Daring peace

America’s caught in a cycle of fear and violence when it comes to guns, writes Elana Keppel Levy. Christians have an opportunity to pave a new way forward.

Traces IV by Maya Cohen Levy, 2014, oil on canvas 130x190 cm

Content warning: violence, domestic violence, the killing of a child

One spring morning in North Carolina, a woman was walking her dog and saw an animal that looked like a small black dog. As she came closer, she realized that it wasn’t a dog: it was a bear cub. Heart pounding, she turned to run, but the mama bear had seen them approaching and sought to protect her baby. She charged them, grabbing the dog. Terrified and panicked, the woman yelled at the bear until it let the dog go. The bear started to leave with the cub, but the dog growled. The mama bear charged once more and then left. Thankfully, according to Pleateau Daily News, the dog was only mildly injured, and everyone survived the encounter.

While we are neither bears nor dogs, humans understand the innate animal drive for survival — the connection between fear and violence. If you ask me, this fierce desire for life and the anxiety that is tied up in it is at the root of the perennial gun violence problem in America — and, I think we can all agree, that it is a problem; 2023 is well on its way to becoming the deadliest year on record when it comes to gun violence. As I reflect on this culture of violence, I wonder if it is possible to step away from fear. By God’s grace, I think it is; and I think that there is a space for Christians to guide this movement. One way to preach this is to look at the story of Jephthah in Judges.

In Judges 11, the elders of Israel reach out to Jephthah to help them fight the oppressive Ammonites (Judges 11:6). If Jephthah wins, he will become Israel’s leader. He’s called by the Lord, but there’s a reward in it for him, too. When examining what happens next, we might be inclined to give Jephthah the benefit of the doubt — maybe he really is working to fulfill his calling and put an end to this injustice. But his words and actions seem to demonstrate his fear and unwillingness to trust God alone. He wants control, and he wants victory at any cost.

Despite being touched by God, Jephthah did not believe it was possible for him to win without taking action of his own.

We are told that Jephthah receives the spirit of the Lord (Judges 11:29). But then he makes a vow to sacrifice the first person to greet him when he returns from battle victorious. Despite being touched by God, Jephthah did not believe it was possible for him to win without taking action of his own. Jephthah does win, and it is his daughter who falls under the curse of his oath. She runs to greet him at the door, and he sacrifices her according to his word.

Because of his doubt and fear, Jephthah doesn’t attribute his victory on the battlefield to God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. The only thing he mentions when he returns from the battle is the vow he made with its unthinkable consequences. He made an oath in the Lord’s name and then fulfilled it as though that’s what God’s glory demanded. Jephthah took the Lord’s name in vain.

God never asks us to make vows like this — to trade innocent lives for security. In Genesis 22, Abraham believes that he needs to sacrifice his own son to be faithful to God, but an angel stops him. This is not the way to walk into the future God offers us. If we dare to witness this scene beside Isaac or Jephthah’s daughter looking up at that knife, we must boldly proclaim that no beloved child of God belongs on such an altar. Jephthah wanted peace from the war with the Ammonites, but he didn’t trust God’s calling alone. He wanted something within his control to assure his victory, and it cost his only child her life.

Are we like Jephthah? Are we pursuing power cloaked as peace?

Are we like Jephthah? Are we pursuing power cloaked as peace? The God of justice has sworn to be with us, but, more and more, we want insurance. Despite the fact that death by firearm has become the leading cause of death of children and teens 1 to 19, despite the fact that close to 17,000 people have died from gun violence in 2023 alone, there are advocacy groups that oppose safe storage laws and universal background checks. There’s a member of Congress who laments that Americans only own 46% of the world’s guns and encourages us to purchase more. There are members of Congress who pose with guns for family Christmas photos. So many have allied themselves with the fight to make weapons easily accessible, to paint guns as an integral part of our identity. But because of this, the sacrifice has fallen on all of us: on children and teachers in school, on employees in banks, on congregants in houses of worship, on patrons in bars and concerts and grocery stores — the list is constantly growing. Where is the safety that guns were meant to give us? How many need to die before we question this equation?

Jephthah wanted the Lord’s victory and his own victory. In the end, he rules the land for six years, but the land scarcely finds rest. Jephthah counted on the power of his oath, not God’s grace, to get what the people needed. Today, we are banking on guns to guarantee us victory and security. It feels good to hold such power, to believe that our might makes right. But we should ask ourselves: what if guns are becoming talismans?

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared …” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps the lesson we should be learning echoes Psalm 33:17 – that a gun is, “a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.” Perhaps guns are something we are trusting in besides God’s help and shield. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life resisting the Nazis, said in a 1934 speech, “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared … Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”

As Christians, we must remember that our deliverance comes from Jesus’ life and sacrifice. Paul tells us, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows” (Galatians 5:13, MSG). We must trust that when we let go of our desire for security through violence and control, God will show us a new way.

Trusting in this holy freedom, we must pause and re-examine. How can we faithfully consider limits that ensure our safety and survival? Perhaps it’s demanding universal background checks, supporting better gun safety training, improving safe storage, implementing red flag laws, investing in mental health, or building community. There are so many possibilities, but this much is clear: we are called as Christians to step away from fear and to, above all, act in love.