. (Source: Project Unloaded) The nonstop news about gun violence is an indictment of our shared faith. We must dispel the myth that guns make us safer.

The nonstop news of police brutality is the same. Studies show what works to reduce police brutality is to stop using police like a one-size-fits-all response to every public safety need. A gun and a badge do not qualify someone to respond to homelessness, substance abuse, mental health crises, or even minor traffic violations. To improve police behavior, we must change how police are evaluated and rewarded. Are police promoted for making arrests and for being “warriors who are tough on criminals,” or are they valued for being “protectors, trusted by our neighbors.” (Source: Rodrigo Canales, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale) (Next month, you have an opportunity to change how Chicago police are evaluated and rewarded in choosing representatives to your police district council.)

A Latin American prayer asks: “Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” As we pray at the eucharist, ‘The cry of the poor is God’s own cry; Our hunger and thirst for justice is God’s own desire.’ (Eucharistic prayer, ELW #VII)

Jesus offered the beatitudes as steps toward a disarmed heart. The Beatitudes we read today (Matthew 5-7) describe a genuinely counter-cultural style of life. In a world of wealth and war, says Jesus, blessed are the poor and the peacemakers. Instead of violence and vengeance, blessed are the mournful, the meek, and the merciful. Remember, Jesus’ beautiful, poetic words weren’t first heard by people like me; those words were gifted to people who were considered the refuse of the ancient world. The faithful hold in tension two truths: one is the message, “I am dust and ashes;” the other is, “For me the universe was made” (Mary Lou Kownacki, O.S.B., Behold the Nonviolent One).

The Beatitudes draw a character portrait of the face and will of God. Together, they provide the foundation for Christian nonviolent resistance. To live the Beatitudes is to live differently and to think differently. “Wherever there is injustice, discrimination, division, discord, violence, we should find peacemakers, God’s children. Where the battle rages between the forces of light and [shadow], we should find peacemakers, God’s children. And God’s children enter the public arena, the conflict, trying to make God’s love visible …the more we analyze the stories behind the newspaper headlines, the harder it is to hide from harsh reality. Our apathy, our lifestyles, our budget priorities mean mourning and weeping for tens of millions around the globe” (Kownacki).

A review of 50 years of mass shootings found these events are becoming more frequent and more deadly. One-third of all mass shootings studied occurred in the last decade. They found these killings are not just random acts of violence but rather a symptom of a deeper societal problem: the continued rise of “deaths of despair.” Nearly all the killers profiled were men. Many were socially isolated from their families or their communities and felt a sense of alienation. They chose mass shootings as a way to seize power and attention, forcing others to witness their pain while attempting to end their lives, either by death or incarceration, in a way that only they controlled. Mass shooters live among us. They are us. They are for the most part the men and boys we know. And they can be stopped before they pull the trigger (By Jillian Peterson and James Densley, “We Profiled the ‘Signs of Crisis’ in 50 Years of Mass Shootings. This Is What We Found,” NYT, 1/26/23). Not by a gun, or by police, or with stiffer laws, but with more neighbor-love.

Mercifully, the prophet Micah ends the non-stop cycle of bad news with a reminder of the never-ending grace of God. Micah offers the false prophets, the drunken religious leaders, the corrupt politicians, the greedy businesspeople, the self-serving civic leaders, and all of us, a word of forgiveness.

The last two verses of Micah are read by every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Micah writes, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (7:18–19) Micah’s last word, then, is not fire and brimstone; it’s an evocative reminder of the energizing hope that God offers to all of us. What would it be like to wake up to good news? Good news begins with living the good news of Jesus. Who will be neighbor?  “Blest are you. Holy are you…Rejoice and be glad yours is the kingdom of God.” (ELW # 728).