By Amy Butler
The following is a letter to pastors and church leaders.
Sunday found us waking to the confluence of so many streams of hatred and vitriol in our society – homophobia, islamophobia, fear of the other in any form. “Here we find ourselves again,” we shake our heads in numb, benign dismay. It was yet another occasion, another in a long and bloody list, for us to publicly lament the violent loss of life and offer our thoughts and prayers, if we mentioned the tragedy at all. Such a shame, a real downer for Sunday morning worship.
Unfortunately, we would be dreadfully wrong if we did not admit there is something deeper going on here than one horrific incident. There is something in the soul of our country that is festering, ugly, evil: a proliferation of hatred, intolerance, misappropriated religion, damaging political rhetoric, and many of us bear some responsibility for this evil.
Scripture tells us that all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial – that the measure of our humanity is not whether we have freedom, but how we use it. In this country, we have enshrined in our founding, inalienable freedoms each of us has by virtue of our common humanity. First among these is the freedom of speech.
Sometimes in our speaking we have been the voices of division breeding hatred; sometimes we have looked away, silent and void of courage; sometimes we have neglected to use our voices and our platforms to tell the truth with courage and conviction.
Whatever our personal failures, it’s abundantly clear that our silence has made space for hateful rhetoric from the pulpit and from the campaign trail and from so many other public pedestals. This devastating and increasingly deafening soundtrack of American life is drowning our weak protestations and building walls between people, chasms that separate us from each other, breed fear and instigate violence.
And because we have not stepped with courage into the task of preaching love, we have contributed as our country has brutally expressed its second freedom, the freedom to arm itself. We’ve stood by watching while our fellow Americans have armed ourselves with ideologies of hatred and fear, prejudice and bigotry. And then, after the sowing of these seeds of sin, we have nurtured them to full bloom, arming ourselves with assault rifles and high capacity magazines.
Our words, or our silences, have consequences. We cannot carelessly toss about brutal, hurtful words without bearing their deep and deadly mark on our souls. And we cannot be silent in the face of evil, lest we become an expression of that evil ourselves.
Let us exercise our freedom of speech to preach a gospel of love. Let us arm ourselves, not with weapons, but with all that our faith has taught us and all that has made this country strong – justice, tolerance, diversity, the audacious belief that we can embody God’s highest hopes for our world. And let us boldly insist on a complete rejection of any ideology that even suggests anything other than this: every person is a beloved child of God, always welcomed into relationship and community.
Such a tragedy has occurred in Orlando this week. May our voices rise in lament, again. May we pledge our prayers for the victims and the families one more time. But most of all, may we grieve our hatred or our apathy or our lack of courage…or all three.
Ministers of the gospel, proclaimed bigotry, silence, or indifference should now be named malpractice. Or perhaps, more aptly, sin. We, of all people, should stand with courage to proclaim loudly and perpetually that this way of living and dying together will not be our future; that the power of love must embolden us to chart a new course; and that love will be the thing that saves us.
Pastor, if you have never publicly welcomed the LGBTQ community to church or spoken out against hatred and bigotry toward Muslims, if you have kept silent about the deadly culture of gun violence in our country, then you bear some responsibility for this place in which we find ourselves. Please, please: no more worship services that never mention this tragic incident and the LGBTQ victims so brutally murdered. No more thoughts and prayers. No more silence in the face of evil.
It’s time for all of us to take up the prophetic mantle and speak of the power of love before we lose our ability to speak to anything at all.
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is the Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in New York City. Prior to this call, Pastor Amy served as Senior Pastor ofCalvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Pastor Amy holds degrees from Baylor University (BA ‘91, MA ‘96); The International Baptist Theological Seminary (BDiv ‘95); and Wesley Theological Seminary (DMin ‘09).