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