I left a conversation about the recent wave of violence and crime in our city asking myself the question, "So are we a part of the problem or a part of the solution?" I would like to believe that the modern-day church is still a part of the answer, but in cities like ours, I'm observing that it's very rare for the church to work proactively in certain areas. I wonder have we stayed within the walls of our churches, our "ivory towers," preaching well-manicured sermons to those who already claim to know the truth of who God's son is and the transforming power that He possesses? Have we become such a reactive entity that the people we claim we are here to reach never see us in their neighborhoods? Are we hiding in the pews, unaccounted for in the streets of the city we love so much until something happens or goes terribly wrong?
The Scripture says that God called the Sons of Isacaar because they had understanding of the times. This verse resonated with me most recently as I studied and prepared for a time of teaching at the church I pastor here in Sumter. I retold the story of Cain and Abel in a way that I'm sure many had never heard. We are all familiar with the question "Am I my brother's keeper," but it is God's question after Cain's famous retort that impresses upon me the most in this moment. But the Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out from the ground!" (Gen 4:10) God explains to Cain that his ground will no longer yield good crops. God gave me unique insight into this particular chapter, which spoke to God's other question to Cain, which was "Why are you so angry"?
There was a rage inside of this man that would cause him to murder his own brother because of the rejection that he himself struggled with. Cain's feelings of inadequacy and rejection, because he wasn't accepted, yielded harsh realities within this family unit. His actions and state of mind said I'd rather kill you than have a conversation with you on how we can both be better together as well as accepted.
The murders and violence that we see in our community are not just a problem, but they are symptoms of a greater underlying problem. One that is easy for us to ignore until the Sumter Police Department is knocking on our door. Until it's our son, brother, nephew or cousin, why should we bother to care? It is troubling to me that after dealing with hundreds of years of slavery, poverty, bigotry and racism, we never chose to kill each other. We had our faith, and we had our family as our foundation. We were a village no matter how financially strapped we might have been. If your family had sugar, our family had sugar. If your family had chicken, our family had chicken. What happened to that, Sumter? Where are the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s of this day who will leave their pulpits for boots-on-ground experiences with the lost and dejected Cains of today?
I shared with my congregation that the perpetrators of many of these crimes are simply lost little boys in adult bodies: rejected, angry and void of their real identity. Do we make excuses for their actions? Never! Even the Bible says that the law is for the lawless, so anyone who breaks the law and snuffs out innocent lives should be punished to the highest extent of the law. But then the wicked in high places I believe are somehow happy about that. What slavery and racism couldn't do to a culture, lost identity certainly has. And what of this notion? Black men killing each other for street credit or gang initiation and retaliation. It is the greatest of deals because you get two for the price of one.
For you see we don't only lose the ones who die senselessly and prematurely, but we lose the ones who pulled the trigger, too. Both the murderer and the fallen are somebody's son, father, brother, nephew or cousin. And the one who pulls the trigger, he may boastfully and ignorantly state that he did it because he has no fear of dying.
Those who recruit him are able to capitalize upon that because as I've preached countless times before at Grace Cathedral, "our young men are not afraid to die; they are just afraid to live." Because to live is to be responsible, and that's difficult when you've not seen that modeled before you as a part of your daily lifestyle. Dysfunction is normal when dysfunction is all that you know.
I can commit a crime for the acceptance and love of a person who tells me that they love me and will be my family, when that's all that I really want out of life anyway.
There are so many contributing factors to what's going on in Sumter that there could never be one solution or even one conversation.
However, I would urge our public servants and elected officials to take note that there are conversations which need to be held before election time when you want the parishioner's vote. If the proper attention is not given to the sobering facts that out of the 13 murders committed in our city, 11 of them have been in the past three months, there will be no political legacy to celebrate or enjoy.
Public officials, clergy members and private citizens alike have to come out of our hiding places and work together to subdue the changes that have taken place in the spiritual climate of this community that we love so much. It no longer can be considered a south side problem where we just carry on nonchalantly and let "them" kill themselves. It touches all of us, and if we don't know that yet, we'll know it very soon as even a visit to our local Walmart or gas station can prove to be a fatal last trip because someone decided that taking a life was a great way to pass an initiation. Think about it, Sumter!
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