A Grown-Up Conversation on Guns

In the weeks following the Newtown shootings, there were calls for a “conversation” about guns.  I always find it funny when folks talk about having a conversation, because it never means what I think it should mean.  I’m envisioning something like one of those old PBS shows from the 70s where men in serious suits debate the issues of the day.  Maybe even in British accents.

But in reality, a “conversation” on anything is less a reasoned debate than it is someone want to vent their spleen and shut the other person down.  You’d think the church would be a place where we could reason together and have a serious conversation about guns where we listened to each other instead of trying to prove our side is on the side of angels.  But of course, you would be foolish to think the church could bring a level of civility and deep thought, especially when you read stuff like this:

April 20, 1999, changed my life. I was on the scene within minutes after the shootings broke out at Columbine High School. I spent the day as a victim’s assistant, was the first face that many students and faculty members saw after being evacuated from the building, and was certainly traumatized myself by the senseless carnage and terror of the event. From that day and into the weeks that followed, I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and pain. As the lead pastor of what was described as a “ground zero” congregation, “Columbine,” as the event would be known, became a part of who I was.

Whether speaking with the media in the aftermath of the event, preaching at specially called worship services, or being called upon to speak in places like Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Blacksburg, I shared a very thoughtful message I had honed entitled, “Lessons from Columbine: A Theological Perspective.” My voice in the aftermath was to address the stubborn questions that surfaced immediately, such as, “How could God let this happen?” I would also speak to the difficulties communities had in finding healing after such an event. In response to the God question, I would use Luther’s theology of the cross and reframe the question into proclaiming the very presence of God in the tragedy. “God took a bullet and died in the halls of Columbine.” I would point to the empty tomb and the power of God to raise up the dead and communities who grieve. When asked about guns, I would give an answer that was not as thoughtful. “I call for a national meltdown of all weapons.” I even tweeted that mantra in the hours after the recent massacre in the theater in Aurora. Never did I get at the heart of the matter as Jim Atwood has. Again, I wish I had written Atwood’s book.

Atwood reminds us that when President Bush addressed the community at Virginia Tech, he said that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Actually, they were in the right place at the correct time. They were doing what college students do—going to class. The students were shot because of the “Empire” and the “principalities and powers” (cf. Ephesians 6:12) created by America’s love affair with violence, guns, and power. This obsession has created in our minds enemies we have to fear, cemented a God-given calling to arm ourselves, and raised weapons that kill to idolatrous levels. The result is a culture in which guns—even weapons that have no purpose other than to kill—are readily available to anyone. In the 17-year period between 1979 and 1997, there were 651,697 deaths by guns in America. This is more than the number of all US servicemen and women who have died in all of our wars since 1775. The belief in guns and their proliferation is such that a child in the United States is twelve times more likely to die from a gunshot wound than in 25 other industrial nations combined. Between 1997 and 2007, there were 41 separate school shootings in the US—Columbine plus 40 others.  

Now it’s important to hear the story of a pastor as he tries to offer God’s love in the midst of such a tragedy as Columbine.  But this essay is not helpful when talking about guns.  Barger launches on a rant that calls for “a national meltdown of all weapons,” and then cites from the book he is reviewing about how Virginia Tech happened because of “Empire,” and also ties in the violence of early white settlers, as if that can explain the spate in recent shootings.

I also stumbled upon two other articles by Christians that were of no help.  Shane Clairborne goes into a long talk about the myth of redemptive violence and what Jesus might say to the NRA.  (I can tell you that I knew the answer without reading a word.) Bill Leonard talks about the idolatry of guns in America.  There is some truth to his writings, but like the others he misses an important point.

Now, I think it is important to talk about the dark side of gun ownership, because like everything in life, every freedom has chains.

The problem with the church and mainline churches in particular when they talk about guns is that it is hopelessly one dimensional.  The rhetoric tends to be guns are bad and those that use guns are potential murders and idolotrous.  What is never taken into account are the millions of people that use guns for hunting or have guns through concealed-carry laws.  We don’t have to agree with hunting or run out and get a concealed-carry permit, but it would be nice if for once church folks didn’t just offer knee jerk reactions that we hear time and time again.  Do we need better gun laws?  Yes.  But can we do this without demonizing people who use guns safely, the people who might actually be sitting in our pews and active in the life of the church?

The chatter about guns from mainline Christians reminds me of how some conservative Christians view sex.  Instead of trying to hear all sides of the issue and then grapple with the issue asking God for guidence, many conservatives just go to sex is bad.

What I wish the church would do is actually foster discussion on issues.  We like to think we do this, but let me tell you, Mars Hill we are not.  More often than not, discussions are more times where those who agree gather to agree how right they are.  We need to hear about the gun violence that is destroying our inner cities, like my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  But we also need to hear from the hunters or the people who go to the shooting range.  As Christians we need to discern how solve this issue without resorting to name calling.

I don’t know how that gets started, but I’d be happy to see it.

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