As I was driving home from our synod assembly in Springfield, MA I was listening to the news about the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. At the time I was listening, details were still a bit hazy. Authorities knew that the shooter had pledged allegiance to ISIS. President Obama had labeled the tragedy both an act of hate and an act of terror.
At one point as I was driving through some side roads in western Massachusetts I looked up to see the confederate flag flying over a household. At least in the south, one can claim an historical justification for flying the stars and bars (not a great justification, but a justification nonetheless). In the north the confederate flag seems to say, “I’m good with hate. I want you to fear me a little because I am comfortable with hate.”
As I thought about that confederate flag, I thought about how it incorporates elements of the national flag though arranged differently. It has stars and stripes. It is red, white and blue. Although it draws from good source material, it represents something very different, a painful history of slavery and racism.
This is the nature of hate, to take good source material and twist it into shapes and symbols that confuse and distort the original. The Ku Klux Klan sets a cross ablaze and a symbol of hope and life becomes a symbol of fear and intimidation. A young man listens to messages of hate and a religion that is centered on striving for wholeness and peace becomes an excuse to kill the innocent. It is no wonder that there is a debate about how to label this extremism. Most Muslims don’t want their faith associated with ISIS any more than I want my Christian beliefs associated with the KKK.
But now his excuse for bloodshed will become an excuse for others. Some will use the Pulse as an excuse to hate Muslims. Some will use this tragedy as an excuse to put up walls of separation. Some will use these shootings as an excuse to put more guns on the street. Some will even find a way to use this hatred as an affirmation of their belief that God hates the LGBTQ community.
It is tempting to segue into using tragedy as an excuse for good, but that never seems to do justice to the tragedy itself. Over 100 people, all children of God, dead and wounded, are not an excuse for action, good or bad. Responding to Orlando requires us first to sit with the tragedy, to mourn for the dead, to pray for the families, to care for those who are wounded, grieving and afraid, and finally to look at ourselves and acknowledge the attitudes we tolerate that allow hate to grow: irrational fears of those who are different, intentional ignorance of other faiths, scripture used primarily as a litmus test to determine who is in and who is out.
After we acknowledge the pain and its impact, then we can respond with greater love. The shootings in Orlando are a terrible symbol of the fact that we have not yet lived into the reign of God, that holy mountain where they will not hurt or destroy; that holy city where weeping and crying and pain will be no more. Yet as church we are called together in Christ to live toward God’s vision of loving peace. We are called to go out with good news that God’s love is for all: male and female, straight and queer, regardless of race, class or culture. God is in love with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Wiccans and a list of faiths too long for this entry but also includes atheists and agnostics. God is in love with people whose sexuality might make me blush. God is in love with those who struggle with mental illness. God is in love with every person who is different by anyone else’s definition of difference.
May that love be our guide as we go about the world. May that love be our message in the face of fear, hate and bigotry. May that love be the means to put an end to tragedies with names like the Pulse, Emanuel AME Church and Sandy Hook Elementary. May the love of God that surrounds Orlando be comfort to the mourning, healing to the wounded, and peace to all who are afraid.