Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guns in Church

I'd really rather not write about guns. They're not a particular interest of mine. I'm periodically amused by participation in laser tag outing, and we do have a few Nerf guns around the house.

But mostly guns just make me nervous. The real kind, that is. They're packed with explosives that make a small metal projectile travel faster than the speed of sound and destroy pretty much whatever they impact. Anyone who isn't slightly nervous around guns is deluded.

Respect for Guns

On the other hand, I have a deep respect for guns, at least of some varieties. For example, since at this point I'm still a carnivore, I have a special place in my heart for hunters. I think people who hunt, and therefore have direct experience in taking the life of the animal they will later eat, deserve our respect. If I eat meat, somebody had to take the life of that animal. Hunting takes us back to that sacred and difficult moment where the animal actually dies at our hands. The best hunters I know pray or give thanks over their animals and meals.

Similarly, this past Sunday our church had reason to call the police. The fact that those police officers were well-trained and armed was comforting to me. Since I am not prepared to use force in public settings, it is a blessing to know there are those out there who devote their lives (and that our city devotes funds) to an established police force who are armed and trained for the specific purpose of keeping the peace. They carry guns not for violent purposes but to protect themselves and others. I get this.

Pacifism and the Police

Any theologian worth their salt who has pondered just war theory and pacifism will acknowledge that although pacifism (non-violence) is a viable Christian alternative, even most pacifists believe in some form of police presence, even armed police presence. Most pacifistic traditions are against warfare, or Christian participation in war. But they acknowledge the need for local and limited forms of police action. One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, John Howard Yoder, argued that Christians should reject service in the military but not the police. Frankly, I think life would be pretty awful without police in our communities.

The majority of Christians, however, myself included, subscribe to some form of just war theory rather than strict pacifism, and in the just war tradition, although there are strict guidelines in place for when lethal force can be used, there are obvious cases and situations in which the use of such force is not only allowed but necessary, and this from a strictly theological and Christian perspective. One of the more famous essays in this vein is Martin Luther's fascinating "That Soldiers Too Can Be Saved" (link is to a pdf, and his essay begins on page 25).

Unnecessarily Reactionary

So, in this discussion I hear two sides making unnecessarily reactionary and over-heated arguments. On the pro-gun side, people tend to say things like, "If people would have been packing in that Sikh community in Wisconsin, or at a school where there was a shooting, then the violence wouldn't have happened, or would have been diminished." There tends to be a rhetoric that more guns would necessarily translate into greater safety. [there is an additional argument in here that lots of people need these guns to rise up against potential tyranny, and that we are already under tyranical rule; I don't buy this argument so won't address it here]. This side seems to have too glowing and facile a view of guns. They think more guns will simply solve the problem, like a golden parachute.

Closer scrutiny starts to identify all the problems with this view. Consider a gunfight in church, for example. To disarm an armed assailant in a church with arms would clearly include the possibility of collateral damage. Most police or military personnel who use guns well would be unlikely to fire guns in a crowd like a church. I imagine a variety of other scenarios by which a trained peace-keeper would disarm someone who came into church firing a gun. Perhaps they would throw a large hymnal. Perhaps they would tackle them. I don't know for sure, but I highly doubt they would go at the person with sidearm blazing.

But take the case of just your ordinary citizen who has come into church with a concealed carry. Imagine four of them rustling around under their sports coats for their guns to defend the worshipping community from an armed assailant. Start imagining this for real, and you see all the problems that attend it. Or the person who thinks concealed carry includes carrying one in their purse. Then they forget their purse down in the Sunday school wing. Imagine the possibilities that happen next.

So those are the problems with the pro-gun lobby.

But the liberal reactionary mode is equally problematic. This group tends to get all Jesus-y around guns, "Jesus was a peace-maker. How horrible that people think they could or should bring a gun into church, the very place where we worship the guy who said turn the other cheek." This groups tends to think guns are evil in and of themselves. Keep those horrible things out of church.

But I'm not sure this position is right or Christian, either. It leaves a large group of people mostly defenseless. That's fine on most Sundays, but what about the day someone really does walk into church with evil intentions? What do we do then? Augustine in his City of God notes that a remarkable new development as Christianity became dominant in the Roman empire was church-buildings as sanctuaries. People could flee to them for physical safety. But the safety of those in churches was protected by the military forces outside of the churches who chose not to go in and physically remove those who had sought sanctuary there.

However, when crazed assailants (or even, as we have seen in some places like Rwanda, organized genocidal militias) no longer observe this convention, what other recourse do churches have to safety in their sanctuaries than some kinds of armed police presence?

