Even if sensible gun regulations are implemented, I have heard multiple experts say it will be awhile before we notice a reduction in violent crime because there are so many guns in circulation, but even if we could hypothetically pull all guns out of circulation today, someone intent on killing people could find another way. The thousands of years of human history before the invention of modern guns was plagued by violence committed using bows and arrows, swords, wild animals, stones, and of course, the cross. In my community just before Thanksgiving, a disturbed individual killed six people at a Christmas parade by intentionally plowing through the parade with his car. Early Christians permanently transformed Western society, ending the practice of gladiator rings, starting the first orphanages for unwanted children, and the first hospitals, and caring for the poor and the widowed, and in so doing, opening the eyes of many metaphorically blind people to the value of all human life. But until Christ returns and transforms hearts, there will always be people who reject him, a rejection that is externally reflected by conduct that does not value every human life, and thus, there will always be violence. But just because we mortal humans have no hope of completely eradicating violence by our own power does not give us permission to just throw in the towel, let the world crumble around us and just hunker down and endure life until God takes us to heaven. Scripture is clear that we should do what we can to seek the “peace and prosperity of the city to which I (God) have carried you into exile” because when it prospers, we also prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). For context, this verse is part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah addressed to Israelites exiled to Babylon. False prophets had told them that this exile would be very brief and they would be able to return to their homeland quickly, an assurance which encouraged the Israelites not to get comfortable, or settle into the new land. Jeremiah’s purpose is to correct this disinformation, as God told him the exile would last seventy years, so the people should settle down, plant crops, marry, have children, and seek the peace and prosperity of their new land. But the concept of exile is a recurring theme in the Bible, and the New Testament teaches that all who wish to follow him should think of themselves as exiles. This world which has for the most part rejected Him, is not our true home. Yet it is his will that we live here awhile for the purpose of shining light into the darkness, drawing people to us by the way we live our lives and thus ultimately drawing lost people to Him.
For my American church history course this past semester, I had to read a monograph and write a critical book review. The book I chose to read was “The Color of Compromise” written by Jemar Tisby. In the opening chapter, Jemar Tisby recounts the horrific bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham September 15, 1963 which killed four young black girls. The following day, a local white lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. gave a speech at a luncheon at the all-white Young Men’s Business Club where he stated that it really doesn’t matter who planted the bomb because i a sense, “we all did it.” This speech resulted in death threats to him and his family, to the point that he ended up closing his practice, moving away and starting a new career in civil rights law. But Jemar Tisby praised this lawyer’s bravery and willingness to speak the truth which would become the overarching theme of Jemar Tisby’s book, which is that “the most egregious acts of racism, like a church bombing, occur within a context of compromise” (Page 18). Every crude racist joke, every use of the n-word, “provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow” (Page 18). I agree with Jemar Tisby’s argument, and I believe this idea of complicity could be applied to gun violence as well. I believe Christians today have the capability, the privilege, and duty to continue reforming society just as the early Christians did. I don’t have all the answers as to how we could do this, but I think an excellent place to start would be for professed Christians to recognize and work toward ending our complicity with the violent culture. First and foremost, I think this means studying Scripture to make sure we aren’t practicing Christian nationalism, which isn’t really Christian at all, as a key feature of Christian nationalism is the conception of Jesus as a white American image of rugged masculinity. The modern conception of masculinity shames boys for crying when Scripture states that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (even though he knew that God would resurrect Lazarus on his behalf) and Peter wept bitterly when the rooster crowed and he had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus foretold he would. I am sure there are even more instances of men crying in Scripture that just aren’t coming to my mind right now. Christian nationalism hijacks the God of the Bible by reshaping and reducing him to an idol of our own imagination. One of the books I want to read this summer is “Jesus and John Wayne” which my church history professor briefly mentioned, and after reading this book, I am sure I will be inspired to write another blog with new insights on this subject. But I think I understand the issue enough to say with confidence that although there was a great deal of warfare in the Old Testament, Jesus is supposed to have transformed our hearts to seek peace, and to recognize that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). To that end, I believe all Christians should follow the example of Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses who are pacifists. Even if our country is directly attacked, Christians should bow out and leave even defensive warfare to the secular world, recognizing that this country, determined by man-made borders is not our true home, and it is more important to pledge our allegiance to God by valuing all human life and leaving justice to Him.
