Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in Religion News Service.
The Christmas season makes room for commemorations of violence done against the innocent.
It’s now been 10 years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26 students and teachers were killed, 20 of whom were 6- and 7-year-olds. In the aftermath of that shooting, like many of us, I had hoped the horrific tragedy would be a wake-up call for our society and finally lead to meaningful gun reform.
Instead, our leaders did so little that “thoughts and prayers” has now become synonymous with a lack of empathy and offensive to many, perhaps even to God. As theologian Miroslav Volf puts it plainly, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem that you are unwilling to resolve.”
During the pandemic, gun violence became the No. 1 cause of death for American youth. More kids are dying from guns than from car accidents or cancer. We have continued to see mass shootings at schools, shops, houses of worship and workplaces. The pace of gun violence spiked in U.S. cities in 2020 and 2021 even as nonviolent crime continued its decades-long fall. As a Philadelphian, I know too well how our city has experienced this epidemic of gun violence, with more than 2,300 people shot last year and on pace for a similar number this year.
While Congress finally passed legislation this year in the wake of the terrible shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the mentality that prevented progress in the decade between the shootings in Newtown and Uvalde retains a firm grip over much of the country.
The good news is that an overwhelming majority of Americans, and gun owners themselves, want to see common-sense changes like a limit on the rounds a gun can fire, a limit to the number of handguns one person can buy per month, raising the minimum age and preventing domestic abusers from arming themselves.
As an evangelical Christian, I’m getting ready for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. We sing carols about peace on earth and goodwill to all. It’s a good season to renew our commitment to peace and to life.
There are common-sense ways to reduce gun violence in our country. America is the only country where mass shootings are a fact of life. Each year, 40,000 people die of gun violence in America, and while we cannot prevent all crime or eliminate hatred, we can take the tool of violence out of the hands of those who intend to harm themselves or others. Background checks, permitting requirements for concealed carry permits, red-flag laws and other mechanisms can reduce gun violence.
The Christmas season, despite the widespread focus on peace and goodwill, includes commemorations of violence done against the innocent. The day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day, remembering his martyrdom after a life of serving widows, and on Dec. 28 the church remembers the Holy Innocents — the children killed by King Herod in his search for Jesus in an attempt to cling to power.
A central theme at the heart of Christmas and the “Good News” of Jesus is that he is born into a violent world. The Prince of Peace becomes a victim of violence, from the moment he is born homeless in the manger until he is executed naked on the cross.
Jesus was a holy, direct confrontation to a world full of violence — and still is. In his teaching Jesus laments that society does not know where peace can be found and says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. He teaches that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
But we, as a society and also as Christians, have failed to allow these teachings to shape us. Jesus shows that it is possible to disarm hate without becoming violent ourselves.
Jesus continues in the Jewish prophetic tradition of turning instruments of violence into instruments of growth. Isaiah and Micah speak of beating “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.” We all have a societal mission of taking the dangerous and violent elements of our society and shaping it into something new and better.
I have been working with a group that seeks to make this work tangible. RAWtools is an organization that seeks to reverse tools of war into garden tools. We disassemble guns and convert them into spades, trowels and jewelry. We want to show that God, working through humans, can take ugly, horrible things and make them beautiful.
This Christmas, as we celebrate God coming to Earth to “preach peace to those who are far off and those who are near,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians, we should consider how we too can be an interruption to the violence. We need to be instruments of peace, and one way is to work for an end to gun violence in all its forms.
Let’s do it in honor of all the Holy Innocents who have lost their lives: in Judea, in Newton, in Uvalde and in our streets.
(Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)