The relentless spate of mass shootings in America lends itself to one grim, consistent conclusion: America is a violent place. And if there is any lesson to be learnt from one of these recent mass shootings—specifically the one at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas—it is that there is no place safe from such violence. It will enter schools, workplaces, and churches alike, without discrimination or fear.
An act of violence inside the Church, however, especially foregrounds the Church’s response to violence. Violence brings cameras, and cameras highlight attention, and attention gives birth to talking points, dialogue, and diatribe. If for this reason alone, where the violence of America comes into contact with America’s houses of Christian worship, the very Christianity of the response must be abundantly clear. Few opportunities are provided to the Church where we can witness that are more profound than when we stand alongside the suffering.
The situation is ripe for a truly Christian response, a prophetic witness spoken in the very midst of a culture of extreme and senseless violence. And yet two dominant responses emerged from the shooting in Texas. Christians offered “thoughts and prayers,” and Christians talked about the need for more guns in Church. Neither is particularly Christian. Neither addresses a culture of violence.
It is clear, with regard to “thoughts and prayers,” that individuals who offer these are well-intentioned. They mean, by the phrase, to assert a kind of solidarity with the victims and survivors of such attacks. Solidarity is commendable in its own way, and yet it is also clear that there is little to distinguish “thoughts and prayers” from the more generic “positive thinking.” And when you think about it further, one begins to wonder if the sentiment of “thoughts and prayers” is properly Christian at all. A comic, making the rounds on social media, has captured this pointedly. The image is of the injured man on the road to Jericho, while an individual—either the Levite or the Pharisee—walks past without helping. The caption below cements the irony: he offers the injured man “Thoughts and Prayers!”
There may be, admittedly, a hint of snide self-righteousness in the comic, it nevertheless makes a point worth taking to heart: that Christian help in the Scriptures is nearly always practical help. When Jesus praises the sheep in the great judgment, they are praised for feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and helping the sick. When Jesus condemns the goats, it is because they have failed to do these things. In the same spirit, James 2:15-17 is startlingly specific, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Thoughts and prayers, when they do not include physical, material assistance, are clearly in violation of James 2:15-17. More to the point for our purposes, how do “thoughts and prayers” offer practical assistance in challenging or bringing change to a culture of violence? Before you object, please note that I recognize that there are a host of Christians who are offering real, practical help to victims and families of victims from events like the shooting in Sutherland Springs. I am not questioning their piety or obedience in the slightest. What I do question is how our Christian responses to these acts of violence is working to change the culture of violence. To this query, the answer appears to be quite clear that thoughts and prayers are especially useless as mechanisms for changing such a culture.
The other dominant response I heard from Christians in regard to the shooting in Sutherland Springs was an appeal for more guns in the Church. The straightforward logic appears to be that, had there been guns in the Church in Sutherland Springs—armed membership, or armed security—then the congregants might have stopped the shooter before things got out of hand. They could have shot him before he shot them. And it seems clear that many Christians in churches across America think it is their Christian, and civic, duty to bear arms in the congregation of God’s people in order to protect God’s people from dangerous malcontents who might attempt what was accomplished in that Texas church. There is definitely a kind of logic to this—but once again we must ask, “Is it Christian logic?” Doesn’t Jesus clearly teach in Matthew (26:52) that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword?” And are we to conclude that more violence—or even the threat of potential violence—is really the answer to the problem of violence in America? Is self-arming the embodiment of a prophetic response to a culture of violence?
These realities made me think about Psalm 120—especially its final two verses: “Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” This psalm seems to encapsulate what it means to speak both to and within a culture of violence. Consider the whole psalm for a moment:
1In my trouble I cried to the Lord,
And He answered me.
2 Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,
From a deceitful tongue.
3 What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you,
You deceitful tongue?
4 Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With the burning coals of the broom tree.
5 Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
6 Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war.
When I studied this Psalm in seminary I remember well Iain Provan’s comments on the text. He drew connections between the cities that are named, and the narrative the psalmist documents. For example, he noted that “Kedar had a reputation for archery (Isa. 21:17); while Meshech was the homeland of the Scythians, bowmen of proverbial cruelty (2 Macc. 4:47).” In other words, the narrative itself is designed to highlight the fact that the psalmist’s longing for peace is uttered in the context of a people who are steeped in traditions of war.
Psalm 120 presents some challenging questions. Does the Church fail to speak for peace because it is so inundated in a culture of violence? Has the American Church lost its ability to speak against violence? In the cry for more guns in the Church is the voice for peace drowned out by the voice for war? Is the American Church so in love with guns that it cannot imagine challenging them? Do words for peace, for change, fall on deaf ears because for too long we have dwelt among the tents of the gun owners, for too long we have sojourned in the company of the gun manufacturers? Has our American context become something that prevents our Christian witness against violence as a way of life? Have we had, for too long, our dwelling among those who hate peace? And, perhaps, have we even lost the ability to lament such a situation?
All of this, of course, is simply preamble to a more significant challenge: What would it look like for Christians in America to take a thoroughly Christian stand against a culture of pervasive gun violence? What are we going to do, not only to protect ourselves, but our homes, families, schools, and institutions? What are we going to do to seek the welfare of the city around us? How are we going to take a stand for positive change?
We have two options: we can strive to change people’s hearts (we can preach the gospel of peace), and we can labor to change our nation’s laws. And that, my friends, is going to look a great deal like gun control.