Is it just me, or is the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting doing more to point out the great rift within evangelicalism than the publication of any Rob Bell book?
I’m not just talking about evangelical bloggers and intelligentsia. I’m talking about the ordinary followers who broadcast their opinions about every headline and every event on social media. In the wake of the elementary school massacre, many Facebook and Twitter users immediately took the opportunity to spout their ideology on gun rights, gun control, and school prayer—most without regard for tact. This post was born from my dissatisfaction, even disgust, with what fellow Christians were posting on these sites and their personal blogs.
In addition to terrifying every parent out of their minds (myself included), this event has shockingly revealed the gap between traditional evangelicals and Red Letter Christians more than any other recent event. Despite our differences, I’d like to argue that we as believers can carefully parse our words of criticism while maintaining the unity of the evangelical church. Now, I’m not sure if this is possible—or even desirable. There seems to be two competing visions of God at work here. To illustrate this, I’m going to highlight two of the main points of discussion, post-Sandy Hook, that have captured the Internet: the topics of guns and God’s public role.
1) The Antichrist Gun Culture (yes, I wrote “antichrist”)
The first area is the wide (and widening) gap over guns. Christian leaders like John Eldredge, a teacher I once held respect for, blamed the crisis on pure evil and mocked any suggestion that gun control initiatives would alleviate such violence.
Let me preface my opinion here by stating that I am not particularly zealous about gun rights or gun control. I do not own a gun nor have I ever been hunting in my life—although I’m from an area of the country and an extended family where guns and hunting are prominent. This is not an issue to which I’ve given much thought or passion prior to Sandy Hook. (I’m sure this might be different if I was raised as a hunter or if someone close to me were a victim of gun violence.) But far too many Americans—and even Christians—treat guns as American as apple pie and as sacred as the cross. After reading so many ridiculous defenses of the need for more guns over the past two days, I think it is my Christian duty to respond.
The equivalent of a gun in Jesus’ day was the sword. This isn’t a perfect analogy but it is the only one we have to work with. In what’s become a cliché but is forever relevant, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword” (Matt. 26:52, HCSB). Judging from Jesus’ response to Simon Peter’s reliance on a weapon to defend Him from arrest, relying on a gun for self-defense seems quite un-Christlike—even antichrist. The only sword praised in the Bible is the sword of the spirit, the Word of God, the double-edged sword proceeding from the mouth of the triumphant Christ. Like the Psalmist of old, we should trust in that for protection. Leaning on anything else trusts in our own ways—in other words, self-salvation.
The NRA suggestion that a gun is necessary for personal protection proves Christ’s words of wisdom. While perusing the Sandy Hook updates the other day, I came across a story about a 4 year old who found his parents hidden gun and accidentally shot his 2 year old sibling to death. Try and tell this family that guns don’t kill people, only crazy people do. A handgun hidden (albeit poorly) for “personal protection” ruined this family when it tragically took one of their child’s lives. Go ahead—blame the negligent parents, but without the gun in the home, this tragedy would never have happened. Go ahead, blame the mental illness or blame the mom, but without easy access to guns the Sandy Hook tragedy wouldn’t have happened as it did.
To paraphrase the above scripture in Bob Marley fashion, “Put your [gun] back in its place because all who take up a [gun] will perish by a [gun].” Back in its place. I’m not arguing complete gun control here. While the world might be better off without guns in some ways, clearly guns are here to stay. Hunting rifles obviously serve a constructive purpose in many peoples’ lives. What I am arguing against is the gun culture that many Christians have bought into. Absolute gun control is not the whole answer (but obviously banning assault rifles is a common sense step that even Justice Scalia admitted was constitutionally permissible). It’s the gun culture that we as believers must attack—and certainly not embrace.
Jesus made clear at least once that it was allowable to possess weapons. He tells the disciples to trade their cloaks to buy swords in Luke 22. When they note they already have two in their possession, Jesus says “That’s enough.” I know some will note this was a one-time authorization to fulfill the “outlaw” prophesy of Isaiah 53:12. But this passage also tells me two things: 1) The disciples were carrying weapons and Jesus had not previously chastised them; and 2) Jesus told the disciples that an excessive amount of weaponry was unnecessary (i.e., two was enough for all the disciples; so large weapon caches are inappropriate). But let us not forget, he then made clear that these were not to be used in self-defense or defense of His freedom or honor.
So, while I am not calling for strict new gun control regulations as the end of all violence, I am calling into question the claims of fellow believers who desperately cling to guns as if they are the instruments of their salvation. There is no account of the early church fathers using these two swords to defend themselves after Peter’s indiscretion in the garden. They willingly accepted their martyrdom in all cases. Christianity and the gun culture is an unholy alliance. We don’t often hear this pointed out because of the perception that American conservatism (and its fetish for guns) is one and the same with true Christianity. Come on church—let’s get back to our roots: Christ and His teachings! Let’s trust in God, not guns.