Scripture permits the killing and eating of animals, and thus I think hunting is permissible. No one in our family carried on the hunting tradition after Papaw passed away. We are people who prefer the modern sanitized convenience of buying our meat from the grocery store and not having to think too much about where it came from, but I had a friend in college whose father killed a deer every year during hunting season and stored the meat in the freezer, which fed her family for months. There is nothing wrong with this. (As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that respect for all of God’s creation mandates we only take what we need, which precludes hunting animals for the sole purpose of displaying their heads as trophies.) In any case, you do not need an assault weapon to kill a deer, and in fact when describing the power of an assault weapon to me, Mom once said if you shot a deer with such a gun, you wouldn’t have any meat left to eat! Christians should only own guns for hunting purposes, or for people living in rural areas to kill aggressive wildlife (as a last resort if more humane measures have proven ineffective, or the animal displays clear signs of having rabies). In my personal opinion, there are countless recreational activities that are more constructive than going to a shooting range, but I don’t think there is anything unbiblical about this activity done in moderation, and gun ranges could be useful for people to practice shooting if they haven’t been hunting or needed to kill an aggressive animal for awhile. But if recreation is your only reason for wanting a gun, why not just rent a gun when you get to the range, and return it when you leave? That way you can enjoy an afternoon of shooting for pleasure, and then go home and sleep easy with no worry that your gun could be stolen and used in a crime, found by a child or accessed by yourself or a family member someday in an impulsive act of desperation during a difficult season.
Christians should be the most passionate proponents of gun safety to ensure that their guns do not take human life. All Christians should follow Papaw’s lead and hide their guns so thoroughly that your children grow up not knowing where they were kept, and keep the bullets completely separate from the gun. Of course, this would make it difficult to use the gun for defense against an intruder, but if Christians are truly fearful of harm coming to them or their families at the hands of another human, they should carry something like mace to temporarily hinder the perpetrator until law enforcement can arrive and arrest them, which both respects the value of all human life, and avoids the irreversible mistake of being startled and accidentally killing a family member you thought was an intruder, a heartbreaking tragedy which occasionally makes the news.
Although I believe this is a fringe view, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t address the rationale of some that ownership of powerful guns is necessary because they may potentially need them in the future to resist a tyrannical government. It is tempting to mock such views, but I am trying to empathize by considering that at some point, we all have wild ideas, idealistic visions, especially in youth. I liken this view to when I was a teenager whose interest in journalism was sparked by Buck Williams, the brave journalist in the Left Behind Series who left his secure life at a secular newspaper to accept Christ and expose the truth about the anti-Christ even in the face of persecution. I glowed with pride my junior year of high school when I got an internship at a local newspaper where I was treated like an adult, given my own byline for a couple of real news articles and even assigned to report election results back to the editors in a 2007 local election. I couldn’t wait to graduate college and then save the world, expose lies, hold corrupt politicians accountable. But when I graduated college, the journalism landscape and the economy had changed, and I could not find a job in this field. This is not intended to be a pity party though because I realize now that even if I had landed a dream job in a news room, I really wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the world. I mean, look at how much ink was spent, how many television documentaries were made in 2015 and 2016 on Donald Trump’s complete lack of integrity and yet other forces prevailed and he was elected as our 45th president. Look at how many heartbreaking interviews journalists have conducted with grieving parents after a mass shooting, and yet many politicians are still steadfast in their unwillingness to pass sensible gun legislation. I am not saying that journalism has no value. If we didn’t have dedicated journalists to expose Donald Trump for who he is, more people might have been charmed into voting for him due to simple ignorance. If journalists didn’t interview grieving parents or survivors of gun violence, the public would have been largely ignorant about these tragedies too and therefore would not have mobilized to organize marches to demand action from legislators. But journalism must be kept in proper perspective. I had to accept that even the most brilliant and dedicated journalists are no match for the powerful forces of this fallen world. Similarly I think, a few individuals with assault rifles would in reality be no match for the capabilities a tyrannical government would have: truly rigged elections, if there are elections at all, kangaroo courts, virtually inescapable surveillance, bombs, chemical weapons. We all need to abandon childish fantasies and recognize that we mere mortals really cannot change the world, at least not by conventional methods.
