One of the subjects of discussion around the parish this week has been the issue of gun control. The map showing the sites of shootings has been popular around the parish Facebook pages, and a few of you have had some passionate discussions about gun control and the Second Amendment on your pages and over coffee or drinks. Yes, the map over-exaggerated the number of Sandy Hook-like shootings, but even one more shooting at a school is too many for most. The cause of this passion, of course, is we have seen two more school shootings reported in the last week or so. Some fear that it is only a matter of time before we experience a shooting in our community; others worry that efforts to control gun access will limit their ability to protect their families in the case of just such emergencies. Everybody wants to believe they are in the right on the discussion. Naturally, that involves trying to figure out what God teaches on the subject. I am one of the pastors in the lives of many of the people who pass through these doors so, naturally, I have been peppered with a number of questions and been sucked into one very passionate discussion as a result of expressing my thoughts to an individual who attends another church. Her pastor was furious about my thoughts. Not many of you have gone away certain about the proper response to these shootings, and that is good. The issues are complex, to say the least; and, suffice it to say, what may be right for me or mine may not be for you or yours. What’s worse, while we find ourselves engaged in a secular debate and a Christian discussion, neither of those fights, from my perspective, address the real cause of these shootings.
As Americans, of course, we have enshrined in our Constitution the Right to Bear Arms. The courts have generally held that, barring some sort of criminal past or mental illness, that right is unassailable. As Americans, we also believe that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many of our secular fights occur when these rights seem to be in conflict with one another, as we see evidenced in the press about gun control. Does my right to own a weapon infringe upon your right to safety? Does the limit of my right to own a gun inhibit my ability to protect my liberty or my life? Those are the kinds of questions swirling around in this debate on the secular side. These are not idle discussions as both sides can point to the Constitution to justify their rights. Naturally, though, you and I are not just concerned with American rights and privileges. As St. Paul reminds us, our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom.
What does God say about gun control or the right to bear arms? Not very much specifically. Those of us who claim Christ as Lord would probably still fight about it even if there was a teaching or two in the torah. We are not permitted to kill other human beings, except under very specific circumstances such as war, and then, as Christians, we often like to think our wars are necessary evils to preserve us or to protect the weak. God places a tremendous value upon human life, even to the point of not allowing manslaughter more than once (Deuteronomy 22:8 comes to mind). That should not surprise those of who believed He died to save us from our sins. But He also gave us dominion over the creatures of the earth. We talk a lot about being good stewards of our resources around here. Usually, that means turning off the lights when they are not in use, not over-using the car when walking will work, not littering, being mindful of our water use, and other such efforts. Those of us who have lived where deer look at landscaping as a buffet, or experienced the ravages of wild boars, or other clashes with wildlife or even seen the result of their overpopulation, however, can understand how it can be claimed sincerely that hunting is part of our stewardship of the earth.
Many times over the last dozen years or so, I have spoken with Christians of good conscience who believe the right to bear arms to be unassailable and to those who believe that there should be limits on that right. In our own congregation, there are a number of individuals who bore arms, and continue so to do, as protectors of our freedom. Likewise, we have had members of the police force, the fire department, and EMTs who have chosen to carry a weapon, both in the line of duty and out. Certainly those who served in the military or as first responders represent a selfless sacrifice called for by our Lord. Indeed, those individuals have been willing to die not just for loved ones, but for total strangers.
There are, however, a number of people within our faith who take to heart the understanding that, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Some even go to the extreme of not worrying too much about theft as the thieves are really stealing from God. Heck, a couple of those who once protected us now no longer posses any weapons. Some outside the congregation might be surprised that such radical pacifism exists within an American church, but it has been an honored and accepted position throughout the history of the Church in America.
So, what’s the answer from the perspective of God? It being the week of Trinity Sunday, perhaps God’s position would be that we (the Church) have done a bad job of evangelizing the world around us. I say that in the sense that the world around us is absolutely split, and in some places quite vociferous, about the competing positions. We seem to be good at doing anything but reflecting the unity of the Godhead. Do not misunderstand me, I do not think our prayerfully discerned answers rise to the level of affecting our salvation. We manage to incorporate people who enjoy guns for sport, for provision, and for protection with people who will never accept one in their homes into this parish. We manage even to incorporate individuals whose positions have reversed at different times in their lives without the call of “hypocrite!” in our life together. Some have given up guns when children entered the picture or as they aged; others have chosen to arm themselves to protect their children or their loved one as they aged. Had we as Christians done a better job of growing the kingdom of God in the world around us, though, perhaps people in the world would tolerate the different perspectives as well in the world as we seem to do at St. Alban’s. Perhaps we would be further along discerning the will and unity of our Lord.
