Do We Need Unholy Guns in Holy Places?

c. 2015 Religion News Service

(RNS) Inevitably, after the massacre at Emanuel AME Church, people are beginning to talk about arming congregants for self-defense. It is a sad image: 25 souls sitting around at Wednesday night prayer meeting, some packing heat in case the next church attacker should happen to be among them.

A mother and son stand at a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting, outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, on June 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on June 24, 2015.

A mother and son stand at a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting, outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, on June 22, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on June 24, 2015.

Some people consider it a ridiculous idea, or dangerous, or even sacrilegious: Guns don’t belong in the house of the Lord Jesus, who taught turning the other cheek and peacemaking; guns don’t belong in the hands of angry people, and Lord knows people sometimes get real angry in church. Imagine an enraged deacon calling for a vote on whether to fire the pastor, gun in hand. (This might affect the church’s democratic process just a bit.)

Others have been in favor of guns in church for a long time. “Open carry” and/or “concealed carry” legislation has already been passed in numerous states, with application to numerous public places, including churches.

In Georgia last year, local church leaders found themselves on opposite sides of the issue, breaking down pretty neatly along left/right lines — yet another reminder that political ideology almost always seems stronger than shared Christian commitment in our red/blue culture. In the end, opponents managed to get an opt-in rather than opt-out system, so that churches would have to declare “guns welcome here” rather than having to declare the opposite. (An interesting addition to the run-of-the-mill messages on church signs.)

My most core Christian convictions center in the lordship of Jesus Christ, who laid down his life but did not take anyone’s life — and taught his followers the same pattern. When he could have defended himself, he did not. When the early church could have defended itself, it did not. Martyrdom and not defensive violence became the Christian paradigm. The early church dreamed of and worked for a renewed world and an end to its bloody violence.

But eventually Christians came to a theoretically limited embrace of violence, first in defense of the (supposedly Christian) Roman state and then its successors after the fourth century. Sometimes they embraced violence in the name of both state and church — for example, in suppressing heretics. Christians tended to support and participate in the violence governmental leaders ordered them to commit in criminal justice and in war, though just war/just violence theory set some limits — which gradually became refined over time.

Just-war thinkers always drew a sharp line between defensive and offensive violence, between justified and unjustified force. But just-war theory was primarily focused on the defense of the community or the state, not the individual Christian or the congregation. Romans 13:1-7 was read to authorize state violence as a deterrent, as defense, and as punishment of the wicked for violating communal peace and harming innocent people. But responsibility for executing that violence was left in the hands of government and its officials, which could and did include individual Christians but was separated from the function of the church. I could be shown to be wrong, but my reading of the Christian tradition is that the idea of heavily armed congregations hunkered down in self-defense in their houses of worship is a foreign concept.

But maybe that’s because for most of Christian history and in most places Christians did not need to feel afraid when they gathered in church. Excluding Muslim-Christian violence on those particular frontier lines — and after Christians in Europe and the colonies figured out how to stop killing each other over doctrinal differences — the average Christian didn’t need to be afraid of violence when she went to church.

This, of course, has not always been the case for the historic black churches in the United States, as Emanuel AME’s own history attests — though most white American Christians did not really notice before last week. As the center of African-American communal life, and often as the focal point of resistance to racist injustice, the black churches have periodically been victimized by violence. And yet I am not aware of any general pattern of African-American churches arming themselves in self-defense.

Perhaps that will change after last week. Certainly a general posture of open hospitality to the stranger could well be threatened.

I keep thinking about one stubborn fact of my own (limited) experience: I have never attended a Christian church that employed armed security, and I have never visited a Jewish synagogue that was not guarded by armed security. I first noticed it at a prosperous synagogue many years ago in northern Virginia, but since then have seen it elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. I will never forget when my wife and I visited the historic Great Synagogue in Rome — where a 2-year-old boy had been murdered, and 34 children injured, in a horrific 1982 attack on a Shabbat service. A machine-gun-toting Italian police officer guarded that synagogue the day we were there. Armed security was certainly present in Jerusalem when I visited a synagogue in that city.

People regularly victimized by violence, including in their holy places, will seek to protect themselves. I cannot fault them for it. I fault those whose crimes have evoked this response.

Bottom line: Mosques, synagogues, churches and other holy places should not require armed security. But sometimes, in our wicked world, they face real threats to the unthreatening people praying there. State officials bear primary responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable. If they won’t or can’t do their job, it is terribly sad but not inappropriate for houses of worship to pay for the level of security required to keep their children and senior citizens from being murdered. This is preferable to the other solution — arming lightly trained or untrained civilians whose weapons probably risk doing far more harm than good.

May none of us ever stop yearning and working for the day when all this killing will end.


Copyright 2015 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be reproduced without written permission.

Hope in Newtown

INNOCENCE LOST: Flowers and gifts were left at the makeshift memorial outside the high school in Newtown, Connecticut, the location of the interfaith vigil attended by President Obama following the mass shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. (Photo: Bill Shettle/Newscom)

In light of the recent tragic events in Newtown, our country has started asking questions. Could stricter gun control laws have prevented this and other tragedies? Has taking God out of school caused Him to go with the “hands off” approach, allowing evil acts to occur? What kind of impact do violent video games have on the psyche of young men and women? Is our nation appropriately dealing with issues of mental health? Where’s the national outrage when kids are killed on the south side of Chicago? All viable questions, but are we asking the right one?

