From a New York Times guest essay by Esau McCaulley headlined “How Can We Be a Country That Does This to Our Children?
The formal clothes of children are endearing. Take a suit or a dress and shrink it down to a size appropriate for elementary school kids and the cuteness factor is undeniable. This is because we all know that ties, button-down shirts and stately dresses are not really the province of the young. Children belong in things that can get dirty, splashed by mud or ripped by sliding into second base or tussling with a classmate.
But tiny caskets? Of course, we revolt. Death is not supposed to visit the lives of our daughters in pigtails or stalk our sons who still have gaps in their teeth.
The parents of three young children at the Covenant School in Nashville now have to choose final outfits and caskets for their children because a shooter entered a school with assault-style rifles and a handgun.
The killer, who also took the lives of three adults at the school, was another in a long line of murderers whose ideologies vary as much as the objects of their violence: Asians, African Americans, Black church attendees, members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, former classmates, moviegoers, grocery shoppers and Christian school students and staff. The one thing that unites these killers is the easy access they had to weapons, owing to the laws that exist in our republic.
There are many ways to judge the success or failure of a country. We can look at its economy, the strength of its military or the quality of its education. We can examine the soundness of our bridges or the smoothness of our highways. But what if we used a different standard? We should judge a nation by a simple metric: the number of weeping parents it allows, the small caskets it tolerates.
The debate around gun control is not new, of course, and each tragedy brings a fresh wave of calls for common sense gun regulation. The adversaries of reform will rebuke us for turning a tragedy, the deaths of six innocent people, into an occasion to debate politics. We will be urged to offer prayers for the victims and their families while we await the appropriate time to discuss the more difficult issues. But too often it seems that rather than waiting for the right time, politicians are simply trying to wait out the news cycle.
I am a son of the Black church, so I am well versed in such delaying tactics. We have not had the luxury of time to mourn. When domestic terrorists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, murdering four of our little girls, Martin Luther King Jr. used the eulogy he delivered in the presence of the children’s caskets to challenge the church and the government to change.
He said: “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician.”
The deaths of the children spoke to the state of anti-Blackness in America. In death, their blood cried out for justice and transformation. Similarly, every single young body riddled with bullets from guns that we could control preaches a sermon. They issue a word of condemnation, a Jeremiad.
Do not misunderstand: I believe in the power of prayer. But the Christian response can’t be limited to it. That assumes that all activity on behalf of the innocent lies in the hands of the almighty when the Christian Scriptures themselves suggest that God will judge us according to how we treat the most vulnerable. We should not be accountable for only the fervency of our intercession but also for the relentlessness of our actions.
Taylor Schumann is a shooting survivor, wife, mom, Christian and advocate for gun reform. The author of the book “When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough: A Shooting Survivor’s Journey Into the Realities of Gun Violence,” she says that some people who resist gun reform do so out of fear, but they are looking at it the wrong way. “The desire for gun control does not come from a place of wanting to take away something, but rather to save something else: fellow human beings,” she told me. “We’ve tried so many things to reduce gun violence, everything except widespread gun reform. If there were another way to do it, I believe we would’ve found it by now.” Ms. Schumann is right. We have not found another answer and so we are left with a question, which is: Whom do we love more, our guns or our children?
My wife and I had occasion to visit Edinburgh, Scotland, last summer. Strolling along its cobbled roads, we wandered into one of the many old churches. Carved into the cool stone walls were names of those long dead.
All that we could know about them was the year of their birth and the day of their passing. The life that took place in the middle was lost to history. We noticed that a few lived very brief lives, dying as children. My wife and I wondered what had befallen them — illness, accident or some other tragedy? The disquiet around the death of the young echoes through the centuries.
Years from now, when those of us alive today have gone the way of all flesh, others will wander through our graveyards. They will see the waves of tombstones commemorating children with not enough years between the first number and the last. But unlike those children in Scotland, the cause of those tragedies will not be a mystery. The undeniable testimony of our actions will be that our children kept dying because some of us did not love them enough.
Esau McCaulley is a Times contributing Opinion writer and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically Black congregation in Chicago and author of the forthcoming memoir “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South.”