The news of another school shooting, this time in Southern Oregon, has produced all of the now familiar reactions and responses in us.
On the personal level we grieve. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ predictable stages are all playing out in our hearts once again – Shock, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. This is a loss that we all feel to varying degrees, and grief is the healing process that we are given to survive such losses. We are stunned that it’s happened again. We are mad that it just keeps on happening. We are sad for the families, and for ourselves, wondering -what’s become of us as a people? We are asking ourselves and each other – what can be done to stop this senseless violence? And we are unsettled by just how familiar this has all become, how it is our “new normal.” This is how grieve, and we will be grieving for some time to come.
On the public level we seek solutions. Gun violence is a social problem that tears at the very fabric of our national life. We are a country birthed in the recognition that human beings have certain “unalienable” rights given to them by their Creator – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” being just three of the ones that got explicitly named. The establishment and defense of these rights for all is an important part of the nobility of our national agenda, and gun violence like that which left ten dead and thirteen wounded at the Umpqua Community College last Thursday morning is a clear violation of them for the slain, the wounded, their loved ones, that community and our nation. This is a matter of deep concern for the body politic.
And so, frankly, I just don’t get the criticism of our elected government leaders for supposedly “politicizing” this tragedy. “Politicizing” is the politician’s job after all. It’s what they are elected to do, and that’s not a “bad” thing in my mind. “Politics” is how we order our society. “Politics” is how we “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
If anything, I am frustrated that the national political conversation triggered by events like the shootings at the Umpqua Community College last week, and at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a few years back, just to name a few of the episodes of the kind of violence that we’ve got to address as a people, hasn’t been more robust and haven’t produced more and better results. And so I say, “bring it on.” It’s time – and many would say it’s long overdue – that we finally sorted out this question as a nation. Too many people are dying. Too many families are being ripped apart. Too many communities are being devastated. And so as a citizen of this country I am resolved to listen, and to think, and to debate the options with my family and closest friends, and to settle my own convictions, and then finally to vote my conscience on gun violence.
And so, I grieve personally as a human being, and I ponder politically as a citizen, but what am I supposed to be doing as a Christian, and more specifically, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of a local church? Well, in the simplest of terms, I think that I as a Christian and as a pastor, and that we as a church are supposed to “help.” But, what should be the shape of that “help”?
Well, at the personal level of grief, I believe that the way we “help” most as Christians is by always remembering that it is the primary business of the church “to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving from our doorsteps ‘to the ends of the earth.’” As Denny Burk, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, puts it –
It is important for Christians to use this moment to bring the claims of the gospel to bear upon people’s reflection on this tragedy… The gospel gives answers to the deepest questions raised by the shootings… (1) Why is there evil in the world? (2) How do people become capable of such heinous evil? (3) Where was God during the massacre? (4) Who’s going to make this right? (5) Who will care for the broken-hearted who were left behind? These are all ultimate questions, and… as Christians, we announce the gospel of Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised for sinners and who will one day return to make all things new as the answer. The coming kingdom of Christ is the only thing that will ultimately satisfy the instinctive human desire for “justice,” [and that can heal the deepest wounds of the human heart].
And then, at the public level of political discourse and decision-making, I believe that the way the church “helps” best is not by preaching a specific social policy as if it alone were God’s official position on an issue, but instead by helping the ordinary Christians who are in our care to think more deliberately and carefully about the general moral principles that are drawn from Scripture that are meant to inform the public policy debates.
If you ask me, far too many Christian leaders, both on the right and on the left, act as if the specific political conclusion that they have personally drawn on a pressing social question is the only legitimate “Christian” option when, in fact, Christians of equally “good faith” and sincere conscience can, and quite often do, draw very different conclusions. David VanDrunen, a Seminary Professor of Systematic Theology, explains how this happens by reminding his readers that nowhere does “Scripture set forth a political policy agenda or embrace a particular political party.” “The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy” R. Scott Clark, one of Professor VanDrunen’s colleagues points out, “any more than it is intended as a ‘playbook for sports.” And so Professor VanDrunen concludes, “When it comes to supporting a particular party, or candidate, or platform, or strategy – individual believers have the liberty to utilize the wisdom that God gives them to make decisions they believe will be of most good to society at large.” And I believe that an important part of the “wisdom” that God has given us to make our decisions that we think will be of the most good to society at large are the “general principles of the second table of God’s law” (Exodus 20:12-17). This is a resource we dare not neglect as Christians.
Of course, the complicating factor in the use of this spiritual resource, as Jason Stellman has helpfully pointed out, is that “there is a big difference between a moral principle and the implementation of that moral principle” (http://www.creedcodecult.com) –
Just because we agree on a point of ethics, that doesn’t mean that we will agree on what to do next. …I don’t think that there are easy answers to the big questions we are facing, and therefore I will not pretend to provide them. All I’m asking for is that, amid our pulpit-pounding and rally cries to one cause or another, we take the time to think a little bit harder than we are accustomed to doing, especially before calling an opponent’s faith or character into question.
Now, the obvious general moral principle drawn from the second table of the law that speaks directly to gun violence is – “You shall not murder.” On this, I suspect that everyone in the public political debate agrees. But how is this general moral principle best implemented? What shape should it take in actual public policy?
Just like you, I have some Christian friends who argue that tighter gun control legislation is the right way to give expression to this moral principle, and I don’t know, they may very well be right. But I have other Christian friends, as I suspect you do too, who argue that open carry legislation is instead the right way to give it public policy expression, and I don’t know, they may very well be right. Clearly, I need to give this some more thought. But, here’s what I already know – I have equally faithful Christian friends who are conscientiously attending to the very same moral principle, and who have nevertheless arrived at very different conclusions about how to best implement it. With them I believe that “You shall not murder” is a divinely inspired moral principle. It’s not negotiable. But the best way to give it expression in a modern society torn asunder by gun violence is a political conversation that needs to be had without one public policy posturing as the sole beneficiary of some imagined divine imprimatur.
For God’s sake – the God who commanded “You shall not murder” – let’s have the urgent political conversation in the public square that this moment in our social history as a people demands, free of the illusion that only this or that public policy proposal is “God’s position” on the matter. What God wants is for the school shootings to stop. What God is asking right now is – What are you prepared to do about it now? DBS+