[A guest post by Darlene O’Dell]
I was driving through my home state of South Carolina over the Thanksgiving weekend and passed a billboard with the words “Do You Hear What I Hear” written above a picture of a semi-automatic rifle, an AR-15 with a suppressor to moderate the sound. I was sickened by the juxtaposition of a Christmas song that called for peace—that talked about a child who would bring goodness to the world—with an assault rifle designed to kill people at a rapid rate.
I drove on past the sign and tried to think about something else, but I haven’t been able to get the image out of my mind. In that way, I suppose the billboard is an advertiser’s dream, even though I have no intention of ever buying such a weapon. Then December 14 came, the anniversary of the day that Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot 26 innocent people, mostly young children, with his AR-15. I find I cannot, will not, remain silent on this issue.
I am writing as a Christian deeply concerned about members of the faith who continue to mock the birth, life, and death of Jesus by condoning violence in his name. Their willingness to be led by false prophets such as Franklin Graham and James Dobson has no doubt helped to steer them down this path, but in the end, they will be held accountable for the consequences of a toxic theology that they have made their own. It’s a theology where a gun-toting Jesus is apparently ready to denounce anyone who doesn’t look like a straight white Christian American or who doesn’t subscribe to a structure that gives power to that group.
This theology has hijacked the hearts, the souls, and the minds of many Christians. I am a seventh-generation, white Southerner. In recent decades, I have watched as mainstream churches have been attacked and divided not only over issues of race but over the presence of women in the pulpit and, more frequently, over the presence of those of us in the LGBTQ community. Many Christians have been willing—have been eager—to vote for leaders who have allowed them a space for their bigotry and their hatred, a bigotry that comes from a childish and immature reading of the Bible in which they pick and choose laws they believe to be important for other people while ignoring ones they find inconvenient for their own modern lives.
In and of themselves, their beliefs are not the problem. The problem comes when Christians try (1) to bully others into living by their theology of convenience and (2) to vilify and make targets out of other groups. Now, these aren’t just militia types stocking up on food and ammunition in a cabin next to a swamp. These are women in charge of the Christmas bazaar, women wearing Christmas tree pins on their blue blazers, women who run small businesses during the week. These are men wearing Santa ties, men who drive cars that they lease, who coach their kids’ basketball teams. They, too, are responsible for creating a dangerous environment in which vulnerable groups are being targeted by a hatred that has found a home in a false and heretical narrative about Jesus.
When the woman at the church bazaar supports and votes for (again, in the name of Jesus) a culture in which bigotry is interlocked with the ability of deranged people to arm themselves to the teeth, they not only betray their faith, but they walk away from the voting booth with blood on their hands. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus stood up in the temple, took the scroll, and read these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. . . .” Those words, he said, would be fulfilled in him. And he would make other points found in his Jewish faith. He would speak of loving your neighbors, of doing good to those who persecute you, of providing help to those who neither looked like you or believed like you—even when it endangered your life.
Do you hear what I hear? My response to people who use Christian symbols to advertise an automatic rifle is no, I do not hear what you hear, not in relation to the Gospels. Some souls, though, have heard the sounds that come from that weapon. The teachers who tried to protect the children at Sandy Hook heard the sounds of the AR-15 as Adam Lanza approached them. The children sitting terrified in closets heard the sound of the shots as he came near. The young adults heard the sounds in the bar in Orlando, even as one of them texted his momma to tell her that he loved her. They all heard. Those at the Aurora movie theater—they heard, too.
In a campaign release, the owners of the store discussed their reasoning behind the billboards: “The purpose of this campaign is to not only bring attention to [the store] during the holiday shopping period, but also to start conversation about the role of firearms in the American household in a positive and lighthearted manner.” They wanted, they said, “to make sure the right message is relayed.” If your message to the state of South Carolina (which is in the midst of the Dylann Roof trial) is that you think this advertisement is funny even while bodies continue to fall among us, we hear you loud and clear.
If your message is that you think it is perfectly okay to mock the name of the Prince of Peace with your advertisement so that you can sell more assault weapons over the holidays, we hear that loud and clear, too. But know that I hear something else in your words. I hear a violent and cruel message of idolatry in direct opposition to the Christian message. It is well past time for Christians to come together and to speak back to this fetishism and fanaticism and brutality currently masquerading as faith. And we must speak, to quote the song, “with a voice as big as the sea.”
Darlene O’Dell has published The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven (Seabury Books, 2014), Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray (University of Virginia Press, 2001), and I Followed Close Behind Her (Spinsters Ink, 2003) and has recently completed the spiritual memoir I’m With You Still. She has appeared on NPR and has taught at Clemson University and the College of William and Mary.
If you would like to support inclusive, contemplative, justice-seeking campus ministry, the NOLA Wesley Foundation could really use your help this Christmas. Our denominational funding is disappearing so we need $10,000 by the end of the year to cover our expenses. You can support us through our year-end fundraising campaign or by becoming a monthly patron.