It’s no secret that when it comes to religion, I’m a skeptic. That said, I’m not a belligerent atheist; I’m a listener, not a combatant. In fact, several believers have been surprised by my atheism and remarked that despite my lack of Christian faith, I have “a deep soul.” Most recently, a fundamentalist Christian student told me I have a “secret Jesus” in my heart–and I think I’m OK with that assessment. I dig “red letter” Jesus, but I’m not into the stories of miracles, nor am I interested in drawing guidance for today from lessons and laws written for an entirely different world. If I had to commit to a Christian or quasi-Christian denomination or practice, depending on how I’m feeling that day, I might choose an unprogrammed Quaker meeting but admit to nontheist or universalist leanings, or, if I wanted something in, say, a modest basilica with organ music, I’d find the most progressive local manifestation of the United Church of Christ.
That said, as a practitioner of American studies, I’m less interested in calibrating my own spiritual compass than I am in how Christian ideas are generated, circulated, and morphed in U.S. culture. Quite frankly, much of what I find scares me. Yet I also read a good deal of writing by today’s Progressive Christian thinkers, and I find heartening their insistence on a new Social Gospel centered on social justice issues. Some Christians have termed it a “Social Justice Gospel,” and the concept has both been praised and damned. I’m here to recommend it.
It’s important to keep this perspective in mind as you read this post–I’m writing about how I perceive the reactions of U.S. Christians to the Newtown shootings, and I’m highlighting what I see as thoughtful responses and missed opportunities. I’m not prescribing what Christians ought to believe about the shootings, though certainly I myself see a disconnect (and perhaps even some hypocrisy?) between what some Christians claim to believe and how they are acting. This post is about that disconnect, and I hope it allows us to open a conversation about the relationship of Christian faith and works to violence in American life.
So take a deep breath and settle those hackles. Are we good? OK.
A taxonomy of responses
While certainly there is a good deal of nuance in Christians’ responses to the mass shooting in Newtown, the responses might be classified into three broad categories that I’m calling confident faith (with variations comfort-focused and repentance-focused), questioning faith (with variations why? and who are we?), and the social justice gospel. Under each heading below, I’ve highlighted some representative reactions to the shooting.
Confident Faith: Comfort-focused
You’ve seen these on Facebook and elsewhere: God needed those children as angels. There are now 26 more stars in the sky. The children are now with God, and it’s better for them to be in heaven than on such a fallen earth. Such posts are too personally nauseating for me to link to, so I’m keeping this section brief and link-free.
I don’t want to diminish anyone’s personal coping mechanisms, and if it gives you comfort to imagine Newton’s children in the house of the Lord, that’s fine. But to suggest publicly that the children are definitively in a better place? That’s heartless; think of their friends and families.
Confident Faith: Repentance-focused
Bill Berkowitz provides a round-up of this brand of response to the mass shooting. I find it profoundly troubling for many reasons, but especially its deflection of the actual cause of the shooting—a man with easy access to a gun who barged into a school and killed children and teachers—to what alleged leaders of the Christian Right believe are greater social ills. It’s the typical Pat Robertson tripe: there are too many abortions, gay marriage, insufficient prayer in schools, violence in entertainment, etc., and God is punishing innocents as a way of warning the rest of us of the error of our ways. These representatives of the Right see humans as profoundly fallen and believe we will see the end of such massacres only if we repent by installing their particular beliefs in the public square and in national legislation. These followers of the “Prince of Peace” ignore the obvious (if difficult) solution to the mass killing of children—removal of the weapons of such destruction—in favor of arguing for a narrow American theocracy.
Mike Huckabee, the purveyor of some such remarks, clarified his vitriol:
“It’s far more than just taking prayer or Bible reading out of the schools. It’s that fact that people sue a city so we’re not confronted with a manger scene or a Christmas carol, and lawsuits are filed to remove a cross that’s a memorial to fallen soldiers. Churches and Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax funded abortion pills. We carefully and intentionally stop saying things are ‘sinful’ and we call them ‘disorders.’ Sometimes we even say they are normal. And, to get to where we have to abandon bedrock moral truths, then we are asked, well ‘where was God?’ And I respond that, as I see it, we’ve escorted Him right out of our culture and we’ve marched Him off the public square and then we express our surprise that a culture without Him actually reflects what it has become.”
