On the last Saturday of the year, a man entered the home of a rabbi in New York where members of the Jewish community were celebrating Hanukah and attacked them with a machete. This attack prompted a letter from our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in which she reminded all of us that anti-Semitism was a contradiction and affront to the Gospel and a violation of our hope and calling. On the last Sunday of the year, a man walked into a church near Ft. Worth with a gun and killed two members of that community before being killed by another member who was also carrying a gun and was credited with saving more lives because of his quick use of deadly force. In 2019 we saw a rise in anti-Semitic hatred, bigotry, and violence. 2019 saw 417 victims of mass shootings, making headlines that there were more mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019 than there were days in the year.
These two latest incidents of violence in religious places and communities have led me to wonder about the connection between faith and violence. We could dismiss the two incidents by pointing out the mental health problems of the perpetrators of the violence, but does that explain the overall increasing violence, bigotry and hatred in our society? Does our faith, rather than preventing more violence, actually contribute to an environment where it is acceptable to hate those who are different, those who don’t believe as we do? Does our faith make respectful, honest conversations regarding the place of guns not only in our society but in our places of worship more challenging because we don’t want to talk “politics” in church?
In her statement following the attack in New York, Bishop Eaton said that to address what is happening in our country, will require more of us than repeated statements. It will require building bridges of inter-religious understanding in our communities. It will require reaching out to our Jewish neighbors to offer our care, support, love, and protection. It will require our persistence in addressing the root causes of anti-Semitism, and its menacing companions of white supremacy and xenophobia.
I believe it also requires us to begin asking honest and difficult questions in order to address the root causes of both anti-Semitism as well as violence. That is why I am writing this article, to put some of those questions on the table.
Let’s start by asking what is the purpose of our faith as Christians? If faith is about believing the right things (that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins) in order to be saved from those sins, then does it follow that those who don’t believe the right things will not be saved? If they (those who don’t believe like we do, act like we do, look like us . . . ) are not worthy of being saved, then are they even “worthy” people, worthy of equal treatment, worthy of respect?
Certainly, people could argue that I’m oversimplifying, overstating things, but Christianity has a history of arrogant supremacy as witnessed by the Crusades of the past, as well as countless other acts of violence perpetrated in the name Christianity. Is it possible to proclaim the distinctive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that respects the diversity of other religious expressions? Is it possible that the distinctive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ actually leads us to see the breadth and depth of God’s grace in those different religious expressions? Could a deeper understanding of grace lead us to a way of life where all are seen, regarded and treated as beloved children of God, when as we heard in the beautiful Advent texts from Isaiah, “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” in all my holy creation?
As people of faith in this God who became incarnate, who brought good news of great joy to all people, who sent angels singing of peace on earth, what questions do we need to ask about the violence, especially gun violence, that seems so prevalent these days in our culture? While there is much debate about gun control, I hear very few questions regarding the “right to bear arms.” The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791 reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." In 2008 the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision stated that the language and history of the second amendment shows it protects a private right of individuals to have arms for their own defense, not a right of the states to maintain a militia.
Do we still need to have the “right” to bear arms? Do we, should we, as individuals have the “right” to carry weapons that can kill? Is the right to bear arms the same as the right to defend oneself? With a government elected by the people, a tax supported police force, and other security measures that are now available is this “right” the “right” way to provide that protection? We focus a lot on our “rights,” but what about our responsibilities? What are our responsibilities to make society safe, a place where our children can go to school without walking through metal detectors, and people can come to worship without having armed security guards ready draw their weapons? How does our faith in Christ, the birth, life, and death of Jesus, impact how we answer those questions?
I recognize that these are tough questions bound to raise all kinds of thoughts and comments. But isn’t a community where Christ is present, where we understand that we are connected to one another not by our similar views, but by our relationship with Christ, where because we are indeed saved by grace, give us the freedom and the courage to have these conversations? As Bishop Eaton stated in the end of her letter, In our prayers and actions, may we be a living presence of God's sacred light which rouses us all to resistance and righteousness.
Could the willingness to ask the questions and engage in honest conversation, lead to actions, rouse us all to resistance and righteousness for we are indeed the living presence of God’s sacred light? Could 2020 be a year where we not only sing, Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me, but live that reality as a church, as people of God, as bearers of Christ?