While I doubt St. Peter will be checking to see whether we possessed an NRA license when we passed from this life into glory, I do think that how we live and how we communicate as this debate rages around us testifies to our personal understanding of our salvation and our freedom. With one colleague outside our denomination this week I found myself listening to someone who was effectively telling me that our authorities could pry his guns from his cold, dead fingers. In fairness to him, a member of his church had asked me my opinion about the issue (she wanted to know how many sermons I had preached on gun rights), and, from his perspective, I had left her with questions rather than giving her his answer (that silly red door). I asked him if that was really his position and what he taught his congregation in the context of the sermon. When he proudly declared that he did, and I mentioned Jesus’ turning of the other cheek or offering the cloak as well, well, the fight was on!
As our passionate discussion cooled somewhat over the minutes, I did ask what he and his congregation were trying so desperately to protect. Essentially, it centered around the American belief in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In his mind, any attempt to limit gun access is an attack on those rights. I did understand that. Some of you agree with that sentiment. But as I have asked some of you, I asked him: What is the most important thing that we have as Christians? Without pausing, he answered the assurance of salvation. I paused and asked him to pardon me for how this next question was going to sound, but I wanted to know how his boisterous and, at times confrontational, “my church is a fortress of God” and the “cold, dead fingers” represent a people who valued their salvation above all else?
And there’s our problem as Christians and as Americans in this debate. As Americans, we are always engaged in that balance between our rights and the rights of others. When they are seen to infringe upon one another is when we have debates such as those raging about gun control right now. As Christians, though, we can make the claim that gun ownership can serve a godly purpose. There is nothing wrong with protecting ourselves or our loved ones. Assuming all protections are taken, there is nothing unholy about target shooting. Even hunting can be argued to be supporting our God-given mandate to be stewards of the earth. We can also make the claim that radical pacifism imitates our Lord’s willingness to accept the judgment of Pilate. We can choose a path of radical pacifism certain that we will live for eternity with the Lord. So who is wrong?
Rather than try to figure out some via media in this discussion, I would like to suggest that our swirling debates do a magnificent job of avoiding the real problem or problems behind the shootings. Not all, but a number of these shootings seem to involve people in some sort of diminished capacity. Sometimes, passions and hurts can override judgment. There is little other than a waiting time that can prevent those tragedies. But many of the shootings are perpetrated by someone demonstrating or diagnosed with a mental illness. In our discussions around here, people have often noted that the shooters could not possibly have been in their “right mind” or “off” in order to hurt or kill so many people, especially children. For several decades now, we as a country have been, in a way, balancing the healthcare cost books on the backs of the mentally ill. As a pastor who serves the mentally ill, some of whom are members of this parish, I can testify firsthand to the difficulty we have getting care for those who really want it and for those whom we know really need it but do not want it. In that uniquely American effort to balance the rights of the mentally ill with the rights of those around them, we are much slower to institutionalize or force medications upon some and loathe to extend the help needed to others who recognize the need. According to the CDC’s own estimates, we now live in an age where fewer than 1/2 of all those who suffer from serious mental illness receive any treatment (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus09.pdf#sthash.OPvY1xb5.dpuf 2011). More than half! And while the economy may not be creating many jobs, it seems to be very good at increasing the numbers of those suffering from mental illness. The most recent study of the link between poverty and mental illness suggests that those living below the poverty line are 3x more likely to suffer from serious mental illness than their counterparts living at 2x the poverty line (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus11.pdf #sthash.OPvY1xb5.dpuf 2012).
What else does poverty do? One of the tragic consequences is that it takes away hope. Ever wondered why God repeatedly reminds His people that He loves the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the marginalized? Each of those conditions causes a disconnect from society which, among other things, causes them to lose hope. Once we lose hope, once we become convinced that no one could ever love us, once we become dehumanized in our own minds, there is very little evil that cannot creep into them.
