By Paula Dempsey
The best lack all conviction
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats
The conversation I overheard in the bread aisle of the grocery store about owning handguns had the same demeanor and tone as if the individuals standing there were comparing notes about grandchildren. With pride on their faces they described the handguns they owned as if they were describing their grandchildren’s accomplishments, citing numerical capacities and attractive appearances: “It’s stainless steel, isn’t it?” she asked. Yes, beamed the other.
How the world has changed! Or hasn’t it? I grew up in a home where there were no guns. My father always had to invite a neighbor to bring a gun on hog-killing day in order to accomplish the first task of the slaughtering process. I always assumed he stayed as far away from guns as possible after handling them in World War II and returning home with a Purple Heart for having been shot three times. His experience of guns and war was extremely painful and costly.
When will we as a people of God have our fill of guns and gun violence? With the statistics of violent gun deaths gripping our nation, which are higher than any other advanced country on earth, why aren’t Christians doing our part to end gun violence? Approximately 30,000 people lose their lives to guns in the United States every year. A high percentage of those killed by guns are our children; it is the second-leading cause of death of young people ages 1 to 19 in the United States.
I’ve been a local pastor; I know the diversity of political persuasion and theological interpretation that exists in the local church. I know how local churches are challenged to make budget and keep providing the programs and ministries that in many communities are the only safety net for the most vulnerable. I know many of those sitting in our pews are gun owners. And on Sunday I look out wondering how many are packing a pistol while receiving Communion.
Or do they leave their pistols at home when they go to church? If so, why? What about Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston? Are Christians more concerned with the Second Amendment to the Constitution than with Jesus’ Second Commandment of loving neighbor? Do we have more faith in our handguns than in God?
The Alliance of Baptists partners with Faith United to Prevent Gun Violence, and in 2012 adopted a statement on guns and gun violence, but positions don’t mean much as long as our local congregations are silent. What we need are churches and church people of conviction who are willing to speak up and talk about the political, ethical and moral issues of gun violence affecting us all. “Change comes from congregations that decide to live by the ethics of Jesus Christ,” offers M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary.
One such pastor who has spoken up is Rob Schenck, evangelical minister and founder of Faith and Action, a Washington-based outreach organization. His ministry is recorded in the film, The Armor of Light. There director Abigail Disney partners with Schenck to demonstrate the theological inconsistencies among Christians who are pro-gun. The film with its accompanying study guides is a fantastic tool to aid congregations and communities in having this urgent conversation.
Featured in the film is Lucy McBath, a mother whose son was lost to gun violence, taking on the “stand your ground” laws. This courageous mother willing to fight against the “shoot first” mentality, was standing behind President Obama in the East Room of the White House last week as he announced executive actions he was taking to address the escalating gun violence in our nation.
Rob Schenck and Lucy McBath know personally the cost and pain associated with gun violence. Actually, national statistics indicate one-third of us know persons who have been shot. Why aren’t we holding conversations in our churches and communities about the pain and cost of our gun-carrying culture? Why aren’t we talking in church about how much guns factor into our lives, our thinking, our spirituality? Such conversations could aid in changing social norms. Such conversations might spare yet another family enormous pain and cost. Where are our congregations of conviction?