When We Make Guns the King: A Warning about Arming Teachers
1 Samuel 8:18-20 (NRSV)
“And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
The people were warned.
Be careful what you wish for – the consequences may be more than you can bear. But they longed for someone to rule over them, to give them a sense of safety and security. They wanted protection. They wanted power. And they were willing to sacrifice everything they held dear in order to secure that sense of power. Even if it meant sacrificing their own children.
I thought of this passage when I learned that Pike County School District in Kentucky voted to permit their teachers to carry concealed guns. Prompted by school shootings in Florida, and – closer to home – Marshal County High School, the board voted unanimously to arm their teachers.
According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the district superintendent Reed Adkins stated: “You hope you’re making the right decision for kids, but I know right now something’s got to be done. We may be criticized, but at the end of the day I’ll take criticism to protect my students.”
But will this action truly protect students? Or will it be like pouring gasoline on an already out-of-control fire?
The answer seemed to come almost immediately when the very next day a teacher in a Georgia high school barricaded himself in a classroom and fired his gun, sending terrified students into lock-down. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the situation highlights just one of the many problems with arming teachers. What if one of them goes rogue, and has access to a gun? There are too many variables and risks when putting guns in schools. The potential for mistakes, students stealing guns, or guns used as discipline are far too high.
At a deeper level, the decision by Pike County School District indicates a more troubling ideology about the myth of redemptive violence.
This is a term developed by theologians such as William Stringfellow, Rene’ Girard, and most recently, Walter Wink. Consider these words from Wink’s book, Engaging the Power: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992):
“Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees and absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least.” (13).
Such devotion to violence for the sake of curbing violence was evident in the superintendents words: “To know whether or not you can take a round or give a round, you’ll never know until you’re there,” said Adkins. “It’s not going to be perfect, but it’ll be much better than where we sit today.”
No, Mr. Adkins, it will not be much better. It will be worse.
The problem with arming teachers as a means to protect children is that it is touted as a viable “downstream solution.” It’s not. This is not like using controlled fire to combat a wildfire. When more guns are present, more deaths and injuries occur. Full stop.
What’s needed are “upstream” and “midstream” solutions.
Instead of trying to stop armed gunmen, we need to stop allowing them to have guns in the first place. That’s why raising the age limit for gun purchases, banning assault weapons, and having universal background checks are necessary. Those are examples of “midstream” solutions.
But to really get at the source of gun violence, we also need to implement “upstream” solutions. This means re-evaluating our worship of the 2nd Amendment. It means confronting our idolatry of guns. It means we need to have serious conversations about our society’s lust for violence, and our inability to see how destructive this addiction is.
“Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. . . This myth of redemptive violence undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy,” Wink observes (13). He likens this myth to a serpent lying coiled at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence since well before ancient Babylon (which was founded on the myth of redemptive violence) ruled supreme.
But awareness of this seductive serpent is sorely missing from the discussion about school safety in Pike County.
“This decision is not easy, deciding to put weapons in a school that you’re trying to keep weapons out of,” said Pike County School Board Chairman Justin Maynard. “I don’t know that it stops (school shootings), I think it ultimately minimizes it.”
But as soon as one child is shot, this theory will be proved wrong. There are other ways to keep our children safe. Arming teachers is not one of them.
Those calling for the arming of teachers – or any action that will put more guns into the equation – are like the people of Israel crying out for something, anything, that they think will save them. But imagine reading the scripture from 1 Samuel another way:
“And in that day you will cry out because of your GUNS, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have GUNS over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our GUNS may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Samuel warned the people what would happen if they got their wish.
The king will take your money, and the best of everything you have and give it to his cronies. Similarly, the NRA takes the money from its members, from gun sales, and perhaps even from foreign powers and distributes it to politicians in order to protect its own power. But even worse, Samuel warns, is that the king will use your children as human shields, sacrificed for the sake of his own power. So it is with the GUN. We have pledged allegiance to violence, and our children pay the price with their lives.
“You yourselves will become his slaves,” Samuel predicts (v. 17). Indeed, our nation is a slave to violence, the gun industry, and the NRA.
So it’s time to turn away from this self-imposed slavery and free ourselves from the myth of redemptive violence. We must fundamentally rethink our relationship to guns and our obsession with killing. The Bible’s alternative message of laying down arms and doing the hard work of peace is one worth heeding. Indeed, the upstream work of peace is the only way to truly get at the source and address the downstream problems of violence and guns in America.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).