Whenever a headline breaks about a mass-killing I must admit, I become a bit unhinged. I become so deeply heartbroken at more loss of life and the reality that we still have done nothing to prevent or reduce these occurrences and it boils to a sort of rage. I read my social media, largely filled with Conservative Christians from the molds of Evangelicalism I grew up with, arguing their perspectives. It breaks me down. It hurts. I usually post a frenzy of statuses about the inconsistencies I see between these arguments and the Christ we all follow. And as a result, lots of folks get upset or offended. They feel judged by my words. They feel personally addressed when I say our culture of violence and gun idolatry is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I understand the need for ambiguity here. I was raised around guns and target shooting as a family outing. I know the bonding that can be had over hunting or sitting in a stand in the middle of the woods. I know the power of shooting an AR and the awesomeness of watching a watermelon explode. I know why people would carry a gun out of fear of being attacked. I know that we live in a culture where it’s hard to feel safe when headline after headline of mass casualties appear. We think about what we would do in such a situation? Sometimes the only alternative seems to be to put hope in that Scout’s pledge: “Be prepared.”
I understand this. I may talk and talk against it, but I empathize with it. I don’t fault people for reaching this conclusion. It’s part of our nature to protect ourselves, it’s part of our nature to want to protect others and be alert should something, or someone, try to attack us. I must admit over the years I’ve been put through the grinder on this topic. Once a strong proponent of more guns means less violence, my understandings began to shift when I started to study the world of Jesus’ day; how violent it was, how similar to our own American landscape it was or the philosophies of the Roman Empire were, and how Jesus and his apostles responded. While the conclusion that I’ve come to greatly mirrors pacifism, I don’t expect others to so quickly jump on board. But I do think that as Christians there are things we are called to do when faced with cultures of death like our own.
The common question of “What would Jesus do?” is often our navigation for discourse. However fortunate or unfortunate it may be, Jesus was faced with many of the dilemmas we find ourselves in today. People wanted to kill him and his followers. Religious radicals, citizens with clubs, even the government. In fact, several of Christ’s apostles were zealots; the violent opposition to the empire. We can even deduce that several of them carried swords as they walked with Christ. So do I have the right to say that you cannot be armed to defend yourself? The honest answer is…I don’t know.
In my arguments I’m not dying on that hill. I struggle with pacifism. Do I really believe God is asking me to lay down my life in the situation of an attacker to save my friends or family? In truth, I do think the text asks this of us. That the greatest form of love written in the scriptures is not killing for your friends, but laying your life down for them. I look at Christ and see a man who absorbed the violence of the world into himself and returned no violence in the process. I see the apostles who many of whom were martyrs in situations where they could not run away from those who wished them harm. The early church didn’t simply die as a statement about Jesus being LORD. They died submitting to the example of Christ. Because when Jesus said love your enemies, I don’t think he meant to kill them.
But again, I hold this all with tension. To me, a weapon is a sign that you’ve forsaken hope. That you’ve set aside the calls of God and the hope of the apostles. That “Whom then shall I fear!” kind of hope. To me our gospel calls us to confront violence with peace. To even allow violence to damage us so that our peace and our unwillingness to return violence can expose the harm done to us as the evil that it really is, and in so doing illustrate to others the need for their repentance. Is this not the cross? Is this not our salvation? That we had our violent sin projected back to us when Christ willingly laid down his life for us?
See, as Christians, we know we are not powerless. We know we are not hopeless. This is what allows us to live differently than everyone else in the world. Yet we get swept up into nationalism and become victims of propaganda and we forsake the truth and the power of the gospel. That the gospel is what brings salvation, not the gun.
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. -Psalm 20:7
When faced down with the violent culture of Rome, the early Christians did not give into fear and take up arms. They looked at the empty tomb and moved forward with their hope to end such violent cultures by not destroying their enemies but by loving them. In America violence is strength. We claim on our currency “In God We Trust!” as we stockpile our homes with assault weapons. We claim we are the land of the free as we walk around in public constantly having to fear whether or not we might be gunned down by a deranged lunatic. We claim we are the home of the brave as we hold more weapons than any nation in the world. Americans own nearly half of the world’s civilian owned guns. We are a culture of death not a culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
See we still are seeped into a theology that largely removes us from confrontation. That puts us on the sidelines waiting for the return of Christ to come and fix it all. We abuse the message of Revelation to say this whole thing is about going somewhere else when in actuality Revelation talks about the somewhere else being made home here. The one single prayer Jesus instructed us to pray included these words: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Do we really believe that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven when we introduce bigger and more destructive weapons into humanity? When people of a nation are so fearful and hopeless of violence that they must take up arms? Do we think all of those in heaven are walking around with AR-15’s? I certainly do not. And so I will use my hope of heaven to unravel the systems and theologies of violence in this world. Because I believe the Kingdom is at hand. That Christ has appointed a body to be the Kingdom now. And that we forsake this hope and this truth, we forsake the entire movement of Jesus, when we buy into the propaganda of our politicians and groups like the NRA. Groups that tell us our hope is in being armed with the biggest and baddest guns and not the empty tomb of our Savior.
The other night Stephen Colbert spoke a prophetic truth:
Now this hopelessness, this powerlessness you feel when nothing gets done is something we can’t give into. Because I actually think that there are some people, some truly evil people out there, who want you to feel powerless just for a buck. Because if you feel powerless enough you know what might make you feel powerful? Going to buy a gun… It’s a vicious cycle. Violence happens, nothing happens to get rid of the guns and people buy more guns to protect themselves and now there’s just more guns out on the street. And yes this guy wasn’t supposed to buy a gun but he could, because they’re on the market; these semi-automatic rifles.
I believe such evil exists as well. We cannot dismantle a culture of violence with addition. As Jesus so truly spoke, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. A nation that puts their hope and security in guns will die by guns. Addition is not our hope. Our hope is the reduction of weapons. A world without violence is the impossible movement. That’s what Heaven signifies to us. The “impossible” hopes that we are called to work towards. We don’t have any reason to fear because the LORD is on our side. May we weep with those who weep to reflect the agony of how far we have fallen.
The salvation of “Jesus is Lord” was the subversion of the violent salvation of “Caesar is Lord.” He was calling the world to move away from death and into life.
Can we lean into this hope again?
Can we be a people of such passionate faith in the promises of heaven, that we unravel the systems and cultures of violence by being brave enough to not take part in them.
May grace and peace and the hope instilled in us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ be with you.
( The Holcombe family lost 10 family members in the Texas Church Shooting. You may help support them by donating to this fundraiser: https://www.gofundme.com/texasshootingfamily )