The irony, of course, is that Huckabee is expressing all of these opinions in real and virtual public squares. As a non-Christian, I can assure you that Christianity permeates the public sphere. It’s not as if living in Christian culture automatically confers blindness about its influence, however; even many of those inside the faith can see how pervasive Christianity is in American culture. See, for example, Joshua D. Ambrosius’s post “Sandy Hook and the Tearing Asunder of Evangelical Christianity.” Not only does Ambrosius acknowledge the ways Christianity striates American life, he also remarks that there are two popular versions of Jesus that are at odds with each other: the Jesus who is fine with gun hoarding and the Jesus who asks people to put down their swords. ”If we can’t agree that Jesus and automatic weapons don’t mix,” Ambrosius asks, “how do we agree on anything? We must serve different Jesuses—that is the only conclusion one can take away.”
Questioning Faith: Why?
Reflecting on the Newtown shooting only three days after the event, Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton noticed that “those who contemplated the event through some form of religious lens put these unanswerable questions in terms of God: where was God? and why did God let this happen?” Crumpton was dissatisfied with the answers she was hearing, so she wrote an incisive, beautiful post at Femmevangelical, “The God Who Shows Up When God Disappears.” Here’s an excerpt:
The divisive, blaming rhetoric took off like a wildfire across the Internet. I read posts on networks that made my stomach churn. My partner, who is Jewish, endured posts of friends and friends of friends who said Jesus wouldn’t show up in schools where he wasn’t welcomed, and therefore we should all expect bad things to happen, as if it were the fault of everyone who was raised in a different tradition that a mentally ill man took his mother’s legal weapons into a school and started shooting. I had to say something. Before we left for dinner Friday night, I quickly pecked out my gut thoughts and posted them onto Facebook:
In my role as a Christian minister, I have to speak up about the lie politicians and others are putting forth, that the CT shooting happened because “God has been removed from our schools.” This is a dangerous, irresponsible, and and theologically immature statement. God is not found in the rules or activities sanctioned by a school, or the doctrines that make that an issue. God is in the hearts of human beings, children included. And praying to God will not in fact avert the tragedies of our world…we’ve all seen/experienced that tragedy happens inexplicably. God does not “allow” things to happen because we do not adhere to human-concocted doctrine and superstition. Where is God? God is grieving with us. But God is not smiting children because of the separation of church and state.
Then she brings it home (emphasis hers):
Asking “why did God let this happen” is an understandable but unhelpful question, one that leads human minds used to static doctrine into a paradox. Especially as we learn many of the children who were killed were Christians who attended church regularly and prayed daily with their families, and futhermore, the shooter attended church at St. Rose in Newtown and even went to school at the church school for a while; to say God allowed this to happen because of lack of prayer in schools forces us to deeply question various beliefs and scriptures that we cite ad nasuem. Not everyone is willing to go there, to let God be the God above theism and doctrine, and so very shameful, hurtful beliefs are enforced and only hurt faith. The helpful question we can address is, why do we human beings keep allowing this to happen? And what is our image of God that we keep pointing fingers at others while never taking a look at ourselves.
Questioning Faith: Who are we?
At Red Letter Christians, Craig M. Watts holds up a mirror to expose what he sees as the failings of his fellow believers. He posits that it’s not the absence of God in American institutions and culture that’s the problem, but rather “that part of the problem is with the kind of God promoted in American church and culture” (emphasis mine). He offers these points as evidence of this phenomenon:
- Developed nations where God is even less officially acknowledged than in the U.S. have much lower rates of violence.
- The U.S. is one of the most religious nations in the developed world and, far and away, it has the highest murder rate. Even more telling, both church attendance and murder rates are highest in the same region: the Southern U.S. ”In regions where God is less conspicuous in public,” Watts writes, “murder rates are lower.”
