The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.

 

(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.

Friend, Honest, Pastor – Pick Two

I’ve been in a few interesting conversations on FB lately about what it is like to be a pastor, or a parishioner, and whether genuine friendship is something that a pastor can offer a parishioner. Generally speaking, it seemed like parishioners felt like pastors could be their friends, for the most part, but most pastors pointed out issues with this perception and practice.

There are boundary issues, honesty issues, and safety issues for the pastor in her position at the church which do not exist between the pastor and her friends. There are issues of power and politics, of employment and theology and core values at stake. A pastoral relationship is a particular kind of relationship, it isn’t a stand-in for every kind of relationship. That way lies boundary violations galore.

I came up with a pithy way to represent the problem: with regard to your pastor, your pastor can be your friend, your pastor can be honest, and your pastor can function as your pastor – you can pick any two of those three.

Honest Friend = Not Pastor

Your honest friend cannot be your pastor. If someone is honestly talking to you about the deep things that friends talk about, they cannot also be your pastor. They can’t be your pastor if you know about their criminal record, or their affair, or how much they want to strangle some of their parishioners, or how sometimes they lie from the pulpit because that’s easier than telling the truth and making enemies or being unemployed.

Pastor Friend = Not Honest

Your pastor friend cannot be honest with you, for the reasons listed above. She cannot tell you all about her life; cannot tell you some truths, especially about herself and her own life, but possibly about you and your life as well. I’m NOT saying that pastors who have friends in their congregations are lying – what I am saying is that they will always have truths they cannot tell you that they could, in theory, tell a friend in their life who is not part of their congregation or community.

Honest Pastor = Not Friend

Your honest pastor cannot be your true friend, any more than your therapist or your lawyer can be your true friend. An honest pastor will have to tell you things you may not want to hear, and should be maintaining good, healthy emotional boundaries with you at all times. An honest pastor is also a professional, among other things, and it gets too confusing to have to alternate between wearing the ‘pastor hat’ and then wearing the ‘friend hat.’ One of those hats is going to stick – either the pastor part, or the friend part, will suffer.

Not All Three

This is my understanding and practice as it is right now, at least. I even have friends among my parishioners, but as their pastor, there is always going to be an appropriate distance there. Being a pastor is messy, and the lines between different kinds of relationships can blur, but for me at least there is a definite limit beyond which I am not going to go with a parishioner, if I want them to remain a parishioner.

Alienating Atonement and the Theater of Hell

Sinner, This Is Your Life

This is an image I have heard innumerable times: You have died. You are greeted by an angel, and told that you will be shown your life. You are seated in a movie theater, and are shown your entire life, from birth – every good and bad thing you ever did. Every secret thing, including every secret thought. Maybe the other people in your life are there too, in the movie theater, watching.

The idea is that you will be horrified, and humiliated, and embarrassed. You will feel intense shame and guilt for all you have ever done. You will understand how awful you truly are, in that moment – how unworthy and utterly in need of salvation you are, miserable worm.

Then you are judged based on what the movie showed. If you died without Jesus in your life, you are sentenced to Hell, and in this imaginary situation, it is well-deserved. You nod your head, tearful, understanding God’s transcendent justice in sentencing you to an eternity of torment.

Theologian, Here Is My Finger

The above is a horrifying view of the atonement. It is an expression of one of the worst threads of Christian theology – the idea that shaming and guilt-tripping, teaching people how awful and irredeemable they are, is the best way to bring them to God. As an inheritor of the Reformation, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I realize that this criticism is squarely pointed at my own tradition, such as it is. Luther and Calvin and many who came after went to great lengths to describe what miserable worms we all are.

The basic message is that the at-one-ment with God is achieved because God pinches His Divine Nose and grudgingly accepts your miserable soul, solely because he was first able to contrive a situation where his own self could be tortured to death on a cross as compensation for the whole affair.

What if God Isn’t a Vindictive Jerk?

When I think about being in the audience in this humiliating theater, watching someone singled out and shamed by a bullying God, I feel deep sympathy. What a horrible situation to be in. Anyone who has ever been mocked, or bullied, or singled out for abuse, or humiliated can surely empathize with this situation.

I was recently listening to a sermon that described just this scene, the one referenced in the pages from a Chick tract above. I felt not only sympathy for the person afflicted by this view of God, but anger at the God who would do this. This would be despicable behavior from a human being – from God it is categorically irredemptive.

Imagine, rather than the terror of being truly known by God and others that haunts some of us (maybe many of us?), there was a similar scene. You are lovingly invited to a theater where your life is shown on the screen – in all of its mess and beauty, loss and triumph. It is the great story told by your time in the world, with all the laughs and cheers and tears and even regret. And through it all, there is the loving presence of those who love you, of a God who loves you, who see you for who you are and love all of you. What you went through life fearing, and protecting yourself from, happens, and it is a time of joy and radical acceptance. You are where you are meant to be, and you are who you were meant to be all along.

One might even go so far as to call that atonement.