The news slammed my phone on Monday, December 6, 2021. Emails buzzing, calls ringing, texts pinging. This was followed by group chats from friends in a long train of dinging notifications as everyone threw down their questions and concerns, wondering what we’re doing wrong in this country that violence and threats of violence has become so commonplace. Wondering how it was even possible that in Zeeland, Michigan, our kids would not be going to school the next morning due to threats of violence.
Violence. Violence against children as they sit at desks taking notes. Violence as they laugh, swing and slide on playgrounds. I have waited a few months to write this, to be sure I’m not just writing out of anger and frustration alone. Four months later, I’m just as angry and frustrated.
This is not the world I want to live in. This is not the world I want for my kids.
We’ve seen over and over again the way egregious violence can quickly spin communities into a downward spiral of grief and trauma. No one ever believes it could happen to them, in the safety of their communal gathering spaces—places intended to nurture light and life, until they find themselves sitting at a graveside, lowering the mangled flesh of a loved one six feet under.
On Tuesday, November 30, just one week prior to the threats received by our school, I watched aerial footage of children in Oxford, Michigan, hurling themselves through classroom windows and swarming like an army of ants across the school grounds, seeking safety during yet another mass school schooling. Spaces that were supposed to be the connecting veins between biology and algebra, English and art, with a flow of laughter and innocence moving through them, were now blood-stained. These heart-stopping images were still fresh and stuck in our eyes when the threats came against my own children.
As we all took in the devastation of that day, my social media was a stream of people AGAIN calling for meaningful gun legislation. And AGAIN, many Christian folks responded to those calls saying the same thing I hear them say after every school shooting in the United States: they express horror and anger that people would call for accountability and change before the blood had even been hosed down from the walls, and that the only appropriate response in the moment is “thoughts and prayers.” These are typically the same Christians who fiercely defend gun rights.
Why is it, I wonder, that Christians are some of the loudest and first to respond with a posture defensive of gun rights and with a refusal to even consider that our excessive amount of guns might be a significant part of the problem? Why aren’t Christians instead the loudest and first to respond in a posture that is fiercely defensive of the sacredness of human life and the many lives that absorb the bullets that crush bones, splinter veins, and stop hearts with the simple pull of a trigger? Why is there such a resistance to considering that maybe we’re contributing to the culture of violence in our fierce calls to protect the personal right to carry the sort of guns that would never be used to hunt a deer over what might actually be best for humanity? Is it possible we love our weapons more than we love our people? Is it possible that this love of guns and commitment to making sure we can always have as much firepower in our hands as we want reveals that there is a spiritual problem driving gun violence in America and we ourselves are at the heart of that problem?
In my social media feed I see Christians posting that they will die for the right to tuck their AK-47 in at night. This fierce defense of the right to walk around locked and loaded is deeply troubling to me. It’s particularly troubling when it comes at the expense of the common good and when the desire to be able to personally have guns seems greater than the desire for peace and safety.
Jesus creatively demonstrated what non-violence can look like in the face of a violent world. He taught us what it means to stand within the world but not be of the world. He taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Maybe we just don’t believe him. Maybe we don’t really trust him. Maybe our ability to think creatively and outside of how John Wayne, Rambo, and 007 have taught us to deal with people who don’t like us has been dumbed down and dissolved to the point that we can’t even begin to consider how actually showing love to those who threaten us could transform the world.
To the best of my knowledge, Jesus never walked around with a sword tucked in his belt, swinging it at those who threatened him. And I don’t find it plausible that he would walk around today with a handgun tucked in his jeans ready to pull the trigger on threatening people. I’ve also heard plenty of current day accounts of people, inspired by Jesus, responding to violence with love and compassion which resulted in a diffusion of violence, where even the lives of those who threatened violence against them were transformed. Because the nonsensical, extraordinary, inexplicable, jaw-dropping kind of love that Jesus demonstrated is the very thing that will bring goodness and peace into the world. Maybe, it turns out, Jesus actually knew what he was doing and talking about.
Violence was the way of Rome. It was not the way of Jesus. Jesus explicitly calls us to take up our cross and follow his ways. I assume he didn’t intend that we use the cross as a weapon to plunge into the side of our enemy, but rather a thing on which we lay down our lives for them. We are asked to be willing to surrender our lives to the story of Jesus’ love, and it might cost us something. It might even cost us our lives.
