Bill Leonard

“We have our CHILDREN taken from us; the Desire of our Eyes taken away with a stroke.” So Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728) wrote from 17th-century Boston, watching helplessly as multitudes of New England’s children and youth perished from diseases that could strike at any moment from infancy to adolescence. Twice married, Mather was the father of 15 children, only six of whom reached adulthood. Two outlived him.

In Children in the New England Mind in Life and Death, Peter Slater observed that the death of children was so frequent that colonists often lived in a state of “anticipatory mourning.” He concluded that “the conviction that ‘the King of Terrors’ [death] often came quickly made the Puritans anxious not to be caught unready.” Indeed, death vigils were so common in every Puritan family that “whatever their eventual outcome, parents prepared themselves emotionally to cope with the anticipated loss.”

Three hundred years later, the “anticipated loss” of children in the United States continues, in part because mass shootings have turned school kids into “the hunted,” as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., now describe themselves. After 17 people died there in a St. Valentine’s Day massacre, it is clear that “anticipatory mourning” haunts families across a country whose 300 million firearms literally outgun the rest of the non-military world. Post-Parkland, how many American parents now vow to tell their children they love them every day before sending them to school? Indeed, the voices of survivors from multiple mass firearm-related murders force us to acknowledge that public venues and AR-15s, exacerbated by incessant one-on-one-parking-lot-shootings, make violent deaths an ever-present possibility in every American community.

Such anticipatory mourning seems as palpable in 2018 as when Jeremiah described it almost 3,000 years earlier: Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares” (Jer. 9:21).

As religious communities in a country where students now call themselves “the hunted,” let us at last take seriously the anticipatory mourning of young people schooled in strategies for escaping rogue shooters. For the church, if ever a gospel of Christian hope was needed in American society it is now. Implicitly and explicitly, American youth demand support for themselves and their families in confronting the relentless specter of death in a land where a merciless 18-year-old can “legally” secure battlefield weapons.

We’ve ritualized death away from the young in this culture, in funeral homes and hospice facilities, but it has overtaken them with a vengeance in what were once safe spaces for learning. Thus the church, in its teaching, preaching and praying, is now called to respond to a nation of anticipatory mourners, reasserting the presence of God in our living and our dying, particularly in the violent ends to which we all are now vulnerable.

Lent is that season of the Christian year when we own death as a sign of our mortality and the unpredictable nature of life itself. (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) On Good Friday we recount the agonizingly brutal execution of the world’s Great Innocent.  On the way to Easter we say one more time that life is stronger than death and that God is with us in it all. Helping human beings acknowledge the reality of death, grieve deeply, and live bravely is a central witness of the Christian gospel. Let us reaffirm that hope for our children and ourselves, here and now.

And while we are at it, let’s devise concrete recognition of and strategies for confronting America’s gun culture, unique across the entire globe, weaponizing violent people far too easily. Henceforth, “the hunted” will not allow us to wait for the next AR-15 atrocity. Days after the deaths of their 17 friends, Parkland students moved from victimization to dissent. In a “Morning Joe” interview, Douglas High survivor David Hogg commented: “This will be a generation-long-thing. This is just getting started. Millennials are some of the most politically active and some of the most critical individuals … and as such I think that’s what is going to sustain this process, realizing what is wrong with America and trying to fix it, because the previous generation won’t. … You can’t wash away those memories.”

Right-wing media quickly entered the fray, accusing Hogg and other outspoken survivors of being “crisis actors,” not genuine Douglas students. Others tagged them as dupes of the anti-Second Amendment, anti-gun, anti-Trump media. In America’s culture wars, neither death nor conspiracy theories takes a holiday.

Undaunted by such attacks, these hunted Millennials declare that their dissenting voices will not be silenced. David Hogg says he won’t return to school until Florida passes at least one new firearm regulation, concluding, “We have a major gun violence problem in this country, one that won’t go away.”

And until voters, politicians, families and churches confront that problem, anticipatory mourning won’t go away either. So let’s try to tell our children we love them every time they walk out the door. They need to know that, every day of their lives.

*Dr. Leonard spoke at the John A. Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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