One of my favorite and in my opinion vastly underrated movies of all time is the 2011 film, Priest. Not only is it a fun movie that involves motorcycles, explosions, and incredibly cheesy dialogue the movie also depicts a somewhat imaginable (minus the vampires) reality. It depicts a militarized city ruled by the Church where the goal above all else is to be protected from outside threats. As a pastor, there are plenty of images and lines from that film that make for great sermon and small group discussion fodder. For example the line, “To go against the Church is to go against God” might be the single greatest discussion starter ever.
In the days following the horrific events that took place in Charleston this past week I have, for some reason or another, been thinking of that movie and having scenes from that film play out in my mind. And in light of these recent events and the continuing conversation about the very best way to ensure that we are “safe” there has been one particular image that has been haunting me these last few days. Take a look at this image here:
If you’ve seen the movie you most certainly recognize the scene. But even if you have not seen the film you can easily comprehend the setting for this particular image. This is a church, a sanctuary that is full of worshipers….and armed guards.
In the days following Charleston, the conversation has picked back up regarding what security mechanisms might be necessary to ensure that our worshiping communities are safe from similar acts of violence. Though by all accounts, the violence in Charleston was not committed against the Church, but against the African-American population, it is only natural to make the jump from Emanuel A.M.E church to our own local congregations. There are, of course, all sorts of possible solutions. We could ensure that all doors are locked at all times. We could begin to screen who comes into our facilities (perhaps using metal detectors?). We could post our own armed security personnel inside and around our places of worship. Some have even suggested that pastors should be armed as they preside over worship. In fact, here in Oklahoma, a local gun shop has begun to offer concealed/carry classes for pastors.
And now, of course, we as a people want to know that we are safe and protected. This is a natural instinct that has been with societies since the very beginning. We especially want to ensure that our schools and places of business are safe. We would not drop our children off at daycare without specified security measures in place and we would be wary of an office complex that allows just anyone to wonder around the property. Safety and security are necessary to the basic functions of society. The need for safety is number 2 on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to thrive we must, have at least a general assurance of our sense of safety.
And of course, just as this is true outside of the church, the same is true when we enter the comfortable confines of our sanctuaries. After all, the word “sanctuary” is defined as a “place of refuge and safety.” We do have a reasonable expectation that we will be safe when we come to worship or to Bible study and when that expectation is shattered, it is only natural for us to consider how we can become “safer.”
And as we consider what the “correct” response should be to events such as Charleston, we have to ask of ourselves one simple question; “What kind of people do we want to be?” More so than that, we must discern for ourselves this question, “What kind of people does Jesus want us to be?” Does Jesus want his church to become a fortress? Does Jesus expect a screening process for each and every person who makes their way into our worship services, Bible studies, and fellowship dinners? Does Jesus desire guards to stand watch over our worship? Does Jesus long for the Church’s clergy to arm themselves prior to administering the sacraments? Does Jesus want his Church and his people to hold fear and suspicion in their hearts?
It is not too broad of a jump to imagine a world not unlike that depicted in the movie, Priest. A world in which security is paramount and or places of worship have become like prisons. And if this is the case, then God help us. God help us if we, as a people who have placed our entire worldview on crazy ideas like self-sacrifice and resurrection, succumb to those who seek to instill fear into our hearts. God help us if we, as a people who follow the example of the One who commanded us to welcome the stranger, begin to look at each other with wary suspicion. God help us if we, as a people who are called to heed the Great Commission become a people who instinctively lock our brothers and sisters out instead of inviting them in.
Is not the Church supposed to be something different? Was not the Church called into being to be a counter-cultural witness? Did Jesus not call his disciples (and consequently the Church) a “city on a hill” that should shine brightly for all people to see? What happens when the Church loses its way and simply becomes like anything and everything else?
So what is the alternative? In the days following the attack on Emanuel church, the families of the victims had the opportunity to speak to the confessed shooter. During that time, many of the families offered not words of hate, but instead words of sadness and forgiveness. Then on Sunday morning, the doors of that congregation were opened to the world and worship happened (without new metal detectors) this past Sunday morning in Charleston.
Perhaps we all could learn something from Emanuel church. Perhaps in the midst of the violence, fear, hatred, and bigotry we can be invited to see with fresh eyes what Jesus spent those three years of ministry talking about. Perhaps we can start to understand that the world does not need more walls, bars, or guards, but instead requires places of forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, love, hope, and an institution (the Church) that is still dedicated to the idea that Love will win out over hate.
Rev. Aaron Todd serves as the Minister for Education at First Christian Church-Midwest City, OK . Among other things, he focuses on youth, children, young adult, and family ministry. He is married to Debra, who is also a Disciples pastor, and together they have a 3 year old son named Zach and a precious baby boy named Josh. In addition to their human children, they have a 5 year old dog named Amos (named after the prophet). Check out his blog, Peace.Love.Coffee