So Who Should Be Armed?

Which leaves me as a pastor wondering who should be armed, and how, and where, for the majority of our people to be safe when they gather at our church for worship. Like public schools, we need to give this some thought. Many other places do. Malls hire security guards. Many schools include a police presence on their campus. I assume that larger churches may actually hire a security guard or other kinds of police presence, at least for their largest gatherings like Sunday mornings.

Mid-sized congregations like ours are also going to need to sit down and make plans. Now that our own legislature is on the verge of opening the door for concealed carry in churches, we will need to think through what we want to say about this to our people. Some things that occur to me that would be wise at this stage include the following:

1) Should churches hire some kind of security person to work the parking lot or building on Sunday mornings?

2) Should churches offer training for their ushers and greeters on security for the building and worshipping community, perhaps even simple training in non-violent resistance or other kinds of conversation and activity that can reduce the likelihood of violence in the church?

3) If a member of your church is a former Navy Seal, or works for the police, or has other training that makes them an excellent resource for safety and protection, might they even be encouraged to carry their firearm in church?

4) What kinds of public statements do the church need to be making about this? Given the Christian commitment to healing and the well-being of all, it is incumbent on all of us to do some clear thinking on this topic. Biased reactionary bloviation simply won't cut it. For one example of how the ELCA has engaged this topic, see its social message on community violence.


  1. Just as a matter of curiosity, what happened at your church that required calling the police? And, I would share as a fantastic resource for this discussion Richard B. Hays' "The Moral Vision of the New Testament." Chapter 14, "Violence in Defense of Justice" treats this issue as a pragmatic test case of his general NT ethics. Yoder also comes under deep consideration as representing a specific hermeneutical strategy. Even more valuable than the specific conclusions in his test cases is Hays' whole methodology.

  2. Just curious.... 1) How many church shootings were there in AR last year? Since 2000?

    2) If some people need to carry a gun into church with them for "peace of mind" -- is there a potential "faith" issue this need is pointing to?

    Here is my two cents: When my neighbors start shooting at me and my family, I will consider carrying a gun. Thankfully living in the U.S. is not like living in Afghanistan. Until there is a real and present danger church shoot-outs(and not a perceived one), those citizens really concerned about protecting me and those who gather at church can do so from the parking lot.

  3. Michael, thanks for the reminder about Hays. I agree.

  4. There is a thoughtful book, "A Faith Not Worth Fighting For," a collection of essays, that tackle some of these complicated issues. We might recognize that often there may be no sunless option. Act according to your best, Christ inspired thinking, then believe more boldly still. Tim

  5. Thank you for these questions. A Lutheran church where I was a regular attendee (while working in that town for three months) had a fatal shooting during worship. Even though I know that it can happen (because it did), I still believe that only trained members of law enforcement or military should be armed in public. Many others like to believe that they would be able to take down a shooter, but overwhelming evidence points to how truly difficult and dangerous that is.

  6. Anonymous3:25 PM

    Though I disagree with a few of your points, I do respect your opinion and appreciate your polite presentation of it.
    While I agree facing an armed evil or mad person is difficult and dangerous, it is not guaranteed the defender will be injured or killed, or that collateral damage will result or be much worse than if no resistance were taken. Conversely, offering no resistance will guarantee that direct intended death and injury will be higher. Sandy Hook, Aurora, CO, and mass killings in Rwanda show this.
    Studies by criminologist Dr. Gary Kleck of Florida State University, the National Crime Victims Survey conducted on behalf of the US Department of Justice and other surveys find US citizens use guns at least 100,000 times annually to protect themselves, often without firing a shot. Kleck's study, which asked more directly about the use of guns for defense, found the numbers to be as high as 1.5 million annually.
    I respect a person's choice not to own or carry a firearm for protection and to rely on police protection and/or divine intervention, however, many others, myself included, do not, just as I do not rely upon an agency some distance away or even God to protect me from fires and other catastrophe.
    Just as a person has the right not to protect themselves in a certain way others do have that right and it should not be restricted regardless of the location.
    I think we can both agree that it is a sad thing that someone would have to be concerned about their safety in church or in their daily lives as they go about their business in a law-abiding fashion but such is sin and evil. Always has been and will always be until Christ returns.
    Peace and blessings.

  7. Anonymous5:22 AM

    For good or ill, Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas did sign this into law after this blog-post was published. We now have legally-armed Christians in church every Sunday in this state.