It has been almost a month, but the images seared into our minds in the days before Christmas 2012 have yet to fade. Perhaps they never will, perhaps they should not. Perhaps a society whose gun control laws are the most lax in the western world, needs to live with the images of pain and suffering and bereavement a while longer. Perhaps the searing memories will eventually awaken us from our moral slumber and we will discover that the lives of our brothers, sisters, parents, children and friends are more important than the gun industry’s right to sell firearms to everyone, no matter how unstable or unqualified, and that the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not the cornerstone of our freedom. Perhaps it is time for us to learn the freedom of faith.
Strangely, when looking for sources or church social statements on gun violence and gun control, I found them lacking. There are statements on sexuality, babies, children, justice, and just war, but the Church has been largely silent on the issue of guns and gun violence. Yet, Jesus' words, his journey to Jerusalem, the image of the lamb standing over and against the oppressive power of Rome, his admonition to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, his exhortation to turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile, are unambiguous testimony that violence is not an acceptable response to violence; that arming ourselves with fists, clubs, swords and guns can never lead to the peace we so desire for our lives. Nonviolence and loving our enemy are at the center of Jesus’ Gospel.
I suspect that one of the reasons for the lack of attention to the epidemic of gun violence in our culture is that the purveyors of rapture theology and its voyeuristic glorification of violence and war cannot escape the paradox of Jesus message and their own statements. The popularity of the books by LaHaye and Jenkins among evangelical Christians suggests that many have bought into the survivalist mentality expressed in the books. As a result, these Christians believe they must arm themselves for the end times, and that any attempt to disenfranchise them of their right to bear arms is a sign that the devil and the end is near. However, rapture theology is not part of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, mainline Protestantism, or the Orthodox tradition, and yet little has been written or spoken by any of these major Christian Churches.
Without saying it directly, however, the Church did make a statement within the very context of the Newtown, CT tragedy. While some outlying religious leaders were quick to lay the tragedy at the feet of those who had taken prayer out of schools or allowed LGBT people marriage equality, local pastors, priests, rabbis and Imams gathered around the victims’ families to offer love’s unconditional support, and in so doing they both lifted up the victims and gave powerful testimony to the simple truth that violence cannot overcome the power of God’s love, so graciously poured out into the lives of every human being.
Early Christians lived in violent times. The Roman Empire earmarked them for extinction. There is hardly a child who hasn’t heard the stories of Christians being fed to the lions. In response did the early Christians create personal arsenals of knives and spears? Did they create a culture among themselves that sought to conquer violence with violence? Did they defend their rights by arming themselves with the latest in high tech weaponry? No, they did as the rabbis, imams, pastors, and priests did in Newtown. They cared for one another and for their neighbors in very public and open ways and in private prayer and encouragement. They prayed with the bereaved, they broke bread with the broken hearted, they shared the Laments and Psalms, they offered communion (koinonia) in order to heal the community, and throughout the church, they clung to the vision of Jesus the lamb who stood against the purveyors of violence, prayed for his persecutors, and sacrificed his life for the sake of the world. And in doing this they found joy.
The shootings in Newtown, CT happened in the midst of the preparations many of us were making for the Christian celebration of the Nativity, as well as the secular celebration, which, at the very least celebrates “peace and good will to all.” The juxtaposition of such evil and violence to the celebration of the incarnation deepened the intensity of the pain. I was reminded of the words of Jeremiah, quoted in Matthew, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” In some sense, the Newtown tragedy was a modern reflection of Herod’s murder of the Innocents. In the midst of celebration and blessing the power of evil and violence wreaked vengeance. From the beginning of his earthly life, Jesus was confronted with the choice between violence and love, and though he had legions of angels who would come to defend him (Mt. 26.53), he chose to confront violence with self sacrificing love.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Revelation we read, “Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” Does this verse mean that in our own age, as a people waiting with hope for Christ’s return that we also need to turn to violence in hope of conquering violence? Certainly not if the broad sweep of the Gospels, Letters, and Revelation are considered. Chapter twelve of Revelation declares of God’s people that, “They have conquered by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life in the face of death.” Being disciples of Jesus, we do not achieve victory by violence or shedding the blood of others, but by identifying fully with the blood of Jesus that was shed when he was crucified. In addition, disciples are to conquer by our testimony; i.e., by our willingness to stand in the center of violence and remain as non violent as Jesus remained before the Romans.
What the imagery of these verses call into question is whether Christians can cling to both their guns and their faith. Let’s not be silly here. We’re not talking about anyone’s right to hunt, or sport shooting, we’re talking about the belief that guns will deliver us from evil. John, the writer of Revelation did not believe so; his book is clear testimony against our violent tendencies. Jesus did not think so either. His willingness to die on the cross, his own blood offered up against violence, and the testimony of his mouth is what (in the book of Revelation) defeats evil and violence.
So, while Christians and non Christians seem to be arming themselves to the teeth in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, and the possibility of tighter gun control, I will continue to trust in the testimony of Jesus own life, death and Resurrection. I will not succumb to the message that arming our citizens with guns will lead to the defeat of the bad guys in our society. Statistics and history have already destroyed that message. I also refuse to give into the notion that it is too late, that nothing can be done.
It is said of Martin Luther that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would go out and plant a tree. I hope to do the same. It is time to plant the seeds of a less violent society. It is time to ask what will have precedence in our lives when our “rights” clash with our faith. It is time to fathom what St. Paul means when he says, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” It may be a long while before we see the results of any efforts to bring gun violence under control. As a society we have bought into the vision of violence overcoming violence. It will take a long time and a lot of work before that vision fades. But perhaps when it does begin to fade, the images of Newtown will begin to fade. With inherent sadness I must say that perhaps it is justice, that the Newtown images will remain fresh until we adopt a less violent vision,-- and they will do so not because we have good memories, but we will live them over and again in other places.
Even as we begin a new year, and the season of Epiphany has just begun, we look to the Resurrection. The Lamb has overcome the lion, and love wins.