The prince of piece?


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.

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  • Jerry

    I feel compelled to bring up the point that this posting should be linked to Terry’s prior one. Specifically:

    Right: It is acceptable to say that God sent the storm to express displeasure with the ELCA gathering and its unorthodox actions.

    I think there are tricky, tricky theological paradoxes involved here that are way beyond anything the media can deal with, but I would hope that people who enter those waters are consistent.

  • Tregonsee

    Slightly related, are bumper stickers which read “Who would Jesus bomb?” When I know the owner, I remind them that Sodom and Gomorrah would be somewhere on that list.

    My point is not to make fun of them or trivialize the sentiment. The use of violence IS a tricky question, and is simple and untroubling only when not looked at deeply. Christianity is of the three great monotheistic religions the least clear on the details at times.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Christianity has always respected the right of self-defense (although highly honoring pacifists like St. Francis of Assisi). Since this is the case it is hard to argue that a person does not have the right to own the best means of self-defense–a gun– to protect one’s self and family in dire necessity.
    No law is going to stop the flow of guns just as no law has stopped the flow of drugs and never stopped the flow of alchohol. How many lives would have been saved at some of the mass murders around the country if an honest, good citizen had had the means of stopping the bad people who got guns (and would always find a way to get guns, legal or not)????
    Recently I saw a report on guns on CNN and the reporter bluntly said she didn’t even want to look at that last aspect of the gun issue I mentioned (Ah! yes–the media open mind at work).

  • E.E. Evans


    Can you explain what you mean? I’m not sure I get it.
    Thank you!

  • Jerry

    E.E., after thinking about it for a while, I think I understand why there’s some confusion.

    When I read the word theodicy in your post it reminded me about the comment I quoted. I was asking myself if those who thought it was divine justice that the ECLA was threatened with a tornado would equally think it was divine justice when someone shot up a church. So your post and Terry’s became linked in my mind.

    If someone is consistent in their beliefs, then bad things never happen to good people, they deserve it either for unknown reasons, because people are inherently sinful or because there is a karmic balancing act going on. I suspect that if the shoe goes on the other foot, as they say, a different song would be sung by many.

    The wikipedia page on theodicy is another illustration about why I found those comments about the left and right in Terry’s post highly simplistic at best.

    So I was using your topic to further comment on Terry’s.

    Did this answer your question?

  • Marie

    I live in a city Washington, DC where we had really restrictive gun laws, but strangely I would hear gun fire often. To me the saying was true, when you outlaw the guns, only the outlaws have guns.

  • Dave

    The doctor still doesn’t understand why God let Patricia die, why He had placed Fuller so nearby if not to save her.

    Methinks the doctor has a limited view of what he may be placed on earth to do for another human being.

  • Andy

    Christianity rules out revenge. (Matt 5:39; Rom 12:19-20)

    It allows for self-defense from attack. (Ex 22:2-3; Luke 22:36)

    And it makes the defense of others mandatory. (Is 1:17; Jer 21:12, 22:3)

  • DebInMA

    Andy, well said! I’m going to copy that down! Thanks!