How should the church respond to gun violence?

October 30th, 2015

Routine violent events

On October 1, President Barack Obama, showing more emotion than he typically has over the last seven years of his presidency, issued a statement responding to the shooting deaths of nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. “Somehow this has become routine,” the president said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” Even after this incident, there were shootings at Texas Southern University and Northern Arizona University.

The statistics on gun violence in the United States are disturbing indeed. According to a report in The Washington Post, the number of injuries and deaths involving guns work out to about “308 shootings and 86 deaths every day.” Most of these are not reported in the national news, of course. Mass killings are more rare and sensational, though; and as the president pointed out in his statement, even these are becoming “routine.”

Also becoming routine are the discussions that inevitably take place about how best to prevent future shootings. The president advocated for what he called “common-sense gun legislation” because, he said, “it cannot be this easy for someone who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.” He also expressed frustration about the backlash he knew he would get from that statement. There are those, he acknowledged, who would say we need more guns and fewer gun safety laws. This point of view was memorably expressed by Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), in 2012 after the shooting deaths of 26 persons (mostly children) at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” he said. However, President Obama stated, “There is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you … make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.”

Mental illness and gun safety

President Obama, then, was correct in predicting he would face opposition in his calls for tougher gun regulations. Other elected officials issued statements after the shooting in Oregon drawing quite different conclusions from the president. “We blame guns,” said Maine governor Paul R. LePage, “when our nation’s problem with violence is really about people with mental disease getting access to firearms.”

Even though not everyone agrees that mental illness is the key problem with gun violence, there may be enough bipartisan consensus about it to get some legislation moving. According to a report in The Washington Post, two bills are making their way through Congress to bolster the nation’s mental health-care system. These are companion bills in the House and Senate and would “remove barriers for Medicaid funding of mental-health treatment, … fund more psychiatric beds in hospitals nationwide, establish an assistant secretary for mental health and address privacy restrictions to help families receive more information about a loved one’s condition and treatment.” These measures have support from both Republicans and Democrats, but some of the latter are “reluctant to have mental-health measures be seen as the sole response to escalating gun violence, in part because they don’t want to perpetuate inaccurate stigmas about the mentally ill being more dangerous.”

Complicated church response

People of faith have had to respond to the issues of gun violence after it recently occurred in what many might consider an unlikely place. In June, after nine participants were killed in a racially motivated attack at a prayer meeting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the response of the victims’ families was inspirational — they offered forgiveness to the killer when they were able to speak to him at a bond hearing. They referred to their faith and their hopes that he would repent and turn to God. These families provided an example of how Christian faith might guide us as we seek to have conversations about the issues surrounding gun violence. The victims and the shooter were treated compassionately.

However, the shooting in Charleston raises difficult questions for churches to address. How can churches remain faithful to their beliefs while protecting their members? The Sunday after the shooting, pastors were faced with the question of how to respond. An AME pastor in Washington, DC, asked his congregation to close their doors to anyone they didn’t know or who couldn’t provide identification. Others felt such a move would be antithetical to their faith. “Our message has been plain,” said the Reverend Antoni Sinkfield, pastor of Greater Bethel AME Church in Nashville. “The church has always been an open door.”

Issues of church security aren’t new. On February 27, 2014, a conference on church security was held in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The presenter, Tina Lewis Rowe, a safety and security expert, recommended security planning for churches. “I’m not talking about a SWAT team for your church,” she explained. “I mean just someone who is alert and ready to help at a moment’s notice.” Rowe cited sobering statistics — in 2013, there were 31 homicides and suicides at faith-based organizations nationwide, along with other crime statistics — to illustrate the fact that churches aren’t immune to violence and crime. This point was hammered home by the Charleston shooting in the year following that conference.

At the conference, Rowe pointed out that churches might be more vulnerable to crime than other places just by the nature of what they do. “We’re the only flock of sheep where we invite the wolf in and we are happy they are here,” she said. This was in reference to the ministries to mentally ill persons and persons who have addictions or other risk factors.

The church and city unite

Rowe’s comments and the reality of tragic occurrences such as the shooting in Charleston show that churches must deal with gun violence, much as the larger society struggles with the issue in response to the numerous incidences that occur each day. In some areas, churches are teaming up with secular authorities in order to try and stem the tide.

One example of a church and city uniting can be found in Denver, Colorado. City officials met with church leaders in July 2007 to create a strategy to address gang violence. St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church planned a “gun giveback program,” where young gang members would be encouraged to turn in their weapons for destruction. Other churches worked to rehabilitate homes in gang-prone areas. These initiatives are making a difference in this city because many of the church leaders who are reaching out to the gangs were former gang members themselves.

These initiatives show that change can occur when the church responds to gun violence in the manner that it’s been taught from the beginning. The Reverend Sinkfield, the AME pastor in Nashville who refused to close his doors after the shooting in Charleston, hinted at this when he said, “We’re … going to talk about the power of how love ultimately overcomes hate. Evil has always been in the world. … The reason why faith exists is to show that there is another way.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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