On the morning of Sunday, June 12, between my 8 and 10 a.m. masses, I learned there had been a terrible shooting at the Pulse nightclub, just four miles north of where I was sitting. The victims (a still unknown number at this point) predominantly identified as LGBT, and the shooter was an Afghan American from Fort Pierce, a little way down the Atlantic coast. As is always the case when I hear such news, I was sad and angry — especially so to experience it in my own city. These things really can happen anywhere.
We prayed for the victims at our 10 a.m. Mass and later learned more. That same afternoon I presided at the funeral of a beloved parishioner, whose burial plot was in a cemetery a stone’s throw from Pulse. Helicopters were buzzing overhead as I said the same words I have said many times, this time with a different background: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Terrorism had come to our fair city, yet even at the grave we were making our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
As the week progressed I found myself increasingly puzzled. The media were grasping for a narrative to explain how it had happened. Activists were grasping for a narrative to tell us how to stop such things from happening again. LGBT people were the targets, and this was no surprise. Terrorists are model bullies: erratic in their cruelty and thoroughly dishonorable in their pursuit of victory, cowards of the highest order. Worldwide, they prey on the vulnerable, on minorities, on noncombatants.
This horrific slaughter unsurprisingly led America to examine her conscience with regard to this particularly vulnerable and often bullied group. But I was disheartened by the account that emerged from this realization. For the most part, the tale was not of our common helplessness and common tenacity. Instead we saw the travesty of a progressive ethos that weakens our spiritual resolve by sowing disunity in the guise of love. Apparently, all we need is more rainbow flags and fewer guns.
There’s your story, and it’s a travesty: A grotesque or ludicrous misrepresentation.
The expanded version of the Orlando travesty reads like this: 49 people are dead, an equal number are wounded. People (especially Christians) need to be more accepting of gay people, and Sig Sauer MCXs (or their cousins, AR-15s) have no place in American society. The answer to a terrorist bully claiming allegiance to ISIS came from secular progressive bullies (and their faith-based allies). Through this lens, the Pulse shooting was a tragedy of intolerance and carelessness by society at large: Too little pride and too many rounds in a magazine.
The travesty of the predominant Orlando narrative is so devastating because it questions many people’s real charitable motives in the aftermath. It undermines rather than enhances an innate desire in us all to pull together during difficulty and to resist common enemies. How could it be possible to mourn or to comfort, unless one supports same-sex marriage and every aspiration of the LGBT(QIA) community, full stop?
A week after the massacre, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando organized a prayer service before the huge candlelight vigil at Lake Eola downtown. I vested and processed in with my colleagues. It was an appropriately expressive liturgy framed by wise and carefully chosen words by my bishop, Greg Brewer. But it was just before, not during, the service that I encountered deep truth. I ran into an old family friend — the father of my best friend from middle school.
He is a gay man, and someone I love very much. He meant a lot to me when my young life was in considerable turmoil. We embraced and talked for a bit. He told me, “I know you’re not in favor of gay marriage.”
Indeed I am not; but why should such things matter in a moment like this? In fact, as far as I could tell, it didn’t matter at all in this encounter. There was palpable unity between us. Divine charity rose above worldly agenda, drawing us both (however briefly) to a higher vision.
Among my parishioners I saw a lot of Good Samaritan activity: No one asking for anyone else’s gay rights credentials or gun rights condemnations. Two of my parishioners are involved in pet therapy at the hospital where most of the Pulse victims were taken. They simply showed up and did what they always do. Some of the prayer shawls from our knitting group made their way to the wounded. For most of the rest of us, the work of prayer increased in fervor, even while some of the official narrators told us such work was undesirable (#dontpray). We wanted to love our neighbors and were determined to do so, even if a travestied analysis stood in the way.
The Gospel is an all-encompassing chronicle of existence: Creation, fall, redemption. Goodness, brokenness, restoration. Life, death, resurrection. It is exchanged too frequently for worldly alternatives, and this substitution has infected the Church deeply. Instead of growing in love in proportion to the growth of brokenness in the world, many Christians assert a secular morality: that the only way to achieve love is to deny brokenness. Sometimes it is even worse: One’s inability to transfer brokenness over to blessedness becomes the cause of the real tragedy. If only people (again, especially Christians) had been more loving and less hateful, an extremist loser asserting Islamic ties would never have committed mass murder. A travesty.
When the next terrorist attack comes — perhaps targeting a different group or using different weapons — what will we say? Will the victory of the Cross over the grave give hope to us all, or will a replacement Gospel create winners and losers?
The Orlando tragedy will almost certainly be repeated on our soil. But can we avoid another Orlando travesty?
Fr. Andrew Petiprin is rector of St. Mary of the Angels Episcopal Church in Orlando. Click here to listen to further reflections on the Pulse shooting in a recent sermon. His other Covenant posts are here.
Photo credit: Andrew Petiprin