More than 228,000 children in the United States have been exposed to gun violence at school in the past 20 years. Since 2013, schools have experienced at least 450 incidents of gunfire on their grounds with 179 deaths (including 33 suicides) and 250 injuries.
Yet, many Christians are still reluctant to support even modest gun control measures. Others are among the most ardent supporters for carrying guns, not only in schools, but also in churches. Only 38 percent of evangelicals support stricter gun laws. In fact, one Georgia Baptist pastor went so far as to argue that legislation that would allow guns in churches is a “a sanctity of human life issue.” A Kentucky Baptist church had a gun giveaway to attract more men to church.
In America, gun violence is the second leading cause of death for children. An average of 51 children are shot every day, and 2,900 children die annually from gunshots.
In recent weeks, gunmen have opened fire on classrooms at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. In each incident, a student died trying to stop the shooter. These students have been hailed as heroes, but I have to wonder: in what kind of world do we ask young people to throw themselves in front of bullets to protect their classmates?
There are now more guns than people in the United States. I wonder if we don’t love guns more than we love God or other people.
“Gun violence is the second leading cause of death for children.”
I’m not talking about Constitutional rights here. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to allow a broad range of gun ownership. The vast majority of us can own all the guns we want.
What I’m asking is if the Constitutional right to own guns might be in direct conflict with the Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbor, protect human life and prioritize the vulnerable.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus made clear that God’s people were to protect children:
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:1-6, NRSV)
And a chapter later:
Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Mark tells us this story in chapter 9: “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
“In what kind of world do we ask young people to throw themselves in front of bullets to protect their classmates?”
Liberation theologies understand Jesus as one who sides with the oppressed through identification with them. Jesus is imagined as a member of an oppressed class. We imagine a poor Jesus, a black Jesus, an immigrant Jesus, a queer Jesus, a woman Jesus. These school shootings lead me to imagine Jesus as a schoolchild who lies dying on the floor of a public school from gunshot wounds.
The research is clear. Owning guns does not protect us against crime. We are much more likely to be shot or to shoot a loved one with our guns than we are to shoot an intruder. The research is also clear that stricter access to guns lowers the number of shootings.
Easy access to guns means schoolchildren die from gunshots. Do we love children enough to put our guns aside?
Supporters of unfettered gun access often frame the problem as one of bad or mentally ill individuals who carry out these shootings. The solution in that case is to deal with the individuals in question. “Guns don’t kill people,” they argue. “People kill people.”
The problem isn’t individual, however. It’s systemic. School shooters are overwhelmingly white and male. In fact, most gun violence in the U.S. is perpetrated by men and boys, and white men are the majority of gun owners.
Masculinity in this country is constructed to focus on power and domination, and guns can make aggrieved white men feel powerful.
We need to ask why the pressures of masculinity make so many men feel like they need a gun to feel like real men. We should examine the ways we’ve internalized beliefs about power, danger and violence. In particular, churches should take note of how they have prioritized masculine power in the pulpit and in the pews.
Guns are not about our love of freedom, country, Constitution or Jesus. Guns are about our love of power.
“Guns are about our love of power.”
Guns make people, especially men, feel powerful. The average citizen does not need a handgun or a semi-automatic assault rifle. But in a changing culture that has challenged male entitlement and questioned traditional masculinity, guns can restore a sense of power.
The Gospel calls us to give up that kind of power and violence. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1:27). In his second letter as he writes about his “thorn in the flesh,” he recounts God’s words to him: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul continues, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (1 Corinthians 12:9-10, NRSV).
The argument that Christians must heed, therefore, is not the argument for Constitutional rights but Paul’s argument that sometimes we should give up things we have a right to – including our guns – for the sake of others.
Especially the children.