Last month twenty-six victims were gunned down at the Sandy Hook elementary school. That next Sunday I stood in the pulpit and preached about the coming birth of a Savior, who would be raised up as a “righteous branch” from the house of David, and who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 23:5) The juxtaposition of the senseless slaying and the message of justice has weighed heavily on my mind. The social media are awash with people demanding that we “do something.” As Christians, we are certainly called to “do something.” But what? Micah 6:8 tells us to “do justice.” But what IS justice?
There are plenty of general answers to that question in Scripture. We can start with Jesus’ message to feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. We can add quickly to that list—we are to lift up the downtrodden and liberate the oppressed. We are to comfort those who mourn, and bind up the wounds of the afflicted. The implications here are obvious—we are to help those who cannot help themselves.
Again, my heart and my mind return to the twenty elementary-aged children slaughtered at Sandy Hook…as well as to the increasingly long line of victims of similar slayings across the country, with schools and churches being prominent in the list of killing grounds. In each place, the victims came willingly, assuming that they would be safe…that they would be protected. But they were systematically denied justice. No one could help them when they needed help. No one was there to defend the defenseless.
What is our Christian response to this failure to provide justice? I hear plenty of outrage. Some of it is constructively aimed, such as the efforts to ensure better intervention for the mentally ill, and better enforcement of laws that might prevent them from gaining access to weapons. Mental health is indeed an area where we as Christians can make a difference. The haunting article entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” which has gone viral is a must-read. However, the author does not provide advice on how to defend the defenseless in the meantime, much as common denominator of mental illness deserves our best efforts.
Rep. Louis Gohmert (TX01) stated in a recent television interview with Chris Wallace, “Every mass killing [referring to those committed with guns] of more than three people in recent history has been in a place where guns are prohibited, except for one.” This is a chilling statistic. With our zeal to provide safety, have we actually created potential killing fields? Have we put up metaphorical neon signs leading the wolves to the undefended sheep pen?
Scripture, as ever, is in tension. We have been brought up to read the King James version of sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, more recent scholarly translations render the Hebrew verb רצח (תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח) as “murder.” Is there a nuanced difference? I submit there is. Ecclesiastes 3:3 reminds us that in spite of the sixth commandment, there is “a time to kill.”
Jesus’ directive to Peter in Gethsemane to drop his sword, admonishing that those who live by the sword will perish by it (Matthew 26:52), is often cited as biblical reason to create defenseless zones. We fail to see the obvious here—which is that Jesus had walked side by side with Peter for three years without suggesting that he get rid of his weapon of defense. Gethsemane was simply not the time or the place to resort to it, nor was instigating violence an appropriate gesture when Peter’s own life was not threatened.
One of the favorite texts of all time is the 23rd Psalm. In it, we hear how the sheep are comforted by the fact that the shepherd carries a rod and a staff. The staff was a tool for hooking a wayward or fallen sheep and bringing it back to the right path and safety. The rod, however, was a defensive weapon. It was made of a small tree with the root ball still attached; the root ball was frequently sheathed with metal so that it could be used more effectively as a club to deter predators and thieves. The shepherd’s rod and the disciple’s sword were the weapons of the day—and they were openly carried. What’s more, this was a “comfort” to the defenseless sheep! In thinking back on the senseless tragedy of slayings in schools and churches, I ask again, why do we not defend the defenseless? Where is their “comfort” when the wolf invades what should be their safe space?
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman puts on seminars to train law enforcement officers in how to deal with these tragic incidents. He states that our number one enemy in defending our school children from such slayings is denial. We have not been willing to look at the facts of these deplorable killings and construct suitable defensive strategies. Much of the cited article deals with the denial of altruistically creating gun-free areas which invite such tragedies.
But denial is only the first of Grossman’s “Five D’s.” He points out that we do not adequately deter potential shooters with strategically assigned armed officers in our schools; we do not do enough to detect the potential of such shootings to prevent them in the first place; we do too little to delay a human predator’s access to our school children through better classroom design, locking of back doors, and the organization of regular drills (on par with fire drills); and finally, we do far too little to destroy the threat once it is present. Grossman concentrates mostly on better equipping of law enforcement officers, both on and off duty, but adds that armed citizenry helps.
I hope I never am put in a position that I have to take a life in order to defend the defenseless. But as a Christian, how can I ignore the directive to “do justice”—which includes helping to ensure the safety of Christ’s flock, when the defenseless are placed in jeopardy?
The Outlook posted a response to the Sandy Hook shooting written by Gradye Parsons and Linda Valentine. It referenced the document from the 219th General Assembly (2010) entitled “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” This document is by and large a well-balanced response to the tragedies our country has endured. However, I would take exception to the following recommendation:
9. Due to the recent expanded provisions in concealed carry laws in many states that now allow guns to be carried openly, including into houses of worship, we recommend that churches and other entities prominently display signs that prohibit carrying guns onto their property.
In light of the above discussion, I would submit that this recommendation is neither prudent, nor is it consistent with the scriptures that suggest that shepherds should defend their sheep, and which remind us that even disciples in Gethsemane were carrying their weapons.
This past summer, our church had several threats written on notebook paper and attached to our marquee. They specifically targeted me, insinuated that I was breaking God’s law by being female and being the pastor, and threatened punishment. Our community suffered a tragic episode in 1997, when another pastor was gunned down on a Sunday morning. Until our local police were able to identify the man (and thankfully, I was able to go with a police officer and reach a peaceful resolution to this scary situation), at least one of our parishioners was quietly “packing” each Sunday morning when I stepped into the pulpit. I do not apologize for feeling “comforted.” I would submit that justice can be done in the very best Christian sense by defending the defenseless, and in particular, our school children who look to us for safety.