- Self-professed Christians are more likely to be gun owners than are atheists and agnostics.
- Those on the religious right were most eager to see the U.S. invade Iraq in 2002. He cites a Gallup Poll: “data suggests that devotion to a religion doesn’t necessarily dictate a commitment to peace.”
- A later survey on the same topic–sending troops to Iraq–revealed that the non-religious, non-Christian religious people, and black Christians were most likely to oppose the war in Iraq. Because of my recent consideration of white masculinity and violence, “When only whites were considered fully 50% more Protestants supported the war in comparison to those with no religion. ‘In general,’ the report stated, ‘the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war was a mistake.’”
- Protestants (54%), and especially white evangelicals (62%!) expressed support for torture of suspected terrorists.
When American Christians are more supportive of weapons, war and torture than their unbelieving neighbors, something has gone terribly wrong. When the greatest amount of violence is found precisely in the region of the country where church membership and attendance is the highest we might ask what kind of influence Christians are exerting. Complaints about a lack of official prayer in schools or an absence of religious symbols in the public square don’t get even close to identifying the source of the violence problem. But so long as Christians cast their lot with forces of death, they will not be seen as credible witnesses for peace.
In another sign of a crisis of Christian belief and identity, Shane Claiborne asks, “What Would Jesus Say to the NRA?”
So let’s imagine. What would Jesus say to our nation, where these are things are true:
- 10,000 people die from gun-related homicides each year, that’s one Sandy Hook massacre a day, every day
- There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people
- There are over 51,000 licensed gunshops (and 30,000 supermarkets)
- Guns that can shoot 100 rounds a minute, and are only designed to kill, are still legal
- Other than auto accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death of young people (under 20)
- 20,000 dollars a second is spent on war
There is a reason we talk about “Peace on Earth” so much around Christmas. There is a reason why we talk about Jesus as the “Prince of Peace”. He consistently taught that we can disarm violence without mirroring it, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming the evil we abhor. So let us recommit ourselves to Peace this Christmas season and New Year — in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the holy innocents.
Social Justice Gospel
As I said earlier in this post, I’m a fan of this response to the shootings. Here are some of my favorite postings in this genre.
Writing at the Friends Committee on National Legislation staff blog, Diane Randall writes,
In our spiritual lives, Quakers talk about being “cracked open” an internal condition that can be both painful and, eventually enlightening, because it profoundly changes us, creating new ways for us to understand, to be, to act in love. My sense is that President Obama, and scores of elected officials in Congress, state legislatures and city councils have been “cracked open” by the grisly reality of this violence in Newtown, CT.
This violence is manifested in the outrageous weapons that the murderer used to slaughter innocent children–weapons that have no place in civilized society. Working for gun control is one essential step that will require determination and courageous leadership of our elected officials who have been consistently maligned by those who want no limits to gun ownership.
At Evangelicals for Social Action, Bill Borror chastises evangelicals for placing doctrine and politics before social justice:
Christians of late have not been distinguishing themselves on the political front. Too often our theologies, I believe, are made to conform to whatever our natural or chosen political leanings are. I have seen this again and again for example in how various Christian groups and denominational leaders talk about Israeli-Palestinian issues. Simplistic ideologies transcend all political and theological spectra. Not only can we do better, we must do better.
I do not believe people of good will in general and people of faith specifically can remain passive. It is time for “an ordinance of reason for the common good” to be addressed concerning our culture of violence. It is time to no longer tolerate child sacrifices at the alter of libertarianism. As Christians, we believe that the two great commandments lifted up by Christ to love God and love our neighbor are absolute; not the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution. My Christianity also makes me realistic and practical. I do not believe we can ultimately legislate or medicate ourselves to a perfect society. But we can legislate safety and we can chose to cultivate different values and appetites.
I agree with all three of Borror’s calls to action to some extent:
- “Hand held weapons of mass destruction must be banned.” I like this legal solution.
