By Cathy Norman Peterson
Spike Lee’s forthcoming film about gun violence in Chicago is titled, controversially, Chiraq. The term comes from a sociologist’s observation that in a recent decade, the homicide rate in one Chicago neighborhood nearly matched the civilian deaths at the peak of the Iraq war.
My city leads both New York City and Los Angeles in homicides—not in per capita totals, but in sheer numbers. In 2014, Chicago had 407 homicides, whereas NYC and LA had 333 and 260, respectively. Illinois is one of seven states where no one is permitted to openly carry handguns.
So I don’t really know people who own guns.
In contrast, in Montana, where my dear friend and fellow Theoloqui contributor Jill Riley lives, anyone can openly carry a firearm. To purchase a handgun there, you don’t need a permit or a waiting period or a universal background check. To my urban ears, it really sounds like the wild West.
When the Theoloqui writers decided to address subjects we disagree on, it seemed a good idea. We’d provoke debate and generate discussion from our disparate perspectives.
But I’m having second thoughts.
Last week Jill argued in this space that because she is called to be a shepherd, she can and should protect her flock. With her gun if necessary.
As a follower of Jesus, I cannot get my head around any argument for and by Christians in defense of violence. How can we ever claim to protect life by threatening life? How can we say we love Jesus while we cling to our rights? Surely his example tells us to do the opposite—deny ourselves, take up our cross, relinquish what’s rightfully ours.
What does the Bible say about my right to bear arms? Jill asks. True, there is no anachronistic reference to our constitution’s Second Amendment. But when I read Scripture, this is what I find:
Do not repay evil for evil.
Never avenge yourselves.
If your enemy is hungry, feed him or her.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And I find a pacifist Jesus, who says, “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek.”
Plenty of Jesus’s followers wanted him to help them overthrow the oppressive Roman rule. But he refused. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get angry about injustice. He saved a woman caught in adultery from near stoning. He intervened for men and women who were mistreated because they were poor or ill or powerless. Some of the stories that sound so familiar to us probably verged on violence—the angry farmers of the pigs in the Gerasenes, the standoffs with the religious leaders when Jesus silenced them with his retorts. And imagine the scene when Judas showed up in the garden with soldiers, police, chief priests, and Pharisees. It was more than a skirmish, and it culminated in Peter drawing blood as he sliced off the slave of the high priest’s ear.
But Jesus always chose the path of love. We never read of him picking up a stone, let alone throwing one. In the garden he remonstrated Peter, the one who defended him—but not those who came to do him harm. And because he chose the path of love, when he could have made another choice, he was killed. In a very violent way.
He didn’t even save his followers from harm. How many of them were killed and imprisoned because of him?
But the whole point was, he was showing us another way.
Jill writes that she carries her pistol to protect the powerless, to step in for those who can’t defend themselves. This is of course an instinct many of us share. Surely we must protect those who need our help. That has to be right…right?
In her new book, Accidental Saints, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber describes her delight in discovering a potential new saint to celebrate at All Saints Day. She found a plaque dedicated to Alma White, a woman who started a church in her area more than a century ago. “Did a woman plant a church in Denver in 1901?” Bolz-Weber wondered excitedly.
But after she Googled White’s name, Bolz-Weber’s delight turned to disgust. White was indeed a church planter, but she was known for being anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and a member of the KKK.
Yet one of Bolz-Weber’s parishioners insisted on including Alma White’s name in their All Saints Sunday remembrance. Bolz-Weber hated the idea. Here’s what she writes:
“I want racists to stay in the ‘racist’ box. When they start sneaking into the ‘saint’ box, it makes me nervous. But that’s how it works….Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin.”
Is it possible that our desire to destroy people who commit hateful, despicable acts—Dylann Roof, Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza—could be a sin?
It can feel horrifying to us, but I think we have to admit that God loves both victims and those who oppress. Just as Alma White has a little corner at the saints’ table, we have to consider the possibility that while God never condones or abides cruelty, God always loves—even those who inflict cruelty upon others. Even when it doesn’t make sense to us, God always makes room for redemption.
“Can we please be wise and discerning about firearms while also recognizing that the weaponry is not the problem?” Jill asks.
Yes, we should be wise and discerning. And it’s true—broken people are the ones who kill people. But turning to weapons to protect us seems faith misplaced. Surely we must turn instead to the God who created each sinful human in this world, to God who weeps with us at the loss of life and the suffering caused by evil, to God who invites us to choose a different path.
I don’t own a gun. Yet together with Jill, I press toward peace. By the grace of God, we will continue along this path—disagreeing, yes, but traveling together.