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My son is a skeptic. Which is perfect. He’s 14, bright, and the son of a pastor. Being a skeptic is developmentally appropriate, intellectually stimulating, and maybe even a survival tool. I wouldn’t want him any other way.
He’s read enough history to know that the church of the past has done some awful things in the name of religion — the Crusades, the Inquisition, soldiers with the phrase “God with us” etched on their helmets.
He’s also observant enough to know that the church of the present can be awfully strange too — church members calling a pastor at home in the evening to get help addressing their Christmas cards (yep, that happened), church members not letting their congregation know they were in the hospital and then complaining that no one came to visit them (yep, that happened, too), and church members pitching hissy fits in the social hall when their favorite dish is gone before they get any at the potluck (again, that really happened).
He’s also paid attention in science classes. To him, the theories of evolution and gravity make much more sense than stories of creation and ascension.
All of that is why, not long ago, I encouraged my son to break the law with me.
It was Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend, a nationwide campaign of religious organizations that raises awareness about the scourge of gun violence in America. (Every day, 289 people are shot in the United States.)
Our church’s Anti-Gun Violence Task Force set up a display on the traffic circle across the street from our church building. The task force collected dozens of old shoes and then lined them up on the curb of the roundabout. The empty shoes symbolized the number of people who are shot each day. Near the signs, we placed placards with a web address. The idea was the passersby would see the shoes, log on to the website, and learn about the campaign to stop gun violence.
The catch: we don’t own the traffic circle. It’s public land. We didn’t ask anyone’s permission before we put the shoes out. That’s the illegal part.
Okay, truthfully, nobody cares too much about the traffic circle near our church. It doesn’t have any grand monuments or marble fountains like other traffic circles in Washington, D.C. It’s just grass, with some trees. And even if our shoe display was illegal, it would at most be a tiny little infraction. No doubt, if any law enforcement officers who cared came along, they would have just told us to remove the shoes and signs.
Nonetheless, there we were. A few other church members, my teenage son, and me — his minister dad — scurrying around a public space in the dark of night to set up a display. It was an act of public disobedience (perhaps), it was fun, it was important, and maybe we could have been stopped by the authorities.
Which was perfect for my 14 year old. Our nighttime outing had an air of intrigue and danger. Far more perilous than the Sunday school lessons, committee meetings, and sermons he’s had to sit through.
And that is why I let my kid stay up past his bedtime and engage in this (feasibly, mildly) illegal act.
(I let my son read this column before I sent it off the editor, by the way. I’m that kind of parent and that kind of preacher. I don’t believe in using my children as fodder for sermons or blog posts. He thinks the whole thing was fun.)
I took my son with me to (conceivably) break the law because I want him to know it’s worth risking something for others. In no way does our shoe display compare to the 1960 sit-ins at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is nothing like marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. But it could lead to that. I want my son to know that in stark contrast to the stifling Inquisition stands the liberating bus ride of Rosa Parks. And faithful liberation requires risk.
I took my son with me to (possibly) break the law because I want him to know that taking a stand is important. In this instance, I want him to know that 289 people being shot every day is a problem. And the church should say “no” to that. Staking placards in the ground on a traffic circle was in the spirit of Martin Luther standing firm at the Diet of Worms or Joan of Arc steadfastly stating in court that God spoke to her or, for my science-loving son, Galileo slyly and surreptitiously holding to his theory of heliocentrism even when tried for heresy. I want my son to know that faith is about taking a stand.
And, I took my son with me to break the law because I want him to know that people need someone who cares. Those 289 people who are shot each day need friends and allies to stand with them and say that continued gun violence is wrong and harmful and should stop.
Those church members who need help with their Christmas card lists and complain about the lack of hospital visits and throw hissy fits in the social hall? They need someone to care for them as well. I want my son to know that faith is about living with compassion for people in need, that there’s more to the church than violence, complaining church members, and perceived anti-science views, and that faith is about taking risks, taking a stand, and doing whatever we need to do to care for others.