December 21st, 2012
04:09 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – With the bells of the Washington National Cathedral ringing 28 times – honoring all those killed in last week’s Connecticut shooting – a broad group of religious leaders on Friday called on their congregations, the White House and Congress to do more to combat gun violence.
“We gather as religious leaders both to commemorate the one-week marker of the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and to call our people and the nation to action,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral. “As clergy, we in our traditions know something about suffering, and we know something about our shared faith that love is finally stronger than anything, including hate and including death.”
The group assembled outside the cathedral, comprising religious leaders from almost all the major faith traditions in the United States, said it is fighting for three specific goals: the outlawing of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening controls on the sale of all guns and improving access to mental health care.
The event featured leaders from evangelical and mainline Protestant traditions, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism.
On top of asking clergy to discuss gun control, the group said it would ask congregants to participate in a national call-in day to Congress on February 5.
Most of the 20 speakers echoed one another on the cold, blustery day in Washington, saying that although it is important to pray and comfort the victims, now is the time to act.
“We must now, even in our grief, call the nation to an immediate and a healthy response that moves us, all of us, beyond our epic failure to respond to the culture of violence in our country and in our world,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
After previous mass shootings, like the Columbine school shooting that killed 15 in 1999 and the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead in 2007, leaders from many of the same religious traditions spoke in favor of tightening gun legislation. Those statements and actions, however, failed to move public sentiment, and many of their efforts stalled.
But the religious leaders said they sense a difference after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“It gets back to that instinctive way in which we are reviled by the notion that we would be a society that massacres its own tiny children,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.
“People across the country in all of our congregations are responding to the rabbis, and they are responding from a sense of personal grief,” she said. “It is as if every one of these families lost every one of these children and adults in the school as their own.”
Hall told CNN that because so many religious leaders help run schools, they strongly identify with the tragedy of young victims.
“There is something about this shooting and the fact that it was 6- and 7-year-olds. There is something about this shooting that just feels like a critical mass has been reached,” Hall said. “I think it probably makes us identify with this shooting more powerfully than with others.”
On Sunday, in churches across the country, sermons focused on gun control.
“Everyone in this city seems to be in terror of the gun lobby. But I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” Hall said during his sermon, a line that elicited a standing ovation from the crowd.
This type of sermon, along with action from political leaders, leads Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the primary organizer of Friday’s event, to believe that the religious community could play a big role in this discussion.
The religious community is capable of “mobilizing people to be a political force that we have done on issues of conscience since the beginning of this country,” he said.
When asked about the biblical basis for gun control, Saperstein quoted Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened.”
“Is the need for sensible gun control a religious issue?” he asked rhetorically. “Indeed, it is, for our worship of guns is a form of idolatry, the random distribution of guns is offense against God, and the only appropriate response is sustained moral outrage.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.