Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my Lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are wicked. They said to me, ‘Make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Texas Rangers requested parents of the third and fourth graders killed in the Uvalde massacre to provide DNA swabs in order to identify the bodies of their children. “The bodies were too shot up,” one source reported. Some of them were unrecognizable. That’s what AR-15 style rifles do to a human body.
Al Sharpton, who gave the eulogy at the funeral of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield after the Buffalo grocery store massacre, reported her family was forced to have the body cremated because it was so disfigured by the AR-15 used by her white supremacist assassin. Their grief was compounded by the firearm’s battlefield trajectory.
The New York Times cited James R. Gill, chief medical examiner for the state of Connecticut: “A high-powered firearm can cause very devastating injuries and can make identification challenging from a visual point of view.” DNA testing, he noted, “is not only more accurate, but it also spares parents the trauma of having to view photos like the ones that were shown to parents after 20 children were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.”
On June 2, barely a week after Uvalde, a gunman killed four people in a Tulsa hospital after buying an AR-15-style firearm that very day. One of the dead was Preston Phillips, an African American physician who had performed back surgery on the shooter, whose continuing pain apparently led him to take that action. Another physician, a hospital employee, and a patient also died, collateral damage of the shooter’s wrath.
On June 2, literally three minutes after President Biden’s response to the barrage of mass shootings, a man with a 9 mm handgun murdered two women outside Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa, where a student Bible study was under way. The shooter had been charged with sexual harassment of one of the women only days before.
It didn’t end there. During the weekend of June 3-5, some 17 people died and at least 69 were wounded in multiple mass shootings across the U.S. (Mass shooting defined: four or more persons killed or wounded.) The list included:
- June 3, a retired Wisconsin judge shot and killed in his home, in what authorities called a “targeted act” by a man he sentenced to a six-year prison term in 2005. The shooter, who killed himself at the scene, also targeted three other government officials.
- June 4, eight people shot at a graduation party in South Carolina, one dead and seven wounded, six of them 17 or younger.
- June 4, “several active shooters” fired into a large crowd of late-night revelers in Philadelphia. Three people died, two from gunshots and one struck by a vehicle while fleeing the scene.
- June 5, 14 people were injured by “multiple shooters” near a nightclub in Chattanooga. Three people died, two with gunshots, and one struck by a car while escaping the shooting. In today’s mass shootings, you can die from gunshots or attempting escape.
- Already, 246 mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. this year, averaging 11 per week since Jan. 1.
“The murder of children in Uvalde prompted many to ask if it is time to show such broken, disfigured bodies as evidence of the destruction caused by assault weapons.”
The murder of children in Uvalde prompted many to ask if it is time to show such broken, disfigured bodies as evidence of the destruction caused by assault weapons. David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, confessed: “Couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago, but it’s time — with the permission of a surviving parent — to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like. Maybe only then will we find the courage for more than thoughts and prayers.”
Writing in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb disagrees, commenting, “While this thinking is understandable, it is probably misguided, and potentially self-defeating. Showing such images could cause the sympathetic public to avoid media coverage of these incidents; for those who do look, it might risk inuring them to the terrible nature of gun violence.” He calls publishing the images of victims “a step backward,” changing few minds, while “allowing the murderers to inflict harm not simply through their debased actions but by the very evidence those actions leave behind.”
In America 2022, although sociologists suggest mass shootings are statistically “relatively rare,” anywhere we go in this country we could be shot. Every locale can become a “wrong place, wrong time” disaster zone.
Given that harsh reality, shouldn’t we all get swabbed for DNA, in order to help our grieving families avoid the enduring memory of disfigurements resulting from assault weapons, the guns of choice for so many? Such massacres will doubtless continue since there appears no legislative indication that assault-style weapons will be banned, or, in many states, even limited to persons 21-years-old or older.
“Given that harsh reality, shouldn’t we all get swabbed for DNA?”
The U.S. House of Representatives seems prepared to pass a bill prohibiting sale of assault weapons to persons under 21 years; make gun-trafficking a federal crime; banning unauthorized “ghost guns;” restricting mechanisms that make semi-automatic weapons automatic, and promoting firearm lock systems for homes. Senate approval, however, is doubtful.
Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan called this effort “an assault,” ignoring the irony of that word, and warned that, “This is just the beginning of their goal, plain and simple, to get rid of the Second Amendment.”
Hence the question: Beyond offering the care of souls for those left behind after mass shooting deaths, how are churches to respond? (Churches in Buffalo and Uvalde have been exemplary in their care for the bereaved.) Can, should, will churches push back against the “normalization” of current murderous trends? Are gospel responses possible?
Given all the guns and all the deaths, American churches might:
- Assert a national moratorium on the use of the terms, “pro-life” or “Christian nation” while firearm-terminated lives continue to be snuffed out anywhere. That might not stop the killing, but it could be a witness against our collective national hypocrisy.
- Encourage congregations to promote DNA swabs as preparation for and witness against pending firearm atrocities, an enacted reality of dissent against the current state of life and death in America.
- Pursue nonviolent gospel dialogue around some or all of the following questions: 1) How did Second Amendment hermeneutics (interpretations) get us to this destructive moment? 2) Does our commitment to the Second Amendment require that our society be turned into an armed camp and our public schools into fortresses? 3) What does Christ’s gospel demand of us in response to incessant firearm-related violence?
- If those illustrative responses seem impossible or too little too late, what then? Perhaps, for the sake of firearm victims past, present and future, we might take our own spiritual inventory by asking if, knowingly or unknowingly, we have written ourselves and our nation into the saga of the Golden Calf.
Attorney Chris Conley’s recent BNG essay titled “Our National Golden Calf is Killing Us” sent me back to Exodus 32, an ancient text that now seems shockingly contemporary. Conley’s “fervent prayer … that my fellow white evangelicals will repent of their idolatrous obsession with guns, that they will come to love their neighbors more than the Second Amendment” prompted me to introduce this essay with a portion of the Exodus story.
The biblical text offers this sober memorial to the golden calf past and present:
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’s anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
When Moses saw that the people were out of control (for Aaron had lost control of them, prompting derision among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!”
If nothing else, the memory of 19 unrecognizable fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, compels us to ask those same questions here and now.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
Yes, there is a way out of our national gun violence epidemic | Analysis by Paul E. Robertson
Our national golden calf is killing us | Analysis by Chris Conley
In response to Uvalde, the church can learn from the murder of George Floyd | Opinion by Laura Ellis