This division over guns is what the Very Rev. Gary Hall calls “the gun lobby” and “the cross lobby.” It’s a shame that some Christians are coming down on the opposite side of the cross. They are redefining their Christ as a vengeful monster from a bad comic book. (Yes, such a comic does exist. I suggest gun-carrying Christians take a look—and before you yell “Blasphemy!” think about whether a Christ-follower with a gun is any less absurd.) If we can’t agree that Jesus and automatic weapons don’t mix, how do we agree on anything? We must serve different Jesuses—that is the only conclusion one can take away.
2) God and Public Life
The second area is the continual discussion of God’s place in public life, including schools.
I study religion and politics. Let me tell you—religion and public life are so intertwined in America, and Christianity has such a privileged place, that we are unique among the nations of the world. (Of course much of what passes for religion is superficial at best, but genuine faith will always be hard to come by—see Matt. 7:14.) To blame a lack of reliance on God for this most recent tragedy is a slap in the face of the victims and their families who attended church before or after the shooting.
James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, and Mike Huckabee all blamed the shooting, one way or another, on a lack of official recognition of God in America and His judgment upon our land for rejecting Him and/or His teachings. Dobson’s explanation of God’s judgment sounded disturbingly similarly to Westboro Baptist’s take on things. Do you serve a God who punishes policymakers for rejecting Him by killing children? If Christians want to place blame, blame the culture of violence—not the Prince of Peace. The Westboro Baptist god is not our God, no matter what Dobson says. Huckabee later rolled back his claim that prayer in schools would prevent such tragedies. This was just for the cameras because fellow Christians all know what he meant.
Head’s up Huckabee—kids pray in school every day. There is no ban on prayer! I even led a prayer group in high school that met regularly. We do not need the government forcing us to say officially-sanctioned prayers in school each day. Do we think being forced to say a prayer is any prayer at all? Do we think that in the not-so-distant days of Christendom, when all members of society were considered “Christian” and our nations were “Christian,” that faith was genuine? We have come so far and need to respect the rights of other religious traditions. We argue for freedom for our missionaries to evangelize in Islamic countries but then we want to remake America in their same restrictive mold. Sure, today, our faith is sometimes looked down upon, marginalized, and spat on—but the church is in a much better place now that we have regained the pre-Constantinian role of sojourners in a sinful world rather than the inquisitors of godless governments. Let’s open our eyes and do the good work of God instead of expecting our government to do it for us!
John Eldredge, as I said before, blamed the crisis on the evil acts of the enemy. While I agree with his overall take on spiritual warfare and the need for the church to recognize the battle we’re in, expecting policymakers to pinpoint evil as the target for policy solutions is outright ridiculous. Public policy is based in measurable steps to combat public problems. I know—I have two graduate degrees in the field. Can you imagine how ludicrous it would be to have a discussion on Capitol Hill about a bill to combat the forces of absolute evil?
Wait, I can! Defund war, reign in the availability of automatic weapons, and end capital punishment. This is not what Eldredge is referring to in his comments. He likens any efforts at gun control to “crying for the trees to be cut down while [we] ignore the [evil] wind.” (As if the wind doesn’t become a much greater threat when it has trees to work with.)
Progressive Christian bloggers have rightly responded to the Christian Right—some with harsh, explicit language. I have seen no less than five blog posts (even on RLC) using profanity to refer to these Christian teachers as “f*cking idiot[s]” and purveyors of “bullsh*t.” When I read these, I initially wanted to think, “Yeah, give it to ’em! Tell them what they really are!” Then I stopped and wondered if this kind of “dialogue,” if you can call it that, simply serves to highlight the weaknesses of a more-progressive Christianity and—far from convincing our conservative brethren—simply pushes them farther away from where we want them to go. There may be a time for strong language, but there is always a cost to such outbursts.
It is clear that my God, the God of Jesus, is not in favor of the gun culture or forcing himself on non-believers with government-sanctioned school prayer. Shouldn’t this be obvious to all Christ-followers?
But what larger point am I trying to make besides critiquing conservative takes on God and guns? As Eldredge says, this tragedy and the reaction to it are “more important than we think.” In my mind it is revealing just how little Red Letter Christianity has in common with a faith that elevates the Second Amendment over the First. I think these two differences are too great to simply chock up to liberal and conservative politics. (You cannot excuse a perversion of the faith by simply claiming the labels of liberalism or conservatism.)
What can we each do about this division? For starters, we can be civil and work to spread the Red Letter teachings of Christ far and wide. And continue to call out our fellow believers in love—and in a tasteful manner—whenever they express beliefs or attitudes at odds with the Christ of scripture. Let’s make clear to the world that these religious teachers, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, do not speak for God. And pray, as Jesus did in John 17, for the unity of all believers in Christ. It’s just that in recent days it’s been much easier to live this out with our Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant brothers and sisters than with our fellow evangelicals. I hope this changes as more and more younger evangelicals begin to recognize the institutionalization of antichrist teachings in the church that alienate the world from the true messages of Christ—peace, love, and grace.
To paraphrase Tiny Tim this Christmas, “May God help us—everyone.”
Joshua D. Ambrosius, Ph.D., is an urbanist, religionist political scientist who is completing a book manuscript titled A Politics of Selflessness, a rethinking of Christian political theory and action. Holding graduate degrees in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Louisville, he is currently an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist institution in Dayton, Ohio. His latest research on religion and politics appears in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, downloadable for free here.