A mass shooting happens, people express anger and advocate for sensible gun legislation, and other people condemn the anger and call for thoughts and prayers instead. Every time there is a publicized mass shooting, I watch this same series of responses play out on social media and in the halls of Congress like some well-rehearsed script we’ve all agreed to. This production is getting tiresome and increasingly troublesome. Gun violence has become as American as apple pie, and I am not okay with it.
I understand this perspective that wants to sit—sometime stay—on bended knees. I hold space for those who respond to tragedy in a spirit of “thoughts and prayers.” I’ve always genuinely appreciated when people send me their thoughts and prayers in the midst of my own grief or struggle. But I also appreciate people who show up for me by way of practical response. I appreciate both in different and meaningful ways.
Children died at school. Again. Some grieve by way of tears and silence. Others grieve by way of anger, shaking their fists and asking, “Why?!? Why. Does. This. Keep. Happening?!” I can hear the psalmists in the first response and the prophets in the latter.
Both responses are absolutely appropriate. I remember a high school Bible teacher who once said to our class, “You can’t just pray to do well on the upcoming exam. Prayer doesn’t work like that. You have to put in the work to arrive at the desired outcome.”
Our response to gun violence, like so many issues that polarize, is, in part, shaped by the degree one is willing to forego individual liberty for the common good. The same libertarian impulse that leads some to rail against COVID masks leads them to support gun rights. When “me and my rights” has greater value than what is good for the community as a whole, I have to wonder how we got here. Jesus repeatedly calls us to put our selfishness aside for the good of our neighbor and for the good of our community.
We would become better as a society in all areas if we would allow various perspectives and experiences to speak into tragedy—maybe especially tragedy like a mass shooting incident, which for the most part, is a uniquely American problem and happens with alarming frequency.
The United States has more guns than people. We had an average of 10 mass shootings per week in 2021 (even though only a few ever make the national news). Because of that, every day is an appropriate day to ask the hard questions about gun violence. We are constantly stuck in the wheel of that tragedy—spinning in dizzy circles and never getting anywhere. If it was always “too soon” to ask hard questions, “too soon” to do anything but be on our knees, then given the frequency of these tragic incidents we would, quite frankly, never get around to moving—never get around to the hard and holy work of examining ourselves, our culture, our laws and our systems, and then pushing for life-giving change.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be gobsmacked if our lawmakers failed to examine and address various laws and policies that may have a part in nurturing our gun violence problem. This is a contribution they are uniquely qualified to make toward reducing gun violence and bettering our society.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be puzzled if spiritual and religious leaders weren’t holding space for prayer, grief, and silence and also asking if we have a spiritual problem that is nurturing our gun violence problem.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be puzzled if our mental health workers weren’t asking if we have a mental health crisis and a lack of access to mental health care problem that is nurturing our gun violence problem.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be puzzled if our sociologists weren’t asking if there are broader social and cultural trends contributing to our gun violence problem.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be disappointed if political scientists and activists weren’t questioning the nuts and bolts of our political systems and how the influence of big money and powerful lobbyists like the NRA, who have their fists squeezed around the throats of our politicians, may be contributing to our gun violence problem.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be upset if judges and constitutional lawyers weren’t questioning if our loose interpretation of the second amendment is contributing to our gun violence problem.
In the wake of another mass shooting, I would be disappointed if citizens of a democratic republic failed to advocate on behalf of victims of gun violence or call for laws that value human life and the common good. Together we are the body and the voice that speaks the vision of who we want to collectively be. And we, therefore, have a responsibility to relentlessly press us in the direction of that vision we hold.
We do have a gun violence problem in this country. In my view, both action and prayer can be appropriate ways to respond. But prayer alone, without active response has literally never worked to bring healing and wholeness to systemic issues in the United States. Ever.
Gun violence is a very messy, complicated, and charged issue. Shed your tears. Expel prayers from your gut. Hold your little ones close, lift up the vision of the world you want to leave them, and walk in every way you can to make it so. We must all relentlessly do our part because we are called to be a tsunami of light and life in the midst of this chaotic madness.
Prince of Peace, may we hold up your vision of human flourishing and may we walk towards its fruition. 🙏🏼