At the Christmas carol and candlelight service our family goes to each year, I had a hard time singing "Away in a Manger." The very mention of children, the image of a baby in a manger, reminded me of Newtown. The third verse of the song was where I had to stop singing:
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
Bless all the dear children in Newtown, in Aurora, in Oak Creek -- in the far too many places where mass shootings have taken place. Bless all the dear children who die on street corners in Chicago or LA from the everyday gun violence that is all too common. Bless all the dear children who have lost their lives, or become orphans, or who have experienced trauma in the wake of gunfire.
For Christians who sing "Away in a Manger," we are reminded of a central truth of the Christian faith: God came to live among us, taking on human form. He was born to poor parents of little means. Before anyone called him Christ, he was a vulnerable child lying in a manger. While we celebrate this miracle with carols and candles, we must also pause to ask a sobering question. If Jesus were born today, would he even have the chance to grow up? If Jesus were born in Chicago or Newtown, would he become a victim of gun violence before his seventh birthday?
I started caring about guns the day I accidentally tried to break up a gunfight in the side yard beside my three-flat. I didn't know I was breaking up a gunfight. I was only planning on yelling at my teenage neighbors who were making too much noise. But then one kid pulled a gun on another kid and I ran back inside my apartment. This is when I learned I shared a building with three gang members and their guns. A week later I remember looking out my window and seeing my 14-year old neighbor holding a Glock behind his back as he watched the kids from the high school across the street leave the building. Bless all the dear children -- even the children who think they need to carry guns.
Like many people, I started caring about guns when gun violence came too close to home. This week for our nation, gun violence has come too close to home.
Today, my family still lives in Chicago, just a few miles away from that three-flat where my gun-toting teenage neighbors and I lived. But today I see things a bit differently. Having a kid of my own is teaching me the urgency of now. I know I must be part of creating a world that's safe for her to grow up in -- something Reinhold Niebuhr might have called an "impossible possibility." In the same week of the Newtown tragedy, federal appeals court judges in my own state struck down the last remaining statewide concealed carry ban in the country. And these judges were sitting on a bench in a city where gun violence claims more than 400 lives each year.
I often tell my students that finding solutions to complex situations of injustice requires creativity and imagination. We can't point our finger in one direction and refuse to see the complexity of the problem at hand. As we reflect on the multiple causes of the Newtown tragedy and other mass shootings, I hope we take time to listen to the stories of the survivors, for these stories will help us think creatively about just policy. Because the burdens of gun violence are being borne by victims and their families, their stories must be privileged as we move forward. Their words and stories must be raised over the voices of the gun lobby or even over legal precedent.
Its time for a new conversation, one that refuses to debate only the legal permissibility of guns but one that imagines what shape just policy might take in response to an increasing climate of violence and aggression. What is legal is not always what is moral. We might start by remembering that most guns were created as weapons of war. So, if we want our streets or our elementary schools to stop looking like war zones, then we have to do something about guns -- especially the guns that cause so much damage.
We also need to look for the everyday ways we can choose peace over violence. We must not overlook the little acts -- the small gifts of grace -- for these can also radically reshape our world into a place of peace. Children give us a moral example of these small graces through their natural propensity for love and creativity. We can begin to respond to Newtown and other tragedies by following their lead. We can allow children to become a moral lens for how we shape our society. If we seek to create a society that is safe for children and others who are vulnerable (such as those with mental illness or those living at the margins of our society) then we open up space for the flourishing of all creation.
Tonight, as I was (not) singing "Away in a Manger," I listened closely to the words beyond Bless all the dear children. Here the carol gives us a mandate: And fit us for heaven to live with thee there. I began to ask myself how we could ever be fit for heaven when our culture seems to love guns more than peace. How many tragedies will we experience before we stop waiting for heaven and create peace here on earth?
This week, Newtown is teaching us how to be fit for heaven. In the midst of this tragedy there were people who threw themselves in the way of harm to protect those in their care. And after the tragedy, the town has pulled together to care for each other in the midst of this deep and abiding sorrow.
Yet these sacrifices should not have been necessary. Certainly we are capable of imagining a world where we all bear away the burdens of violence so no one has to bear it alone. In this season where we talk about peace, my prayer is that peace will be more than a greeting on a Christmas card, but will become a guide and a goal for our moral imagination. Perhaps this is how we will learn to bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.