- “Voluntary boycotting violent entertainment and reassessment of First Amendment protection of the industry.” I’m not one to tinker with the First Amendment. But I wholeheartedly agree that people (myself included) should be more conscious about making informed economic decisions that are in line with their core beliefs. (Personally, I tend to see violent entertainment as an effect of the real violence in American life rather than a cause, but that’s a subject for another post.)
- “More Christian community support for individuals and families facing issues around mental health.” Yes, yes, and yes—though as I mentioned in my post on whiteness, gun violence isn’t correlated with mental health issues–in fact, only about 4 percent of the violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. Still, Americans need to have a more open conversation about mental illness and mental health care.
American Catholic bishops were even more specific in asking Christians and others to call for extensive gun control. They expressed condolences for the families of the slain and then reiterated a stance first articulated in 2000:
In their memory and for the sake of our nation, we reiterate our call made in 2000, in our statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, for all Americans, especially legislators, to:
- Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms
- Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner)
- Call for sensible regulations of handguns
- Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons
- Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.
As we long for the arrival of the Prince of Peace in this Advent and Christmas season, we call on all people of goodwill to help bring about a culture of life and peace.
At Red Letter Christians, Morf Morford invokes Moloch—and in particular Allen Ginsburg’s incarnation of the Old Testament god—to describe American society’s acquiescence in the slaughter of our children by firearms:
Turning swords into plowshares is a sign of God’s kingdom (Isaiah 2:4). Investing our personal, as well as our national budgets – and our national attention to weapons is just another indication of our allegiance to death.
We don’t need an enemy, we are killing ourselves, but the gun apologists would tell us not fast enough.
But if I were the parents, or grandparents, of any of those children killed, I would, for years, feel as if I had been pulled inside-out with an aching seemingly eternal numbness.
And it is out of respect for them, and their 100% preventable pain, that I urge the rest of to stir our petulant Congress to put aside their ideologically driven agendas and legislative inertia and step up in courage, and yes, even sacrifice to do what our nation’s soul cries out for.
[. . .]
We have been captive to fear long enough.
I don’t mean to make the social justice gospel seem an easy thing to implement, particularly when it comes to gun violence in a gun-saturated society. At the Quaker Universalist Voice, Mike Shell captures the difficulty in articulating exactly how our deeply-held truths might inform our individual actions and public agenda:
We come away from the world’s noise and busyness to a gathering where we need not voice out loud our intimate conversations with that benevolent Wholeness—whatever we name it—which gives us hope, resilience, meaning and joy. Then we stumble, going back out, because we do not know how to speak or write publicly about that heartfelt Truth which transcends language.
There is immense difference between the knowing silence of waiting worship and the awkward silence of unready witness. Friends often understand with great clarity how their private faith and practice guide or even drive their public actions. Even so, at the rise of Meeting we struggle to reduce into words what is boundless and complex in our hearts.
A way forward
Once again, the past two weeks have made clear that the kind of Christianity–evangelical, fundamentalist, politically conservative–that most often gets shouted in the American public square is not going to be of much use to us in stemming the bloodshed caused by gun violence. We need a response from people of all faith traditions, and in particular we need evangelical Christians to consider that maybe, just maybe, works matter to our individual and national salvation as much as faith.
After all, the Social Gospel, at least as I learned about it years ago in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manifestation, is about establishing the kingdom of God on this earth. And how can we do that—establish some semblance of peace and social justice—without difficult conversations and hard work? It’s time, in short, to honor the old Quaker saying “Let your life speak.”
Again, this is not me saying to Christians, “We must take the politically liberal path to solve this problem.” It’s the one I prefer, yes, but one of the tenets of my particular brand of progressivism is a commitment to all kinds of diversity. I’m willing to sit with anyone who brings a serious solution to the table, and to work toward consensus on how to bring the level of gun violence in the U.S. more in line with that of other developed countries.
What about you?
What responses and conversations to Newton are you encountering in your own faith communities? What role do you think religious people, and Christians in particular, should be playing in preventing future massacres and protecting all victims of homicide?