A City on a Hill: The Christian Response to Gun Violence

silent night gun
Billboard for Palmetto State Armory in Columbia, SC.

Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Chattanooga, Roseburg, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino… by the day the list grows of American communities whose names henceforth will summon to mind the horror of mass murder. Each story unfolds before the public eye with sickening familiarity and increasing numbness. Far from isolated incidents, to live in America in the 21st century is to suffer through an agonizing succession of tragedies in which many lose their lives by the hand of an individual with a gun. Where is the witness of the church within this endless parade of death? How do Christian leaders find good news for the world among the constant carnage too brutal to bear? How does life in Christ differ from the ways of the world when confronted with such atrocity? The questions are difficult, and it is in this terrain that the work of the Gospel and those who bear it ventures beyond the simple lessons of Sunday school and the hollowness of saccharine cliches. It is precisely in such moments of tragic, raw brokenness that the beauty of God’s sacrificial love for the world can be displayed. Out of the despair of death that surrounds us, Christians, through our unique tradition, scripture, reasoning, and experience, can lead by example by demonstrating to the world that we are one interconnected human family, modeling the rejection of the false idols of armament, and offering the radical forgiveness and reconciliation that breaks the cycle of death.

Can we love God and guns? Writing in The Huffington Post in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, professor of theology Kutter Callaway addresses this question by publicly renouncing his 2nd Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution and calling on other Christians to do the same.1 After theological reflection, I am compelled to join him. Callaway eschews the trappings of stalemated political debate. He writes that while he could make a case for the disarming of the American citizenry on any number of logic-, data-, and moral-backed grounds, he instead limits his appeal specifically to fellow Christians. He writes, “My identity in Christ is so far and away more central and fundamental to my life in the world that it alone is what organizes, orients, and ultimately relativizes every other possible identity that would make a claim upon me. And this includes the various entitlements bestowed upon me as a citizen of these United States.”2 Callaway does not call for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment or wade into the specifics of gun control legislation. Instead, rooted in Christian scripture and tradition, he maintains the right for others to bear arms but personally refuses to participate. When Paul writes to the church in Rome, even as he instructs believers to be subordinate to civil government, he reminds them that they are accountable to a higher authority: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

As Christians, we seek to discern the will of God in all things, and our means of living it out often run counter to the conformity of this world. Walter Brueggemann writes that ordering our lives by God’s will for them means to actively resist the values that dictate our present age.3 Callaway’s model of Christian resistance to gun culture compels me and shifts the center of the issue away from the predictable rhetoric that makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I confess I am easily conformed to the world. I get caught up in the secular debate and I get angry at the people whose opinions I think are wrong. I do not believe that the presence of a gun ever makes a situation safer. I do not believe that the United States still needs a well-regulated citizen militia. And I absolutely do not believe there is ever a reason for a civilian to own or have legal access to the kinds of weapons used in San Bernardino and the litany of shootings before it. But Callaway’s call turns me towards what I do believe. And all of my arguments pale in the face of this truth: weapons designed and purchased to kill people are incompatible with the Christian life.

Christians look to scripture to discern the foundational principles of our faith and to find universal truths about the world. Even before the Lord gave Moses the Decalogue on Mount Sinai  with “You shall not murder” smack dab in the middle of it (Exodus 20:13), Genesis 4 gives us the story of Cain and Abel. When Adam’s firstborn kills his younger brother, God’s definition is made clear: all murder is fratricide, the killing of a brother or sister. Lutherans understood this truth intimately in the case of the Mother Emmanuel shooting in Charleston, since both the shooter and the slain pastors had relationships with the ELCA. In speaking on the massacre, Bishop Eaton said, “One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”4 The endless media spin of the Charleston shooting drew lines of division in every direction imaginable: race, class, religion, education, Confederate, Yankee, and the list goes on. But Christians know this was a brother killing his siblings, and not just because they were both connected to Lutheranism. We are reminded in scripture again and again that all of humanity is indeed one universal family in God, and that participation in a cycle of violence against our family on any level is anti-Christian. 

