Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

I’m really tired of this.

With stunning regularity we as a nation are faced with mass shooting after mass shooting. We have the commensurate hand-wringing, the person-on-the-street interviews in which someone says, “I can’t believe this happened in our community,” the calls for “common sense” gun control legislation from one side of the aisle and the chiding response from the other side that it’s too soon to bring politics into the discussion because people need a chance to grieve. The upshot is that we do nothing, and simply wait for the next “tragedy” to happen so we can crank up all this machinery yet again, so that yet again we can get down to the business of doing nothing.

This time it’s a little different, and the questions hit a little closer to home, because the latest attack happened at a Baptist church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The congregation of First Baptist had gathered for worship the way they do every Sunday—the way we do every Sunday—and before the hour was up twenty-six of them lay dead. Around 11:20 a.m. a heavily armed man wearing body armor approached the church. This man had a record of domestic abuse; he had been accused of rape; he had tried to bring weapons onto an Air Force base to kill his superior officers; he had sent threatening texts to his mother-in-law; and he had a history of mental illness, including time spent in a mental health facility in New Mexico. This man blithely walked up to the church armed with one of the rifles he had been allowed to purchase because of the sieve-like nature of our gun laws’ registry requirements and started shooting.

" Ruger SR556-Rifle " by Sturm, Ruger & Co. Firearms is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0

"Ruger SR556-Rifle" by Sturm, Ruger & Co. Firearms is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s also a little different this time because of what happened next. Hearing the rapid-fire shots, a neighbor came out armed with his own AR-15 rifle and returned fire, at which point the killer fled the scene in his SUV, which he wrecked after apparently killing himself with another firearm he had in his car. All sorts of people began calling this neighbor, Stephen Willeford, a hero, and the NRA quickly put up a video interview on its web site and hailed him as vindication of their mantra, “The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” It didn’t hurt their cause a bit that Willeford used to be a certified instructor with the NRA and credited the training he received from the gun group with enabling him to take quick and decisive action.

The challenge we face as a result of these particular circumstances—that it took place in a church and that an armed civilian engaged the shooter—is the temptation to draw the wrong conclusions. Willeford’s actions gave the NRA one of its most effective and compelling rhetorical weapons: anecdotal evidence. The data indicate that most of the time civilians get involved in situations like these, they either have no effect or else cause problems for the police. In the worst cases they end up wounding innocent persons. The data also show that most of the time it is unarmed persons who take action to neutralize the shooter, usually when he has stopped to reload. Many, if not most, police organizations are adamant that they do not want interference from well-meaning, well-armed amateurs. Willeford is an outlier because of his experience and training; most people who want to help out in such situations don’t know what they are doing and pose more of a danger than a benefit. But evidence like that is cold and easily ignored when placed next to a rousing hero story like Willeford’s.

Many of us feel terrorized by the possibility that we too could be caught in the crossfire when we do something that should be safe, such as going to a concert, or even sacrosanct, such as attending a worship service at church. If I’m not safe at church, we think, where in the world am I safe? Because of this fear, and in large part because of the anecdotal evidence of Willeford’s commando-like response, a lot of people will be buying guns and applying for concealed-carry licenses in the wake of this latest massacre. I may not agree with that response, but I certainly understand and sympathize with the feelings that give rise to it.

Another response, however, I find unacceptable. That is the call for more churches to hire armed security guards or for ordinary parishioners to bring their guns with them to worship. As far as I am concerned, that is not an option. We have prominently displayed in our sanctuary not a sword or a gun but a cross. It represents the power of violent repression that was broken not by someone who attacked and defeated those who employed the cross as a tool of state terror, but rather by a man who submitted himself to the pain and indignity of being tortured and killed on one. Jesus rejected at every point the prospect of anyone—James and John, Peter, or even twelve legions of angels—using violence in his defense. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf came to the profound realization that the only way anyone could defeat the dark powers was to resist trying to use the Ring but rather to destroy it utterly. Jesus knew that he could not use the sword to defeat the powers who wielded swords. We have to learn that we cannot use the gun to defeat those who brandish guns. We have to find another way.

Leaders in the early church rejected all forms of violence. Many of them went to their deaths as martyrs without even considering the possibility of fighting their persecutors, even in self-defense. They understood the lesson of the cross. They understood that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be unarmed. To be nonviolent. To be vulnerable. They knew that there are worse things than to be killed. As Jesus himself said, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” (Matthew 16:26, TNIV).

Songwriter Derek Webb captures this idea powerfully in the song, “A Love That’s Stronger Than Our Fear.” He sings:

What would you do
if someone put a gun to your head
and asked you tell them a lie?
What would you say
if you were pushed that way—
to betray yourself to keep yourself alive?
Is life worth so much?
There’s got to be a love stronger than our fear….

Love, not fear, must define us. May we have the courage to make the right choice.