How do we offer hope in a world that becomes increasingly hopeless? President Obama opened his speech in Newtown with a passage from the fourth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth:

“Scripture tells us ‘…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’”

After looking at my Twitter and Facebook feed, one thing was for sure: His words touched a great number of people who tuned in to listen. The president offered words of comfort for a hurting nation. In my Berean zeal, however, I felt like something was missing — the object of our hope. I’m not here to argue the merits of whether or not America is a Christian nation, though increased pluralism tends to suggest otherwise. I do know what hope looks like, though. Hope isn’t some abstract concept. Hope is real; it’s tangible. Hope was wrongly convicted and sentenced to an agonizing death. Hope is found in the Person of Jesus Christ. In fact, that building from God, that eternal house Paul talked about in Scripture the president quotes is built on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As sermonic as President Obama’s speech sounded, I don’t expect politicians to preach in these instances. But when Scripture is quoted to bring hope, especially in this season, we need to take the opportunity to remind everyone of the object of our hope.

Mr. President, I respectfully submit that a few verses earlier in the text would have helped immensely:

“… knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14, ESV).

That’s where our true hope lies: in Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection. The Scriptural language the president used must be contextualized, or the text loses its meaning. Paul was writing to a people who had experienced similar hurts, heartaches, and pains. As a Gentile nation, other gods the Corinthians served offered little solace. But the small community of believers at Corinth could tell another story. Those hurts and pains paled in comparison to the glory that awaited them in Christ Jesus. They had a God who had experienced the same thing. And THAT’S what brings hope. THAT’S why I don’t lose heart in tragedies like this. Regulations are fine. Dialogue on the danger of video games is probably necessary. But we can’t lose sight of this simple, yet profound truth. Jesus Christ is our only hope. He’s the hope of glory. In a season of Advent (i.e. waiting), I echo the words of John as he closes the canon of Scripture — Come, Lord Jesus!

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Life’?

MOTHER AND SON: UrbanFaith’s Christine Scheller with her late son, Gabe.

Would it surprise you to learn that when I describe myself as a pro-lifer, I don’t think it particularly matters what I believe about the legality of abortion? Well, it’s true. In my two opinion posts on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I argued from a pro-life perspective, but the legal battle over abortion is not a priority for me. I believe I have the right to wear the pro-life label, no matter what my position is on the legal issues, because I walked the talk as a nineteen-year-old and because I consistently advocate a life-affirming message.

Perhaps it’s battle fatigue. Like many others, I’m tired of the culture wars and the way they’ve turned friends and family members off to the gospel. Some of the people I love most in this world have either had abortions or have participated in abortion decisions and I increasingly don’t want to be associated with rhetoric that hurts them. Conversely, I hope they don’t want to be associated with unkind, unfair, and untrue rhetoric that hurts me.

I know the legal fight is important, but it’s not one I’ve engaged in other than as a writer (occasionally) and a voter. I’ve never protested at an abortion clinic, attended the annual March for Life in Washington D.C., or volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. I have taught a life skills class to teen moms at an alternative public school though.

When I interviewed a group of Catholic pro-life college students at the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate at Princeton University in 2010, I could not relate at all to their passion for the legal fight. I could, however, entirely relate to conference organizer and Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy’s goal of finding areas of common ground with abortion rights activists. (Check out his five tips for creating civil discourse in an age of polarization here.)

What it means for me to be a pro-lifer now is to be an advocate for a comprehensive ethic of life, one that spans from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. It includes issues like healthcare and immigration reform, extreme poverty, euthanasia, and more.

Ever since my son died by suicide, my first pro-life priority has been suicide prevention. That’s why I was so glad to read that Tony Cornelius, the son of the late Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius, has launched a suicide prevention foundation in memory of his father. “This is a huge, huge issue and it’s an issue that has a veil of shame over it. People are still very uncomfortable with who’s talking about suicide,” Cornelius told EURweb. “Breast cancer at one time was something that was under the table. Women didn’t want to discuss it. AIDS was something that was under the table. No one wanted to discuss it. I mean I think this is an opportunity to bring this to the surface.” That’s a pro-life message, if ever I heard one.

I’m also glad to hear pro-lifers like the Rev. James Martin advocating for stricter gun control laws in response to the Aurora shooting. (There’s common ground to be had here too, according to Craig C. Whitney, author of forthcoming book, Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.) Like me, Martin believes in a “consistent ethic of life.” Writing at the Catholic weekly America about abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and poverty, he said, “All of these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who that person is, no matter at what stage of life that person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is ‘deserving’ of life.”

In an email exchange with Religion News Service reporter David Gibson, Russell D. Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that “we ought not to let the term ‘pro-life’ become so elastic as to lose all meaning.” He charged that “in most cases, the expansion of ‘pro-life’ is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights.” I disagree. Just as the gospel message speaks to all of life, so too a pro-life ethic can and should be all-encompassing.

