(David Gungor wrote this post as a guest writer for Jonathan Merritt’s column.)
(RNS) — At a church where I used to serve, one of our lead pastors owned an assault rifle. It was a glorious specimen as far as guns go, a black AR-15 type of weapon. The same kind that was just used in Las Vegas.
I remember the day this pastor (and my boss) showed all of “the boys” on our staff the picture of his new weapon mounted on the wall. Amid all of the congratulations, I kept thinking, “How can this be okay?”
From the outside, our church appeared to be obsessed with social justice. Our vision statement was taken straight from Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” To make sure no one forgot it, we printed that slogan on bumper stickers, plastered it on coffee mug, totes, and repeated it in front of our congregation with regularity.
And yet, with stunning irony, one of the leaders and pastors of this “justice-obsessed” evangelical mega-church was bragging about owning a powerful weapon that was created for the purpose of killing humans who are made in the image of God. How exactly can someone do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly while carrying a deadly assault rifle? My pastor friend was one of the most empathetic and loving people I knew at the church. So I had a hard time understanding how could one reconcile the Micah 6:8 message, let alone the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’ life, with the ownership of such a weapon?
Years later, I’ve realized that the tension I experienced in my former congregation is a microcosm of a sweeping problem now facing the American church. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I grew up an evangelical pastor’s kid and I’ve worked in four churches since I was 18. I’m a full-time musician now, and I’ve led worship at churches all around the country in the last dozen years. Along the way, I’ve witnessed countless Christians who celebrate violence but claim to follow the Prince of Peace.
So what is the gospel for gun-loving Christians?
Our recent history has made this question difficult to answer. After Sandy Hook, a certain part of my American idealism died with the fact that Americans could ignore the issue of gun control. In subsequent tragedies—from San Bernardino to Las Vegas—my idealism has been driven deeper into the grave. Many Christians and proponents of non-violence feel similarly.
In a world of mass murders and school shootings, Christians must find a way to model peacemaking. Amid the darkness and bad news, the human tendency is to self-medicate by stockpiling whatever makes us feel safe and in control. But modeling the Jesus way requires us to dismantle the idols of power and security and fear in our own lives.
There’s no turn-key process for tearing down these strongholds in our lives, but I think the process begins by reminding ourselves of three major themes in the Christian faith:
- You are not in control: If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that we are not in charge of what happens on this spinning rock called earth. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” The principle of letting go is found in all great spiritual traditions and it is central to the Christian faith as well.
- Death is nothing to fear: Humans naturally resist their own finitude and strive for immortality. We are always searching for the fountain of youth. But the Christian way does not seek to escape death. Instead, it centers its hope in a Jesus who chose death and grounds itself in a tradition of martyrs who weren’t afraid to die. Modern Christians would do well to recite the words of Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
- Love reigns: The entire Christian gospel can be boiled down to this: “God is love.” The very essence of the divine is love, and because of this, Jesus was able to say things like, “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” and “those who live by the sword will die by it also.” These words are just as scandalous and difficult to live by today as they were in first century Palestine. Perhaps more so.
In addition to these central themes, the Christian tradition asks us to engage our word with prayer. Indeed, prayer is where spirituality and protest collide. As the late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen wrote, “Through Prayer we can carry in our heart all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.”
But while prayer is a good starting point, it is not nearly enough. The gospel requires us to go. To journey with others to the place where they are blind, weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. To offer healing through our presence and collective action. This means, among other things, advocating for more just laws that will help build a more just world. And it also means evaluating whether our lives reflect a truly Christian vision for the world. These kinds of changes require the courage to have difficult conversations and ask difficult questions.
Yesterday, while I was still drenched in anger and sorrow from news of the Las Vegas shooting, I decided to contact the assault-rifle owning pastor from my previous church. He was willing to talk and embodied humility. He told me that he still owns the AR-15 that he had bragged about so many years ago. He confessed that he bought the weapon when he was more “immature” because it felt “exciting” to “shoot a gun that our soldiers use.” But after he shot it, he didn’t get the rush he expected. So the gun had laid dormant for years, locked in his gun closet.
We talked for 45 minutes, and I learned that we shared many of the same feelings and beliefs. I was struck that he could articulate so many of the inconsistencies in our gun laws and regulations. I wanted to know how he could reconcile assault rifle ownership with the gospel. When I asked him why he hadn’t gotten rid of it as he has matured, his candid answer surprised me: “Actually, I gave this a lot of thought. It’s really challenging to think through this. The easy answer is that this is my right. But that’s not a healthy answer.”
He also wrestled with what to do if he decided to get rid of it. He didn’t want to sell to just anyone. He was afraid of putting this weapon into the wrong hands.
My curiosity lead me from a place of angst to a place of compassion for him. He no longer believed the way he used too. And he was really wrestling with how to be responsible with such a weapon.
Toward the end of our phone call, he offered a stunning confession: “Before you texted me this morning, I had this conversation with my wife. I told her that I am thinking about getting rid of my AR.”
I don’t know the future of my pastor’s AR-15 anymore than I can predict the future of our nation, but the conversation gave me hope. He is a hunter and will still own many guns. While I believe that gun-loving Christians are misguided in their beliefs, I believe that our stance towards each other with those we disagree with should be one of compassionate listening, before writing people off. I also believe that the gospel is transformative in ways we cannot foresee.
Despite our anger and grief, the good news is still good. And we need it now more than ever.
David Gungor currently serves as worship pastor at Trinity Grace Church in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. He is also the lead singer for the popular band, “The Brilliance.”