Let me own up to being on the losing side of the great American dialogue about guns. Linked to my pro-life beliefs is a deep skepticism that the answer to violence on American streets is owning guns to use in self-defense. Thus I find it unsettling when pollsters, as Pew did last spring, track a rise in anti-abortion sentiment — and a call for less regulation of guns. Is there a connection?
The way the media covers the “keep your laws off my guns” disputes that roil Congress periodically (and are now heading to the Supreme Court again) and gun violence tragedies often leaves out voices that really ought to be heard in these debates. We don’t often get good quotes from shopkeepers and other workers striving to make a living in communities plagued by gun violence, and bystanders traumatized by the aftermath of it. Those who witness shootings may be asking some pretty fundamental questions: why did this happen on holy ground? Why was that man or woman killed or hurt? Why was I spared?
Underneath our belief that a place of worship is sacred space (that makes it so shocking when that space is torn asunder by violence) is another narrative — that many Americans subscribe to the Second Amendment as a secular article of faith. In the following story, it helps to be aware of both. A writer for the Associated Press takes a look (I cribbed from their punny headline) at how some pastors are coping in high-crime Detroit: bringing their guns to church with them. The AP story puts the incongruity of having clergy bring a gun onto sanctified ground right up in the lede:
The Rev. Lawrence Adams teaches his flock at the Westside Bible Church to turn the other cheek. Just in case, though, the 54-year-old retired police lieutenant also wears a handgun under his robe.
Adams is one of several Detroit clergymen who have taken to packing heat in the pulpit. They have committed their lives to a man who preached nonviolence and told followers to love their enemies. But they also say it’s up to them to protect their parishioners in church.
“As a pastor, I’m referred to as a shepherd,” Adams said. “Shepherds have the responsibility of watching over their flock. Do I want to hurt somebody? Absolutely not!”
Hurting someone isn’t a theoretical conundrum for Adams, who has already shot a would-be burglar.
This is one of those articles where readers get more strung-together facts than a cohesive story. Are we talking about a trend or a few maverick Detroit clergy? Are clergy taking another look at what it means to “shepherd” the flock as a result of the highly publicized fatal shootings of the past few years? How about quoting a clergyperson who has theological reasons for not bringing deadly force into the sanctuary? I have no idea why the writer brought in the national statistics, since he or she doesn’t use them to explore other facets of the story.
In comparison, last week’s Washington Post ran a beautifully written, tragic story by William Wan that illustrated, from many angles, the plight confronting many congregations who fear an eruption of violence in their sanctuaries. Wan begins his story by recalling a fatal shooting in a Maryland suburb — and its aftermath in the eyes of a parishioner who tried to help a dying woman.
Months later — long after the ambulance rushed her to a hospital, long after the 52-year-old legal secretary was pronounced dead — Fuller found himself constantly replaying this scene in his head. He had lost patients before, but this was different.
He had known this woman, exchanged greetings with her at services for years before her blood came to be smeared on his hands, mouth and suit.
Plagued by the vision, Fuller asked God to restore peace at his church and in his heart. But just as peace seemed within grasp, Kelly’s trial and conviction this month and his approaching sentencing this week have stirred everything back up.
The doctor still doesn’t understand why God let Patricia die, why He had placed Fuller so nearby if not to save her.
“I’ve prayed and asked,” Fuller said. “I haven’t received an answer yet. I don’t know if I ever will.”
There isn’t any neat ending here — no comforting resolution. Just the stark, naked questions of theodicy (why God permits, or doesn’t always intervene, in suffering and evil). Wan includes some evocative quotes from the pastor of New Life Church, where a gunman killed two people. It’s compelling, unsettling reading — particularly in light of quotes from those who believe that church shootings are rising across the country.
One caveat — Wan doesn’t present much evidence that the culture wars incite shootings. That’s a provocative enough assertion that readers should get a more detailed examination.
But generally the writer is doing what journalists with some religious savvy do so well after a tragedy — honoring the pain and courage of survivors as they try to get on with living while asking — where are you, God? Their question becomes, if but for a painful moment, your question, the human question.