Even in Jesus’s day, when people started to recognize that Jesus was the messiah they had long waited for, they had idealistic visions of him riding into Jerusalem, overthrowing the oppressive Roman empire and establishing himself as an earthly king. They had difficulty accepting the far less glamorous reality that Jesus had to be crucified and die to fulfill Scripture. We need to show mercy to Lauren Boebert instead of laughing at her (as difficult as that is) who joked at a recent Christian conference where she was invited to speak that if Jesus would have had multiple AR-15s, he could have stopped his government from killing him. From her tone it is obvious she is joking, but given the extent to which nationalism has hijacked Christianity and caused people to idolize guns, I personally think she is only half joking. But we should think of her as one of many lost sheep whom nationalism and the gun lobby have led astray. The truth of course is that Jesus actually did have a comparable (superior really) celestial equivalent to the AR-15: as the son of God, he could have called on his father in heaven who would have sent “more than twelve legions of angels” to slay his persecutors and save him (Matthew 26:53). But Jesus said his crucifixion had to happen so that Scripture could be fulfilled and our sin could be forgiven. In the same way, I think we were meant to imitate Jesus by patiently enduring any persecution that may come from a tyrannical government, and to resist not by drawing guns, but by simply living righteously, drawing people to us, and therefore to Christ by our radical, countercultural lifestyles just as the early Christians did.
Speaking of a radical, countercultural lifestyle, this is the perfect segue to my final idea, perhaps the most controversial, but I think the most important means of reforming hearts in our society. I believe violence could be reduced if violence wasn’t so casually interwoven in our culture: our music, movies, toys, video games, even true crime podcasts and television programs like Dateline. The community where my mom was raised was on the right track in strictly prohibiting children from pointing toy guns at one another. But perhaps it is time to go further and stop marketing toy guns to children, encouraging nonviolent “good guy” play instead such as fire trucks to put out pretend fires and rescue innocent people, or encourage children to imagine cops-and-robbers scenarios where they arrest the pretend robber and march him back to a pretend store to return what he stole, instead of just shooting him. I remember my science teacher from sixth grade explaining to us that candy cigarettes were first created by the tobacco companies as a marketing tactic. Smoking real cigarettes does not appeal to very young children, but the companies knew that if children had happy childhood memories of candy cigarettes, some of them would be drawn to real cigarettes when they grew up. I believe the same rationale could be applicable with toy guns. Even though most children who play with toy guns won’t grow up to kill real people, I think our culture could benefit from re-imagining childhood play, especially for boys to make sure that at least for the next generation, children do not even subconsciously associate violence with happy memories and carefree play.
Even I am complicit in this violent culture. I don’t watch violent movies, but not so much due to moral superiority, but the simple fact that the racket of gunfire on TV almost gives me a headache. (Several war movies are available with audio description, so I could follow these movies if I wanted to). I don’t play video games, but that could merely be because as far as I know, video games are entirely visual. But I love old country songs, especially the gunfighter ballads of artists like Marty Robins. They are beautiful musically, and the stories they tell are fun to listen to, and sing along with. I am not obsessed with true crime as some people are, but I do enjoy watching the occasional Dateline murder mystery. Of course, most adults who watch true crime shows or enjoy singing along to gunfighter ballads would never even think of committing an act of violence in real life. But as far back as August 2019 when I was inspired to reflect on what daily life might look like after the restoration,I started to wonder if we might look back on our former lives and shudder about how much time we spent being entertained by murder mysteries. This thought returned in my reflection on our country’s gun violence epidemic, and I have come to the conviction that our consumption of violence as entertainment devalues human life. I know that if someone in my family was murdered, I would be pretty upset if my family’s tragedy was made into a TV show that millions of people might enjoy cozy on the couch, maybe with a bowl of popcorn on a Friday night, enjoying the suspense as to who might have killed my family member, or whether the jury will find him guilty or not guilty. And when I am walking on the treadmill singing along to Marty Robins about the stranger with the big iron on his hip, it is all too easy to get lost in the music, Marty Robins’s rich voice and a joyful melody that evokes romanticized images of the wild west and forget that the song is about an outlaw coming to take the life of someone’s son, brother or father. Given the alarming increase in violence, and even the increasing global instability, Christians should take the lead in living radically, eschewing media that has a negative influence on the subconsciouses of people of all ages and backgrounds, media that associates violence with suspense, bravery, justice, honor, or anything other than the senseless taking of the life of someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father.
