By Diane Knauf
“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer makes it clear that Christians do not have the option to stay silent in the face of difficult issues. With gun violence impacting more and more people—in high-profile mass shootings but also in the steady, relentless loss of life in our communities through murders and suicides – it’s time for clergy, educators and faith leaders to speak out. However, many of us are understandably cautious. Gun violence is such a politicized and polarizing issue, and many of our congregations contain a broad spectrum of views. It’s time we remember that first and foremost, gun violence is not a political issue but a spiritual one! Who better than church leaders to speak about this critical aspect of faith and life? This was the message of God and Guns 2016, the first of what I hope will be an annual event, held at the Riverside Church in Manhattan on October 6-7.
The event’s title is a provocative one: God and Guns. How do they fit together? This event challenged me, and the more than 100 faith leaders in attendance, to examine the intersection of God and guns in our country and how, in issues of gun violence, they have been grafted together into a narrative that is anti-gospel.
This narrative tells us that life is cheap; force rules; violence solves; and the individual is more important than the community. It tells us to fear — not love — our neighbors, and to put our ultimate faith not in God, but in guns as our source of peace, strength and protection. This destructive narrative has taken hold even among Christians—something to which faith leaders are just now awakening—but we must not despair, because we are uniquely equipped to counter it with the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches us to value all life, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and put our trust in God alone.
God and Guns 2016 offered engaging, passionate speakers and informative and challenging plenary sessions featuring lawmakers, advocates, theologians, survivors and family of those lost to gun violence.
Most moving for me as a mother was the heartfelt and prophetic witness of Lucy McBath, whose teenage son Jordan Davis was murdered in 2012 by an armed man who objected to the loud music played by Jordan and his friends. Lucy movingly shared how from this horrific loss she has gained a new sense of purpose to usher in a moral movement for the prevention of gun violence.
Most challenging were the words and experiences of Mark and Ben McBride, pastors and brothers who serve with PICO California, that state’s largest faith-based community organizing network. They took us deep into the intersection of race and gun violence, challenging us to examine our own implicit biases toward others, especially people of color, and to reflect on the systemic roots of racism, poverty and mass incarceration that are hurting communities and contributing to the epidemic of gun violence in our country.
The event concluded Friday evening with a service of remembrance for victims of gun violence led by Riverside’s senior minister Rev. Dr. Amy Butler. This closing worship also served as our charge and benediction to go out into the world and speak, because remaining silent is not an option.
But our words—if we are truly to further the Kingdom of God in the world—must not only be prophetic but thoughtful, pastoral and tempered with a willingness to listen: to the voices of those devastated by gun violence; to survivors, families and communities with stories to tell of loss and hope; and even to the voices of those we consider “on the other side” of this issue, that we might better understand their concerns and seek common ground. Most of all, we must listen to, and be guided by, the gospel message, for it is the solid ground upon which we stand, and from which the work of peace and justice will ripple out into the world to bring an end to gun violence. My sincerest thanks to the staff and members of the Riverside church for starting the conversation and equipping us to speak.
by Diane Knauf
Diane Knauf has served for nine years as Associate Pastor at Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is active in issues of social justice and feels a growing call to address the issue of gun violence.