My Turn: Mass shootings create a dilemma for churches

  • On Nov. 12, a memorial at the Sutherland Springs, Texas, First Baptist Church for the shooting victims includes 26 white chairs, each painted with a cross and a rose. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 11/20/2017 12:10:13 AM

On Nov. 4, Americans again came face to face with an insidious climate of violence when a man fired guns into the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The next day, there was a deadly shooting at the Fresno, Calif., St. Alphonsus Church.

These two events were preceded by gun deaths in places of worship in the Antioch, Tenn., Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in September 2017; at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center on Jan. 29; in the Charleston, S.C., African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015; at Overland Park, Kan., Jewish Community Center in April 2014; and in the Oak Creek, Wisc., Sikh Temple in August 2012.

This latest mass killing in Sutherland Springs has filled the news media with questions to church members about gun violence and security. After expressing a commitment to prayer, continued trust in God, grief for those who have lost their lives, and care for those who have been injured or who have lost a loved one, the conversation moves toward ways to prevent future violent events.

Over and over we hear the conviction that restrictions on gun possession are not realistic, possible or even acceptable. Finally the conversation turns to contemplate ways to increase security: hiring security guards, training church leaders to discern dangerous people entering church, and encouraging all people to be trained and carry guns to worship for self-defense.

This focus on security in response to these shootings in synagogues, churches, mosques and temples has revealed a dilemma. For many Christians, as well as other people of faith, the invasion of gun violence into worship centers has challenged part of their mission: to welcome the stranger and those who are hurting.

Many religious centers host substance abuse support groups, homeless people, refugees and undocumented people, food banks and counseling centers. Therefore, it is conflicting to seek ways to restrict some people while at the same time maintaining a welcoming place for all people. It is also a predicament for worshippers to seek security from gun violence by carrying guns into worship settings.

For example, Christian scriptures record an episode where one of Jesus’s disciples draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a Roman soldier who is attempting to arrest Jesus. Jesus responds, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He then touches the soldier’s ear and heals him. It seems violence only breeds more violence and never accomplishes true security.

Consequently, some faith communities are becoming venues for exploring ways to resist the conventional responses to violence and the conventional view of security.

The Rev. William Sloan Coffin wrote in his book, Credo, “Will we be scared to death or scared to life? (Religious communities) being challenged to live with enormous insecurity . . . could become centers of creative and courageous thinking.” This potential of creative and courageous thinking suggests that there are no guarantees in security devised by human beings. There is always risk that cannot be eliminated by cordoning off property, asking for ID and fingerprinting. Also, it is incongruous to the mission of communities of faith to hire armed security, encourage looking for suspicious persons and carry personal guns into worship services. The choice between stringent security and a welcoming community for all people seems to be a choice between death and life: death to a humane society or life-risking love of neighbor.

Religious communities understand that a valued life faces into the insecurities of welcoming the stranger and extending love to enemies. There is a saying of Jesus: “Any who would gain their life will lose it. Any who would lose their life (following me) will gain it.” Other faith communities have similar understandings. Muslims have a commitment to give to those in need. Jewish scripture calls upon people to welcome the stranger into the land.

People in our churches, synagogues, and mosques are being challenged to demonstrate to the wider society life-enhancing ways to face into fear, hate and violence. They are exploring alternatives to force and defensive security as instruments of persuasion.

For example, it is disarming to greet people in the parking lot and the worship space with a warm welcome rather than a cautious reserve. Some religious centers have already declared themselves “gun-free zones.” I was once in a church that gave its keys to the leaders of substance abuse support groups for access into the building every day of the week. These groups cared for the building as if it was their own. And they greeted each person who came through the door. All were welcomed. All became known and included.

None of this will guarantee the end to future acts of violence invading worship space. But previous attacks on religious communities may be the fuel to move people of faith to substitute ineffective security for courageous actions of love of neighbor.

Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faith communities have the guiding principles and historical narratives to transform the future of human interaction. They can choose, in the words of William Sloane Coffin, “not to mirror but to challenge culture, not to sustain but to upend the status quo.”

We have models from great leaders of the past who were willing to live nonviolently in harm’s way that others may live in the way of justice and peace.

Even as I write this essay, a report comes in of yet another random shooting that included a school. In this environment we need leaders and a movement that forgoes a focus on security and gives meaning to the risk of transforming the human condition.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)

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