Be assured readers that I fully intend to practice what I preach. Last night, I deleted two Marty Robins gunfighter ballads that came to mind right away, as well as some modern country songs depicting violence that I have enjoyed. These include “Goodbye Earl from the Dixie Chicks which narrates the story of two friends conspiring to kill an abusive husband and live happily ever after, as well as “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” and “Beer for my Horses” from Toby Keith which both glorify violence and are also glaring examples of white American folk religion. I am already thinking of a few more songs that I will be deleting right away after I publish this. The only ballad I kept is a Johnny Cash song, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” The song tells the story of Billy Joe, a restless young man who wants to leave the farm, but his mother pleads with him “don’t take your guns to town, son.” This plea is the refrain that haunts the entire song. He assures his mother that he is a man now, and rides into town giddy but also nervous. To calm himself, he enters a bar and orders his first strong liquor, but when another man in the bar laughs at him, he is filled with rage and reaches for one of his guns, but the stranger draws his gun faster and kills Billy Joe. The melody and tone of the song is somber. The instrumentation at the beginning and end of the song sounds like a funeral bell tolling. In short, the song does not glorify guns. It is a heartbreaking, cautionary tale.
Yes, this is radical, and I know some readers might understandably charge that I am going overboard. But the inspiration for this radical idea came from another brilliant quote from Dallas Willard later in his chapter on the power structures of this world. According to Dallas Willard, “The tyrants, satanic forces, and oppressive practices of this world play upon our “merely decent” lives as a master organist dominates his or her instrument but is wholly powerless without it” (Spirit of the Disciplines, Page 234). What I believe Dallas Willard is arguing is that while your average normal, decent person claims to abhor evil acts such as an elementary school shooting, these “mad individuals” are a product of our culture, and while education, or church attendance, or new laws may have a small degree of positive impact, we cannot truly get to the root of the causes of evil with superficial solutions that allow us to go on living our lives as we always have. The only effective treatment for the disease of evil in our world is character transformation. Of course, universal character transformation will not occur in this country because we are not (and never were) an exclusively Christian nation, and we certainly do not want to live in a man-made theocracy of forced conformity as history has proven this system comes with hypocrisy and evil of its own. (I will be elaborating more on this in the near future given current events). But true Christians can no longer afford to go to church one hour a week and give lip-service to our belief in Christ, and then come home and plunge right back into an angry culture of hate and division that glorifies violence, as too many Christians, especially white evangelicals do today. I believe Christians today could take the lead in bringing about significant positive change in our world, just as the first-century Christians did, but this can only happen if we live as Jesus commanded, in this world but not of this world. Dallas Willard is no longer living, but I get the sense that if he were alive to comment on current events, he would call for Christians to make this radical change of lifestyle.
Even if there is a widespread movement of radical character transformation led by Christians, the loss of innocence is likely here to stay. It breaks my heart that active shooter drills are standard practice in elementary school, and I cannot promise future sons, daughters, nieces or nephews that their elementary school is an impenetrable fortress. But it is my hope that I can at least tell them that we have made progress, that violence is not as prevalent as it used to be, that we are working toward a more perfect union, not in the nationalistic sense, but a more perfect union with Christ.