Should we all be wearing body armor, or bulls-eyes? Gun violence is epidemic in certain neighborhoods of major cities, including my own, where I have learned what semi-automatic handguns sound like (five or so shots in a row, steadily-paced, one after the other, 1.5 per second). But as long as we weren’t gang members engaged in drug trafficking, we could tell ourselves that our chances of getting shot were slim, somewhere comparable to getting hit by lightning. That’s probably still true. But it doesn’t feel that way, not after the recent deaths in Minneapolis of innocent children, caught in the cross-fire of personal feuds and gang warfare. The only thing one child did to get shot was to sleep on his family’s sofa. And now comes word of the horrific massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, CO.
I’m currently reading the work of a theologian who wants us to think of sin as a matter of human finitude, that is, of our limitations compared to God, for which the remedy is humility and wisdom, rather than as a moral and spiritual corruption, for which the remedy is repentance, rebirth and spiritual/moral regeneration. In light of the recent headlines, that theologian strikes me as very naïve.
In response to the cineplex massacre, we’ll point fingers in many directions: a culture that glorifies guns and violence, un-treated mental illness and our society’s reluctance to treat it, lax gun laws that allow people to acquire weapons and ammunition of the speed and power that make such massacres possible, or even gun laws that didn’t allow enough people to be packing heat and fire back. I expect some state and local legislators will even propose legislation mandating that we all carry handguns. Such legislation has been proposed, though defeated, in Idaho and South Dakota.
The cineplex killer, however, was wearing body armor, head to groin. And the addition of each new gun (there are already 300 million in our homes and hands) only adds to the fear that drives us to buy more guns. If guns could make us live “at peace and without fear,” (Micah 4:4) which is what God promises, the sheer number and firepower of the weaponry on our streets and in our homes should have accomplished that by now. Where does this cycle of fear and personal armament end?
The cycle stops with me. I can respect a hunter who owns and uses a rifle for deer or a shotgun for wildfowl. Hunting is as much about discipline, restraint and responsibility, as it is about killing. In the spirit of Romans 13, I can understand guns as tools of law enforcement (though I keep hoping for something non-lethal). But why anyone outside of a trained SWAT team officer should have automatic assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns with 30-bullet clips is beyond me. Why does the right to own such high-powered weaponry outweigh anyone’s right to life?
You may argue that law alone won’t stop the cycle of madness and mayhem, and I would agree. This is finally a religious issue, one that requires revulsion, repentance and regeneration. For the gun is more than a tool of hunting, foreign policy or law enforcement. It is a religious icon, more than that, an idol. And idols hold powerful sway over their devotees. Like all gods, true or false, idols remake their worshipers into their image.
The gun, as an idol, promises power, security, status, worth, love, even redemption and salvation to the one who wields it, the very things that God promises in the Bible to his saints. The gun-wielding images of Angelina Jolie or of James Bond figures in motion picture publicity are every bit the powerful religious symbols as are the icons and statues of saints in Catholic or Orthodox religious art, even if the meanings are totally opposite.
The prophets through whom God promised peace and security also lived in a world of violence and menacing weaponry. We today, like the prophets in the no-man’s land between Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires, must meet firepower with faith power, to overcome the love of power with the power of love. For the disciple of Christ, what’s at stake is not whether we live or die, but whether we display to the world the power of the Prince of Peace, who, when forced to choose, chose a cross over a sword.
But let’s get practical. Since neither guns nor God-talk alone ever solve anything, this is a time for action, to make our homes and streets and shopping centers safer, in advance of that day when perfect security is established on streets of gold. Fortunately, God and his saints have been at work already, and you can see some practical ideas for “taking it to the streets,” at http://www.mcc.org/FearNot/communities. While guns and the fear of them is driving us apart, into increasing isolation and fragmentation, this is a time to be drawing together. Now is when people are ready to hear and consider something other than the fear-mongering of the political left and right. Perhaps “for such a time as this” is a Mennonite Church worshiping in a neighborhood where shots are fired several times a week http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@mpd/documents/webcontent/wcms1p-095909.pdf
and where sidewalk shrines to gunshot victims can be found in a four-block radius.
Please check out the MCC resource on the link above and reply to this post with your thoughts, to let us know how we can move along the process of revulsion, repentance and regeneration against these idols of steel, wood and plastic, and their insaciable appetite for human sacrifice.
As for me, I refuse to give in to the fear that some would address by weaponizing their homes, their car or their bodies. I choose to live unarmed, physically, and, by God’s grace, I’m working at the disarmament of my soul and spirit, divesting myself of defensiveness, self-justification, us-and-them thinking, greed, blaming, shaming and other forms of fear-based thinking.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Mathew Swora