Movies, Guns, and Violence

As prayer vigils and Sunday services that reflected on the Aurora, Colorado, shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” have receded into the background, discussion has turned to what causes young men to become mass murderers. Before we address this issue, it’s worth stopping again to pray for the families of these 12 people who lost their lives and for the many others who were injured and/or traumatized by the shooting. Perhaps we can even find it within ourselves to pray for the alleged gunman (and his family), as UrbanFaith contributor Rev. Robert Gelinas asked his Denver area congregation to do yesterday. The suspect appeared dazed, and possibly drugged, in court this morning, Yahoo News reported. But, what made him a killer?

Movie Violence

At Charisma, Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, argued that the content of the latest Batman movie cannot be blamed for the tragedy. But Baehr also noted that, although most viewers are either desensitized to or scared by movie violence, “more than 500,000 studies, capped by the latest Dartmouth University study, show that violence in the media influences susceptible youths to commit violence.”

Roger Ebert agreed that it wasn’t the content of the latest Batman installment. Writing at The New York Times, he said, “I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. …Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action.”

However, at The New Yorker, David Denby expressed ambivalence, writing, “Who knows whether the killer … wanted to be a mass murderer like the Joker, or if he was just using the event as a staging ground to render himself immortal. … Whatever his intentions, the sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive.”

At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply — often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.” Waxman also said obsessive fans can lose touch with reality. “Playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse. And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent,” said Waxman.

Fanboy Culture

Because the alleged shooter reportedly died his hair red and identified himself as the Joker at some point Friday, the culpability of “fanboy” culture is worth considering.

“We have a new breed of fanboy, who are more contented by fictitious realities and attack anything that remotely deviates from their film expectations, shattering often overtly fragile sensibilities,” said Levar Polson at Not So Reviews, noting the irrational reactions of some fans following negative reviews of Dark Knight Rises. (The website Rotten Tomatoes was forced to close down its comments section when angry fans leveled death and rape threats at critics who had the nerve to post negative reviews.)

But at Primary Ignition, Rob Siebert defends fanboys, saying, “I’ve been to comic conventions, I’ve been to midnight screenings, I’ve been to autograph signings, and most of the people you see there aren’t violent, cruel or malicious. Some are a little socially awkward, I guess. But that’s the extent of it. … It is still okay to love Batman and superheroes, it is still okay to see The Dark Knight Rises, it’s still okay to be passionate about all that stuff.”

Even movie critic Marshall Fine, who was on the receiving end of some of the most vicious death threats following his negative review of Dark Knight Rises, cautions against making a direct connection between real-life violence and the kind of passion ones sees from fanboys. He writes at The Huffington Post: “It’s the peculiar avidity of the Comic-Con crowd, a passion I don’t particularly share but won’t knock here. … While I’m a little amazed at the size of the response, the intensity of people’s passion for the things they truly love — whether it’s a comic-book movie or a sports team — should never be underestimated. They may not have any actual connection to the thing itself — other than that passion for it — but, to them, it’s personal.” Fine attempts to put matters into their proper context by dismissing his situation as trivial compared to what happened in Aurora: “My 15 minutes are up. Tune in next week when normal life resumes. Except, of course, for the people in Denver.”

Easy Access to Guns

Whatever the psychological and spiritual causes may be, many are calling for stricter gun control laws, including religious leaders. Others are apparently arguing for more liberal concealed weapons laws.

At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asked if Jesus would “pack heat.” She quoted one writer who said gun control is a “pro-life” issue and referenced a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey that found “the most support for stricter [gun] laws came from black Protestants (71%) Catholics (59%) and the unaffiliated (55%)” while “solid opposition was expressed by white evangelical Protestants (60% )” and “mainline Protestants were more divided (47% favor, 51% oppose).”

Patheos blogger Ellen Painter Dollar wants to know “why Christians aren’t bringing the same dedication to talking about guns as we do to other issues, notably abortion and homosexuality.” She said, “Gun control is not about winning or politics or fantasies of well-played vigilante justice. It’s about taking weapons of mass murder out of the hands of those who would use them for ill (such as James Holmes) as well as those who would use them for good but possess the universal human capacity to screw up (such as George Zimmerman).”

At Loop 21, Keli Goff called New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to account for using this tragedy to argue for gun control while “passionately” defending the city’s “stop and frisk” policy that targets people of color—a policy that would have presumably allowed the Aurora killer to “slip through the cracks.”

The Week, like many other outlets, asked if the tragedy will change or reignite the gun control debate. New York Times columnist Gail Collins sounds doubtful, saying advocates (who also tend to be survivors) just keep slogging along in a seemingly hopeless fight. But at Media Matters, Matt Gertz says the media meme that gun control is a no-win issue among Americans is inaccurate. “Polls indicate public support for a broad range of stronger gun restrictions, including the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban,” said Gertz.

What do you think?

Do violent movies and the culture that crops up around them bear any responsibility for this tragedy and will stricter gun control laws help stem the tide of violence?