Charleston. Milwaukee. Nashville. Sutherland Springs. Cairo. Religious leaders of every tradition, all around the globe, are considering what was once unthinkable—an “active shooter” in their houses of worship. Religious violence is not new in this world, and no faith has been spared. As a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, I have been asking: How are followers of Jesus to respond now that the epidemic of gun violence has entered the Church? How can we bear witness to the Good News of Jesus in an age when so many encourage us to bear arms?
To deter potential assailants with guns, many Christians assert our rights and freedoms to carry weapons, even in spaces, which offer sanctuary. However, the reports of trainings offered by security consultants, and my own conversation with local police, leave me convinced that the more our parishioners are armed, the less safe our sacred spaces would become. At the same time, absent the same machinery of airport terminals, policies forbidding weapons will be very hard to enforce. So, we confront the human condition. Evil happens. As active shooter trainers have said, “Even Christians get cancer”-- a simple statement of deep theological truth. We live in a world of harm, danger, illness. Bad things happen to good people, even at Christmas. But Jesus shows a path for the troubled soul and society.
While there is a need for more public theology and prayer on the topic of guns in worship spaces, my faith leads me to the illogical, yet brilliantly hopeful, message of the first Christmas when the Almighty entered the world in utter weakness. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes perhaps the first Christmas carol of the Church. To paraphrase: Christ did not count equality with God as something to exploit for advantage, even self-defense, but instead chose to empty himself by becoming vulnerable, a defenseless human being--to suffer death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
The way of the Christ Child requires vulnerability. Yes, we can get cancer and we can get shot. Following Jesus, we care for the sick. And, we protect the vulnerable, sometimes by standing in the way of danger. Remember Jesus standing in front of a crowd of angry men ready to stone a woman to death, or insisting his disciples sheathe their swords, or taking the place of a bandit on the cross? These acts took guts--and faith.
There are many more conversations to be had, and more questions to ask and answer about guns in places of worship. What are our faith communities doing to prevent gun violence and address root causes of mental health, hatred, fear of the Other? I start with this: a life modeled on the suffering of God in Christ will always be at risk of dying. But, we stake our lives on a hope infinitely liberating and glorious. In an age fixated on security, a Christian life patterned on the paradox of God’s strength displayed in weakness could seem ridiculous. I choose to follow a self-emptying God, revered and celebrated in the arrival of a helpless and poor child in a feed-trough who eventually dies in humiliation to draw all humanity to a life of freedom and purpose. That belief will always contrast sharply to the fear and violence of any era.
That stark contrast, I believe, is that of light shining brightly in darkness. The good news of the great joy of Christmas is that light always wins. Always.
--The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld
Bishop of The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire