Faith and firearms: Why Christians don’t talk about gun violence

More than 1,000 people protested school shootings last month with a rally and march that started in the parking lot of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Some faith leaders say a whole lot more conversations about how the nation can prevent gun violence need to begin at the same place – church.

“What is our voice for?” asked Diane Knauf, associate pastor at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. “The church is becoming irrelevant if we can’t address these issues. That’s why our [church attendance] numbers are dropping: Because we sit on our hands and we say nothing.”

It’s easy enough for preachers and church members to offer “thoughts and prayers” after an incident like the Parkland, Fla., shooting rampage that took 17 lives on Feb. 14. But approaching the subject of gun violence is more daunting.

In the South, where 38 percent of households have a gun and more than 40 percent of people go to church, pastors often worry about offending those who do both.

“Pastors are hyper-aware since the 2016 election,” said Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church. As they write sermons or lead meetings or just talk with individual members of their congregations, “Pastors are thinking, ‘How far can you push an issue?’ ” Florer-Bixler said. The ministries and programs of the church, the salaries of the pastor and other church employees — all are paid with tithes and offerings that can easily be withheld by people who feel their personal choices are under attack.

“When we talk about the cost of discipleship, for pastors, it’s real,” Florer-Bixler said.

In the wake of the Parkland shootings, which involved an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon, N.C. and federal legislators have made no changes so far to gun control laws. This week, two major U.S. retailers, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, announced they no longer will sell the once-banned AR-15-style weapon and will not sell any guns to people younger than 21. Other gun retailers are discussing their plans.

For people of faith, it’s complicated. While political and religious leanings often trend together, there are religious conservatives who believe additional gun control is needed, and religious liberals who hold broad interpretations of the 2nd Amendment.

Religious faith and gun-control philosophy intersect in myriad ways, including:

▪ whether a congregation should allow members to carry concealed weapons onto church grounds as a matter of security.

▪ notions of the U.S. as a nation blessed by God and of the U.S. Constitution – and the 2nd Amendment – as almost sacred texts.

▪ whether God’s people have a responsibility to defend themselves and their families even if it means taking another person’s life.

People of faith also disagree on the root causes of gun violence in the nation, with some liberals pointing to the proliferation of weapons and to social ills such as poverty, inequality and uneven access to mental health care. Some conservatives say the U.S. has a “sin problem,” not a gun problem, and that it traces back to the removal of God from schools and other public institutions.

Bruce Ashford, professor of theology and culture, dean of faculty and provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, wrote in his blog after the Parkland shootings that Americans will have to work together to reduce gun violence, going beyond refrains from the right that “guns don’t kill people” and from the left that the NRA has blood on its hands.

“The increase in mass shootings is a high-priority ‘pro-life’ issue because it involves the taking of innocent lives,” Ashford wrote. “People on both sides of the gun rights divide understand this fact, and people on both sides want to take action to reduce the likelihood of future shootings.

“We must resist the temptation toward partisan cheap shots and cliched arguments, and instead call our nation’s leaders to lead the way in a sustained, civil, and constructive national debate about gun rights and gun control, mental illness in its psychiatric and moral dimensions, and the potential benefits of active-shooter training in our nation’s schools and public institutions,” he said.

Pacifist Mennonites

On this issue, Florer-Bixler is unlikely to offend many of the 75 or so people who regularly attend Sunday services at her church in a former mill school near downtown. Mennonites are strongly pacifist; in case of a military draft, members are expected to do alternative service that would not require them to use a weapon. During World War I, Mennonites were severely punished by the military for holding to their religious beliefs.

Earlier this year, Raleigh Mennonite Church hosted a “Swords to Plowshares” event where a blacksmith set up on the grounds and pounded gun metal into garden tools.

Florer-Bixler’s position is plain.

“We choose to follow Jesus,” she said. “We are committed to opposing evil and injustice, but when it comes down to taking a life out of fear or self-protection, we’re working toward seeing (others) as God sees them – as beloved children of God.

“At the end of the day, we would rather die than kill somebody else.”

Hundreds of mostly students march from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh to the North Carolina State Capitol on Feb. 20 in response to a mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Travis Long

Florer-Bixler said her congregation includes people who hunt with firearms, and she tries to understand how they and people who enjoy target-shooting feel about gun ownership. She compares it to her access to the internet, she said, and considers how she would feel if the government suddenly took that away to stop the spread of child pornography or human trafficking.

For some people, she said, the right to own a gun is deeply tied to concepts of freedom.

“Religious zeal for guns and the freedom to amass weapons is a sickness that marks each of us,” she said.

Mixed views

Knauf’s congregation of about 400 people at St. Andrews holds a more mixed view on guns, she said. Rather than having a pastor repeatedly pound people over the head from the pulpit, the church launched a group in 2016 of anyone interested in exploring the nuances of the issue. It started with the premise that everyone wants to prevent gun violence, whether it’s the news-making mass shooting, the suicide, the domestic-violence murder or the accidental shooting.

“We wanted to equip people to see this as a spiritual issue and not just a political one,” she said. “There is an anti-Gospel narrative that life is cheap, that the individual is more important than the community, that violence rules, that we should fear our neighbor, not love them, and that we should put our faith in anything besides God: our guns, our affluence, whatever.

“It’s up to Christians and people of all faiths to counter that with the values that Christ teaches: that life is valued. We love our enemies. We put our faith in God. And we love those who persecute us.”

The group spent a year learning, Knauf said, about the public health aspects of gun violence, its many causes and possible solutions. It held a gun-safety discussion for youth.

The Rev. Byron Wade, pastor of Davie Street Presbyterian Church, said his congregation of 140 holds mixed views as well, with members leaning right on theological issues and left on social ones.

“But there is not one person here who has said that we should not be a part of preventing gun violence,” said Wade, who sits on the board of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, a Durham-based nonprofit. He said he thinks church members are especially interested in the issue because the historic church, started by freed slaves in 1871, sits in Southeast Raleigh, where crime rates are higher than in most of the rest of the city.

“For us, it’s not a particularly difficult conversation to have,” he said. “The hard thing is just what we need to do about guns, not just from a national legislative perspective, but what do we do about that as Christians?

“We haven’t come up with an answer.”  

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin