“I think my worship band is packing heat” my best friend Brad said with a smirk during a Saturday brunch back in 2009.
“Like guns?” I asked him. He supplied me with regular updates on our home church since he had gone back to lead the worship band.
“I think gun…singular. ” Brad corrected me as he chewed his egg bake. There had been a school shooting the week before. Back then school shootings were still rare enough that people talked about them for weeks at a time. Before America started seeing mass killings as a residual stain on the cultural landscape, like obesity or credit card debt.
“So last week, the praise band was sitting on the stage between songs talking about what we would do if someone came to our church and opened fire.” Then he laughed uncomfortably. “And the lead singer looks at me and says, ‘That’s why I got a conceal and carry. So I could pull out a hand gun and land one between his eyes.’ But he sounded a little too confident in his answer.” Brad added. “So I asked him if he had a gun on him right then.” I knew the guy he was talking about. He was a well-liked church elder who smiled wide and laughed often. “And he said ‘I wish I was.’ But something in his voice made me wonder if he did actually have a gun under his pleated khakis.”
I remember listening to Brad describe the satisfied grin on the lead singers face. The church was in a wealthy suburb. Growing up I could’ve walked across town at midnight with a hundred dollar bill in my pocket and never feel the least bit unsafe. But school shootings seemed to happen in suburbs like that, as if the safer you were on the street, the more likely you were to get shot in a public building.
The next Sunday I went to church with Brad. I sat in the back of the sanctuary watching the lead singer singing “Open the eyes of my heart I want to see you…” smiling wide, his hands raised.
But I wasn’t thinking about the music, my eyes were glued to his left pant leg, searching for the outline of a barrel. And as I scanned his leg I started to wonder who else had a gun on them. Suddenly the sanctuary felt strangely dangerous, as if guns were somehow necessary. I imagined a young man running into the sanctuary with an assault rifle. The worship leader pushing over the microphone, drawing his weapon, and landing one between the teenager’s eyes. Then I wondered what the headlines would read. “Worship Leader with Gun saves Church” or “Mentally Ill Teenager Killed by Worship Leader.”
The scene was startlingly easy to imagine. I’ve grown up watching mass shootings. I was in 9th grade science class as I watched bloody teenagers get wheeled out of Columbine High School. And since then I have watched hundreds more school shootings, military bases, gang violence, last week there was a 16 year old boy not 10 blocks from our church who accidentally shot his own brother.
And after the commercial break, another round of debates splash across the cable news networks and tumble down my Facebook news feed.
The same talking points about video games, gun rights, mental health, background checks, conceal and carry, and increased security.
The same old hypothetical situations: What if there was a gunman at your kid’s school? What if someone broke into your house and was going to kill you family?
Each talking point a clever linguistic turn of phrase to keep the conversation about “self-defense.”
I get why we do it. It stems from a desire to survive and protect the ones we love.
This was made clear last fall when two cars screeched down the alleyway behind our house firing bullets into our backyard. One of the cars drove straight over our retaining wall and through the back of our garage.
And as I surveyed the broken remains, the alley now a collage of siding, plywood, glass, and the remains of the shooters black SUV. I felt angry and scared and powerless.
And in that moment staring at the wreckage, I understood why the gun rights activists and conservative talking heads shout angrily about the right to stockpile AK-47s with unlimited ammo. Why the worship leader wanted to pack heat on Sunday morning.
Because at some level, maybe a level deeper than they can admit, they feel scared and powerless too.
Scared that someone is going to shoot up their alley.
Scared that someone is going to open fire their church.
Scared they’re gonna be left standing there flat footed, unarmed, at the mercy of a mentally ill teenager with an assault rifle.
And as American citizens we are entitled to debate stand your ground laws and the constitutional right to bear arms.
But as followers of Jesus we have to resist the temptation to give into fear and self-protectionist rhetoric. Because Jesus gave us another command we have to factor in. The command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
Jesus countered the civil law of his day “And eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth” with a call to change the way his followers should conceptualized justice: “Love your enemies. Pray for them.”
In the last three weeks there have been three mass shootings. And the same debates have started all over again. And as another round of public and personal debates rage on. I urge you to resist the rhetoric.
We need to change the conversation.
So the next time someone pulls out the old hypothetical “what if someone insert life-threatening situation ” don’t fall for it. Don’t give into the game of self-defense.
Instead ask yourself “How do I love the person who broke into my house?”
The answer will probably require a lot more of you than deciding whether or not to pull a trigger.
It might mean we have to get a little creative and we will probably have to find some new weapons.
Weapons like sending a plate of cookies and an encouraging letter to that sad, lonely (and a little scary) neighbor.
Weapons like mentoring the kid at your local schools who is in the principal’s office day after day.
And if we still feel the need for self-defense after all of that…let’s try and look for a weapon that doesn’t have such a lethal track record.
Maybe someone can invent that Star Trek gun.
Then we could at least “set our phaser’s to stun” our enemies.
The enemies we are trying to love.