In response to the mass shootings – so many of them, so many deaths, all piled up on another so that every week it seems I’m trying to address senseless carnage and rising fear from the pulpit – I have only grief.
It’s the conversation around the shootings that has pushed me over the edge.
If we could all agree as a society that mass shootings have increased, that they are a devastating wrong, and that we must do all we can to prevent them, even if it imposes some limits on us, I think I could still be in it with my fellow Americans. Then we could disagree about what the causes are or what the measures of protection should be, but we would at least be seeking real solutions together. We would have a shared, fundamental understanding that we should not continue merely to offer our thoughts and prayers, and buy more guns so we can kill a shooter after he has murdered dozens of people.
We don’t have that understanding. The more conversations I have about mass shootings, the more I realize how little my worldview has in common with the dominant mindset of my country. Even other Christians (not all, but a surprising number) seem to think our response should be to arm ourselves, in church and elsewhere, against the constant threat of attack – that we should always be ready to meet violence with violence. This is a rational, self-defensive stance. But I can find no evidence that it would even remotely approximate any stance of Jesus. The Bible is such a lengthy and diverse book that it can be used to justify nearly anything, and yet I cannot find a single verse that suggests to me that Jesus would be found in this time with a concealed carry permit, standing ready to kill those who might threaten him or his followers. For Jesus, who taught and lived the value of turning the other cheek, of responding to hate with love, I can’t imagine that training an armed guard for church would be the answer. But what seems ridiculous to me is a reality in more churches than I care to know. What kind of Christianity is this?
It’s not the shootings themselves that have caused me to clarify my core commitments; it’s the conversations about the shootings. The earliest baptismal liturgies were in essence a transfer of citizenship: a rejection of the values and commitments of this world, in order to embrace and be embraced by the values and commitments of the reign of God. Christians were dunked underwater to symbolize that they had died to this world, so as to live freely and eternally in Christ. They understood that this new citizenship would cost them, possibly even their lives. They understood that they had to say no to something, in order to say yes to something better. Christianity has been comfortable in North America, and so we’ve tried to be dual citizens, to hold our passports equally in the United States and in the transcendent realm of Christ. We’ve said yes to everything, and so we’ve compromised everything. I’ve been a good U.S. citizen all my life. I’ve believed in the power of the vote, in democratic process, in change through legislation.
I still think there is a role for the Christian in influencing that process toward justice for the oppressed, but I am becoming less inclined to lean into my worldly citizenship. I’m living in a country that values weapons over lives, that believes literally anything – even the lives of other humans – can and should be sacrificed to personal freedom and self-defense. But my primary commitment is not to that country. My primary commitment is to Christ, to participating in the reigning activity of God. That commitment doesn’t involve preparing myself to shoot someone. It involves helping create a world where people don’t need to fear being shot. Does that mean that I might in fact be shot? Yes. There are things more important than my mortal life. I follow a God who was killed and did not fight back, and who was resurrected so that death might never have the final say.
The lectionary passages for this week are not the easiest to digest. They are demanding. They involve consequences. Both Joshua 24 and Matthew 25 are clear that worshiping this God, being part of this realm requires a definitive and conscious choice not to be part of another. You choose this day to follow the LORD, or not. You are ready for the bridegroom, or you aren’t. You get into the feast, or you don’t. There is no split loyalty or dual citizenship.
The Church throughout the ages has had to make hard decisions about its relationship to the government and the culture. At times it has resulted in imprisonment, violence, and death for Christians who would not share their loyalty between national values and their baptism into Christ. I have long been troubled by the assumption that Christianity and the American Dream are the same, or indeed have anything in common at all, but I can no longer pretend that it’s possible to be a committed member of both the reign of Christ and a world that objectifies and destroys at every turn. We can’t follow Christ and bow down before violence and money and power. We have to start saying no to something, in order to fully say yes to something better. We have to choose where we place our hope. I choose Christ. And if that idol, the object whose value we hold as unquestionable, should ever be pointed at me, I pray I have the strength to keep choosing.