If Christians are to change the world around us, we must begin by allowing Christ to change us and our actions, purposefully and radically. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). We must be a city set apart that shines clearly the light of Christ, a prophet who cries boldly, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” In our country saturated with gun violence, from video games to street gangs to our military-industrial complex, I believe this means publicly refusing to participate in the arms race. Not giving up weapons because someone forces us and not lording power over others to do the same, but prioritizing the way of Christ in our lives above the rights afforded to us in the American Constitution and choosing self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It is in our Christian tradition to be a peculiar people to secular society. First century Christians were ostracized for abstaining from imperial cult rituals. Throughout American history, Mennonites and other Christians have refused military service through conscientious objection. In 21st century America, guns symbolize our false idols. Some people bow to a fetishization of violence that stems from the pernicious permeation of guns in so many aspects of our lives. Some use guns to celebrate an abuse of power. For others, their true object of worship is security, and they cling to weapons with the false hope of claiming control and order in a world of unpredictable chaos. Others still worship personal freedom (i.e. responsibility to/for no one, the antithesis of Jesus’ teaching), waving guns as their proud flags of individual rights and perverted patriotism. The terrifying open carry demonstrations around the country are truly heinous manifestations of all four of these idolatries. Returning to the Decalogue, to worship Christ is to reject the worship of all other gods. Only when we have done this, publicly and unambiguously, will Christians have the moral integrity to act with authority.

Once we have clearly and publicly removed ourselves from the secular culture of armament, what do Christians have to offer in response to gun violence? Drawing upon scripture, these moments are opportunities for us to exercise the teachings of Jesus on a grand scale and public stage, namely demonstrating the practice of radical forgiveness and loving of persecutors. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands on the Jewish notion of the universality of humanity, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He continues saying to his Jewish listeners, who have ancient adversaries at their borders and imperial occupation in their homeland, that if they only show love to those who love them, their actions are as ordinary as those of tax collectors. When Jesus teaches the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25), he is not merely telling the story of a do-gooder who gives pity and charity to a stranger. He is lifting up a Samaritan, the sworn blood enemy of the Jewish people, who sees a Jew in his moment of greatest despair, lying beaten, naked, and vulnerable, and gives his own time, sweat, and money to make his enemy whole again. The message is clear: disciples of Christ are called to emulate a love that transcends borders, neighbors, and enemies. A love more radical than the world understands.

When a man killed nearly two dozen students in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, ELCA Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber spoke of this kind of love in a sermon to her congregation which she later reflected on in an article written for the website Patheos.5 She writes that on the Sunday following the wicked act, her church read the names of the victims during their corporate prayers, followed by a moment of silence and the ringing of a bell after each one. This was a solemn tribute, but not in itself anything unusual; it was love as the world loves. The names, pictures, and stories of the innocents slain were being commemorated widely from news organizations to the White House. But what made Pastor Nadia’s church different was the inclusion of a name for which many people would prefer not to pray: Adam Lanza, the shooter, who also took his own life. The inclusion of a murderer in the prayers is not popular and controversial to many. This was evidenced again after the Charleston shooting, when the judge in the initial hearing was widely criticized for counting even the family of killer Dylan Roof among the victims of their son’s crime. Pastor Nadia admits that she struggled to commend the killer’s spirit to God: “I couldn’t read the final name on the list right away, since it took me a minute to reach deep enough into my theological convictions in order to find the mercy to do so since I didn’t have much of my own to offer.”6 And yet she asserts that it is to precisely this place of radical forgiveness that Christ calls us. “Lives we’d rather extinguish are still precious to their maker,” she writes.7 The inclusion of that name among the souls prayed for is exactly what separates the church from the world and exactly what defines the life of a Christian. It is not popular nor is it easy, but it is a public moment in which Christian leaders can demonstrate to their flocks and to the country how the love that comes from Jesus can break the endless cycle of hate and lead out of death into life.

The brokenness of the world destroys life and spirit, and gun violence has done plenty of both. Yet the fundamental defining event of Christianity is resurrection born out of human despair. Where there is mourning and suffering, as there was last week in San Bernardino and countless sites of violence before it throughout time, Christians carry a unique message that the world is desperate not just to hear, but to see, embodied and lived out: that there is a way out of this violence, and it is through the universal, sacrificial, radically forgiving love of God whose name is Jesus.


1Kutter Callaway, “Why I Am Renouncing My 2nd Amendment Rights (And Asking My Fellow Christians to Do the Same),”The Huffington Post, December 3, 2015, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kutter-callaway/i-am-renouncing-my-2nd-amendment-rights_b_8710880.html


3Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

4Elizabeth A. Eaton, letter to ELCA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, June 18, 2015, accessed December 8, 20115, http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/long_season_of_disquiet_letter.pdf?_ga=1.256649736.248710848.1449693347. 

5Nadia Boltz-Weber, “The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook,” Patheos, December 12, 2014, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-of-sandy-hook/