You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.
Time to lay down our guns
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, this one at Umpqua Community College, it’s time for the church to take a hard look at its values.
by Derrick L. Weston
Since I started writing for this blog, I have had a backlog of ideas for articles—on popular culture, theology, the future of the church, and all kinds of topics. And yet, it seems that when I finally get around to writing, there is another mass shooting, stealing the urgency from my other reflections.
Life gets interrupted for just a minute to return to our well-worn debates on what should be done about guns in this country. I am nowhere near neutral on this debate. I hate guns. If all guns disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel a bit of sadness. I think it is ridiculous that guns aren’t at least as regulated as automobiles and that guns seem to have more protections than many people in this country.
This debate tends to bring all of our other national debates to the surface. Mass shootings are most often done by white males, and so we end up having conversations about the injustice of racial profiling. Gun defenders will say that it was an isolated incident by a sick individual, so we then have additional (but not very serious) conversations on mental health. These conversations have always been incredibly partisan, so we add our political ideologies. The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in American politics, and so the injustice of the system comes to the fore. As President Obama gave yet another impassioned speech on the subject in a press conference, you can hear that his own political will is challenged by the seemingly intractable nature of this problem.
‘What’s evident in our wrestling with the gun issue is that we are far more comfortable with fearing our neighbors than loving them, and when push comes to shove, our lives are worth more than theirs.’
After the Sandy Hook shootings, I gave a short and impromptu sermon. I didn’t write much. I read the names of the victims, and I left space for the congregation to cry. I think I did something similar for the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting. The church has a role in leading people in grief. That’s not necessarily the role most of us signed up for, but our Scripture gives us a deep history of lament that can be mined to express the anguish that we feel around these tragedies.
The president’s insistence that thoughts and prayers are not enough feels like a call to action for the church (not that we need his permission or that it lets him off the hook for not doing all that he can from his elevated position). We’ve accepted mass shootings as a way of life, and that simply cannot be. Jesus told Peter that those who take the sword would die by the sword (Matt. 26:52), and we are slowly dying by our modern sword because of our stubborn refusal to lay it down.
I’m afraid that—much like how the onus of dealing with racism falls on the shoulders of white people—so the responsibility of solving gun violence falls on those who own and advocate for guns. What would it look like if one Sunday morning all of the gun-owning Presbyterians brought their weapons to church, laid them at the chancel, and declared that they would no longer be a part of the problem?
Sounds too radical, doesn’t it? Okay, let’s try this: what if, recognizing that these shooters tend to be lonely, isolated young men, what if we as the church decided to reallocate resources to strengthen youth and young adult ministries, to identify those young men and wrap our arms around them? What if we decided we would be mentors, friends, and counselors for those who seem alienated and angry at the world?
‘What if we as a church decided to reallocate resources to strengthen youth and young adult ministries, to identify those young men and wrap our arms around them?’
What if we took the prophetic notion of turning swords into plowshares (Isa. 2:4, Joel 3:10, Micah 4:3) seriously and invested in urban community gardens in the places where black bodies are gunned down? Maybe a garden doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent to violence to you, but when people put their hands in the dirt, they begin to value life in a new way, and maybe that’s what we must bring to the table in this conversation.
What’s evident in our wrestling with the gun issue is that we are far more comfortable with fearing our neighbors than loving them, and when push comes to shove, our lives are worth more than theirs. That is not what our tradition teaches. Our faith teaches the value of all life and calls for special protection for those who are vulnerable. That means that 9 year olds shouldn’t be gunned down in the community where I work. Our faith calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, meaning that my neighbor’s right to exist supersedes my right to a false sense of security. Our faith teaches that perfect love casts out fear, and the only antidote for the violence in this country is love. Not sentimental love, but love that is willing to sacrifice for the sake of community, even if that sacrifice is an interpretation of a constitutional right.
The church is called to a higher set of values than those of gun culture or security (and of course, study after study has revealed that civilian-owned guns do not make us safer). I honestly don’t see how we can follow the Prince of Peace with blood on our hands. It is time to take some bold actions that reflect who we are. I fear our lack of such actions after all of these shootings has already shown what it is we truly value.
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.