This week saw another mass shooting, this time in Las Vegas, committed by a man who, from what I could tell, worshiped at the altar of easy wealth and self-indulgence, a man whose character was deformed not by religion or nationalism, but by an overblown sense of entitlement that enabled him to treat others as a means to a notorious and selfish end. But he is not an aberration, we know that. There have been others throughout history with little regard for their fellow beings. We also know that unfettered access to weapons of war have permitted men like him to exact a gruesome toll at Virginia Tech, in Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando, San Bernardino, and now Las Vegas.
The night after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I was lying in bed reflecting on that event and my feelings about it. I had spoken that day with a man in our town who attends a fundamentalist church, who believed this was yet another indication we were living in the last days. He asked me if I agreed and I replied that while evil is palpable and real, I remained optimistic about humanity’s future. I was going to quote a few statistics about the decline in crime and the expansion of scientific knowledge, then remembered that wonderful Mark Twain quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.,” and suspected the man wouldn’t be swayed by statistics.
Here’s the odd thing about it. As I was talking with the man, he seemed almost giddy over the prospect of our living in the last days, as if he were pleased to have his worldview verified by this detestable event. I imagined him witnessing a nuclear mushroom or fallen bodies scattered on the ground, and jubilantly, triumphantly shouting, “I told you so! Didn’t I tell you! Praise God!” I wondered to myself which of the two men were most morally repugnant—the man who committed mass murder or the man who cheerfully accepted those murders as confirmation of his bleak and hopeless vision.
I am a progressive Christian because I cannot, and will not, embrace the pessimistic worldview so prevalent among the fanatical. I remain an optimist. I have hope. I believe in humanity’s future. I will let no man, deformed by self-absorption and greed, rob me of my optimism. I believe that to be a progressive Christian is to be hopeful. It is to believe the best about God, the best about humanity, the best about our future. To be a progressive Christian is to affirm that for every spiritually distorted person there are a thousand righteous people, laboring for the good of this world. The righteous are seldom written about, seldom celebrated, seldom honored, but when progress is made, it is made because of them. They teach, they create, they build, they heal, they clean, they adopt, they cook, they serve, they parent, they love. To be a progressive Christian is to believe in them, in their goodness, in their dignity, in their worth.
To be a progressive Christian is to believe that the actions of a demented few cannot thwart the purposes of a loving God. They may, for a day, seize the headlines, but they can never seize and hold hostage the high dreams of God. They can snuff out our lives, but never our hopes, which transcend us.
To be a progressive Christian is to surrender our preoccupation with formulas, creeds, and procedures and make room in our lives for wonder, grace, awe, and promise. There are too many Christians who cheerfully accept evil as confirmation of their theology, who would rather see humanity’s worst fears realized, than celebrate the triumph of good. One day they will have to explain to God why they trusted so little, dreamed so modestly, expected the worst from humanity and not the best.
I am a progressive Christian because I am a Quaker. Because, in the words of our founder George Fox, I too “saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” I do not believe in the end times, in the depravity of humanity, or the meanness of God. I believe wherever love is present, life persists. I believe no problem is so great it cannot be solved by persons of good will.
Tragedy and evil are never excuses to give up. There will always be tragedy and evil. The only fitting antidote is to nevertheless love and endure in faith. To lose ourselves in despair is to be blind to all the good, all the grace, in our world.
I was at a restaurant this week and noticed a waitress talking with a woman who was sitting by herself. The woman was facing me from across the room and I could she was upset. She was crying. I watched as the waitress took the woman by the hand and stood beside her, listening, as the woman talked. The waitress was rubbing the woman’s hand. She stood with that woman the longest time. The meals were stacking up, drinks needed refilled, the tables needed cleared, but no one raised their hand or called out to the waitress. Everyone just waited, patiently. Eventually the woman stopped crying, the waitress hugged her, and the rest of us sat there marveling.
So am I discouraged? No way. Not so long as there is even one person like that in the world. There is an ocean of darkness. That is true. But there is an infinite ocean of light and love, and it flows over the ocean of darkness. That is even truer.