"We will do all that is in our power..." Those words were repeated again and again December 21 at the Washington National Cathedral as a diverse group of respected religious leaders shivered in the beautiful gardens on a chilly morning, calling Americans to action in response to the Newtown tragedy. The voices and the metaphors they used were different but the ideas they expressed were strikingly similar and familiar: we MUST act to enact gun control, we have a sacred duty to protect our children, we must confront and change the culture of violence in our society, we need to address far more compassionately and effectively the complexities of mental health.
And from a reporter came the inevitable question: what's different this time? What will really happen? What, beyond nice words, will you, can you, as religious leaders, do? The shadowy question is, indeed, what does the "all that is in the power" of contemporary religious leaders in America amount to?
The group at the Cathedral, orchestrated by Rabbi David Saperstein (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism), expressed their hope that the unity of a community of compassion will bring real results: they are determined to work together towards a common end, and their eyes are fixed on meaningful action, by Congress and by their congregations. Galvanized by the Newtown horror and the harsh realities and vulnerabilities it brings into stark relief, they are determined to work for change. A society is judged, they repeated, by how it treats and protects its weakest members. We need to act to live by the values we profess, in religious houses as well as in our political rhetoric.
They look to the power of symbolism: different traditions (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) standing side by side, united in sorrow and determination, their heads bowed as the Cathedral bells tolled. Interfaith harmony is a good start because the wrought tensions of religious hatred are so fearsome. There were other less obvious reminders of how symbols evoke new images and imagination. A young fruit tree with premature blossoms bent by the blustery wind framed Bishop Mariann Budde as she prayed (tender life at risk), the scaffolding on the wounded National Cathedral towers served as a reminder that earthquakes (and their equivalent) can strike anywhere, when we least expect them.
Prayer and sermons also have a power, one hopes, to move and awaken conscience, to bring out our better angels. The group plans to highlight the gun challenge from pulpits and lecterns, week after week, and send copies of their sermons to Congress and to the media.
There are plans for continuing calls to action once the new Congress convenes in January - call in days, petitions, visits. The promise is to keep the call for action on gun control and especially assault weapons at the top of the crowded policy agenda, no matter what. The group stressed that they are not new to this cause, that they have organizations and experience to bring to the cause, only now with a new sense that, as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick asserted, "enough is enough".
But the cynical question lingers on: what's really different this time? Can and will this group of religious leaders, whose power is moral, whose authority is elusive, stick together and confront the powerful forces that have kept alive the notion that freedom and guns and the American character are inextricably bound?
I was heartened to hear Richard Cizik, who is building a new Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, respond baldly that he is all fired up not and he's itching for a fight. He sees that fight as centered on the monied interests that are the real force behind the storied American love affair with guns. The NRA is, he argues, about gun manufacturing and sales, not about gun lovers and their organizations. So follow the money and confront the business end of the problem. If a deeply religious person sitting in a pew finds out how much business interests dominate the debate, how much money is involved, and how manipulative their information campaigns, they will no longer stand for it.
Experience tells us that changing the laws and the organizations that shape them will not come without a fight, a determined fight that involves brains as well as institutional brawn, and brings together many different allies. It's an odd irony that peace cannot be built without grit and determination. The religious coalition with its call to use its powers, in all their forms, if it is ready to fight, can help mobilize that determination and the wisdom we need to move forward.