What about the fact that some of the shooters came from privilege? I would argue that, in most of those cases, the poverty extends to the family system in which the individuals were raised. Now, I base this on press reports and interviews of those who purport to “know” the shooters or their families, so it is by no means scientific. But consider this: children are more likely than ever in the history of this country not to be raised by both parents; children from this generation are more likely to live in families where both parents (or parent and step-parent) work; children in this generation have been raised, and have witnessed, that marriages and families are as interchangeable as jobs. To further complicate matters, and to illustrate our conflict of secular rights, how many movies and games express the violence displayed in the actions of these perpetrators? We pretend as a society to be shocked when a marginalized youth, often left to his own devices for hours at a time, turns to violence. Through in our culture of fame, where all that matters is that one gets their name in the news cycle, and we have a mucky recipe for disaster. The combustable fuels are already in place and we pretend to be surprised when the match is lit and causes an explosion.
So, what is the answer. If this was as simple as passing a law that restricted gun ownership, those major metropolitan areas that have embraced strict gun laws would stand out as shining examples for us to copy in our approach. If this was as simple as limiting the types of video games played, some of these tragedies would never have occurred. Their failure ought to tell us something. Our responses to tragedies also should inform us a bit. Why is it we as a society are so shocked at a school shooting but blasé about a teenager’s suicide? Why is it we as a society are quick to embrace and amazingly vocal in our discussions about gun rights after a tragic shooting, but were we slothfully slow to embrace driving restrictions for those who drank too much alcohol, now use too much legalized marijuana, or even suffer from mental illness? Why is it, as a society, we agonize over these tragic school shootings in public manners, yet few of us get up in arms when a child is injured or burned in fireworks accidents? For some reason, society seems only to value certain kinds of deaths, certain kinds of injuries, and certain kinds of loss.
You and I, of course, serve a God who would draw all to Himself. We serve a God who knows the outcast teen contemplating horrific acts of violence as well as he knows the teenage girl who wants to make a sacrifice to the Slenderman as well as He knows you or me and as well as He knew David. No one is beneath His notice. No one is beyond His love. Living out that truth is where things get complicated. Truthfully, I think the daunting scope of the task has paralyzed the Church in the face of the job ahead. How many of us churches are creating safe spaces of fellowship for our youth? How many of our youth are inviting those “uncool” kids? How many of us churches are creating safe places fellowship for single moms or single dads, places where they can express their frustrations and senses of failure or success? How many of us churches are truly attacking poverty in the location our Lord has planted us? Do we feed the hungry, do we clothe the poor, do we give hope in time of need, do we share the love and joy of knowing our Redeemer lives and has already prepared a place for us? How many of us churches speak against those societal ills which dehumanize others? Once we come to believe that one is truly beneath us, it becomes far more easy to delude ourselves into thinking that many are beneath us. How many of us churches encourage discussion about contentious issues such as this? How many of us in the churches directly affected by these tragedies have done critical self-evaluations? How many of us churches in those affected communities reached out to those impacted by the tragedies? To those whose family members of shooters who needed to hear that they, too, are loved by God? How many of us churches actually both to pray to God to end the violence, to protect our youth, and to uphold those on our margins?
I stated about that we in the Church have done a bad job reflecting the unity and will of our Lord and that we have done a poor job of sharing God’s love. You and I will have all kinds of opportunities to participate in the public discussions about gun rights and school shootings in the weeks months and years ahead. I encourage all Christians to participate fully in that process. But as we engage that process, whatever we think is the solution, let us pray before we speak. Let us honor our Lord, who went willingly for each one of us to that cross on Calvary. Gun rights advocates are not by definition war mongers. Those who want to repeal the Second Amendment are not by definition hippies. Both those who share our opinions and those who differ from our opinions are as loved by God as we. Let’s keep that foremost in our minds and, in so doing, honor Him who sends us into the world.
Let us also remember that all those affected by the tragedies are also loved by God. Each time a child needlessly lost his or her life, our Lord cried. Each time a family member blamed himself or herself for the decisions of their loved one, our Lord sought to comfort them. Each time a social worker or psychiatrist or other blamed themselves for missing a signal, our Lord mourned. Each time someone blames themselves for not doing enough, our Lord would comfort them. There is enough blame to go around. The world will make sure of that. We need to make sure that the world knows there is far more grace, far more mercy available than blame. Better yet, the world needs to know that in the midst of death and tragedy, there can still be sung an alleluia.