Guns and Fear
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:24-25
While gun ownership is embedded in the DNA of the United States, the accessibility, accuracy, and lethality of the weapons available to citizens today is spurning an unprecedented epidemic of gun violence that has spread to all social, ethnic, and cultural corners of the country. Gun violence related to gangs and drugs has been rampant for decades; but with only occasional spillover onto persons outside of those cultures, it was easily dismissed by the white majority as the collateral impact of gangs and drugs. No more. The United States is increasingly fraying at its cultural seams and countless innocent victims of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds are being lost. There is no safe place to hide. Not school. Not church. Not entertainment districts. Not home.
The United States has more guns in civilian hands than civilians. Why are increasing numbers of people feeling the need to arm themselves? One reason, among others, is fear. We fear losing our stuff or losing our life to someone with a gun so we feel we need a gun, too. Not only that, we want a gun that is at least as powerful as whatever the person wishing to do us harm is carrying. Not only that, we need several guns of various types so we can have them in several places so one will be nearby when and where needed. Guns in cars, guns in bedrooms, and guns in handbags. Do not get me wrong; the threats are real. What I wish to reflect upon, however, are our assumptions about the most effective and Christ-like responses to those threats.
Violence was rampant in Jesus’s day, too. The Roman Empire was brutal. Although they did not have guns, they did have knifes, spears, axes, scourges, stones, and of course, crucifixions. Although there were robberies and murders in Jesus’s day, there is no indication that Jesus condemned the ruthless government or the criminals. He did, however, have a LOT to say about how to respond to violence. First and foremost he told us not to fear. That directive is repeated so many times throughout scripture it is almost a cliché. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul…” Jesus explained his stance against violence by saying, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Jesus understood in a way we do not that violence begets violence. The cycle of violence perpetuates itself until sufficient numbers of people say “Enough!” and meet violence with non-violence. That cycle is illustrated in abusive families. Parents who abuse their children were almost certainly abused by their parents, who were often abused by their parents. We can either prepare to respond violently to threats of violence, assuring the continuation of the cycle, or we can commit to breaking the cycle with a non-violent response, even at the cost of our life. Unfortunately, it may cost the life of a loved one, too. Jesus again: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Two pillars of non-violence in our recent history – Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. – committed to the sorts of non-violent responses that Jesus preached. And it cost them their lives. Their stories illustrate how difficult an act of great love it is to stop reacting violently to violent acts. Any efforts on their part to fight the violence inflicted upon them and their followers with violence would have resulted in even more bloodshed. Most importantly, however, is that sufficient numbers of them endured the violence until their violent persecutors gave up. Significant, though not final, changes ensued. I am reminded of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy as the allies prepared to overrun the German machine gun nests above the beaches. General Eisenhower knew it would require a tremendous number of soldiers to die in the face of relentless gunfireuntil the German machine guns jammed, ran out of ammunition, or were overwhelmed so other soldiers could get to the nests and incapacitate them. True, this is an example of a violent reaction to a violent situation, but the soldiers who died on those beaches performed a sacrificial act of love absorbing the onslaught, at the cost of their own lives, in order to allow others to come behind them to liberate the people Germany occupied.
There is a reason Jesus preached that we should be willing to give up our lives instead of committing violence against another, just as he modeled in his crucifixion. I will address that reason next week.
This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are my expressions and not those of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to respond to my thoughts, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.