(RNS) — It happened again. This time seven people were killed, three of them 9-year-old children.
Gun violence has hit nearly every community in our country — from small towns like Hesston, Kansas, to large cities like Orlando … and now Nashville where the latest target was The Covenant School, a private elementary school attached to the Presbyterian Church of America. This one struck me hard. Even though I’ve been in Philadelphia for over two decades, I grew up in Tennessee.
Christian schools are abundant in Tennessee — often referred to as the “buckle” of the Bible belt — and Nashville is not only the hub of Christian music, but pretty much all things Christian. Tennessee is where I started my own faith journey, dedicating my life to Jesus in middle school, trading in all my “secular” music for the Christian counterparts, most of which were produced in Nashville. Tennessee is where I began to have not just my theology formed, but also my politics and priorities. I grew up with guns. I grew up supporting the death penalty, which Tennessee still uses, even the electric chair.
It was only years later that, as Jesus said, I had “eyes to see” the holes in my own theology. We called ourselves “pro-life” — but we were pro-guns, pro-death penalty and pro-military. We had narrowly defined what it meant to be pro-life to one issue: abortion. Even today, many of my fellow evangelical Christians act as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. One of the safest places in Tennessee is the womb.
Guns are now the leading cause of death among children and teens in America. More kids are dying from guns than from car accidents or cancer. We’re losing 120 lives a day — 40,000 per year — and many of those are kids. Mass shootings like the one at Covenant School and Sandy Hook and Uvalde are horrifying, but they also make up less than 2% of the overall gun deaths in America. Gun violence is a public health crisis in Tennessee and in the U.S. In my lifetime of 47 years, we’ve lost more lives to guns than all the casualties of all of America’s wars combined. That’s why anyone who says they are pro-life can’t ignore gun violence. Every one of the people killed at Covenant School is a child of God, made in the image of God. And so are the 120 people killed every day in America.
In an average year, 1,385 people die by guns in Tennessee. The rate of gun homicide increased 110% in the last decade — even as Tennessee has refused to pass life-saving gun safety laws. Governor Bill Lee signed permitless carry into law against the advice of law enforcement experts. And now the legislature is moving a bill to lower the age of permitless carry from 21 to 18 — which means teenagers who can’t buy a beer or rent a car will be allowed to carry loaded handguns in public.
There are folks who will say that we shouldn’t talk about gun laws after a mass shooting, but that seems sort of like saying we shouldn’t talk about train safety after a train wreck. This is exactly when we need to talk about laws that will keep our kids safer.
Think about cars. They aren’t designed to kill, but they can be deadly. So we’ve done all sorts of things to try to protect people from harm. In order to drive, you have to show that you know how to drive. You have to pass a test and get a license. We have traffic laws and speed limits. We’ve added airbags and require seatbelts. If you abuse your right to drive, you can lose your license. All of this is to try to keep people safe.
We can’t save every life, but we can save some. Even those who claim new laws won’t make a difference know better. After all, many of the same folks against regulating guns are working hard to change laws on abortion. The fact is “well-regulated” and was written into the Constitution for a reason.
It was Dr. King who said, “A law cannot make a man love me, but it can make it harder for him to lynch me.” We can make it harder to kill, and right now we are making it really easy.
The shooter legally purchased multiple assault rifles, the weapons of choice for mass shooters. They are designed for one purpose: to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. And that’s what they keep getting used for, over and over. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Las Vegas. Parkland. San Bernardino. Orlando. Nashville. They all had one thing in common — assault rifles.
Every country in the world has people who want to do harm, people who are violent, racist, filled with hate, but the U.S. stands alone among our peer nations in our access to guns. It has become a form of idolatry. And as a person of faith, I don’t use that word lightly.
Over the past few years, a slew of politicians have created Christmas photos of their families posing with assault rifles in front of their Christmas tree. One of those is Tennessee Representative Andy Ogles, whose district includes Covenant Church and school. It is sickening. It is idolatry.
My friend Andy Crouch says this about idols: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands.”
Idols are things we put our trust in. They are not God, but we treat them like they are. We hold them with a sacred reverence that should only be given to God. Idols are things we are willing to die for, kill for and sacrifice our children for.
As a devoted Christian, I am convinced the gun and the cross give us two very different versions of power. One is about being ready to die. The other is about being ready to kill. There comes a point where we cannot serve two masters. We cannot love our enemies as Christ commands and simultaneously prepare to kill them.
As the early Christians said: “For Christ we can die, but we cannot kill.” We must choose between the Gospel of Christ and the message of the NRA. We must also decide if we are going to protect children or guns. Isn’t that part of what it means to be “pro-life”? Imagine if every Christian in America took the Sermon on the Mount as seriously as gun owners take the Second Amendment.
This Sunday, one week after the Nashville shooting, is Palm Sunday and a week later is Easter. So this Sunday is the beginning of what Christians around the world call “Holy Week.” Next Friday, we will remember the violent death of Jesus on the cross — and, ironically, we call it “Good Friday.” At the heart of the Christian faith is a savior who suffered tremendous violence, who put death on display in order to subvert death with love and forgiveness and an empty tomb. That should change everything for us.
Having a victim of violence who died with love on his lips should radically reorient us. It should make us all the more compassionate toward the victims of violence. It should make us the enemies of death and violence and hatred and execution.
I hope and I pray that those of us who worship the “Prince of Peace” will become the biggest champions of life. It was Christ who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
I’d love to see my fellow Christians not just offer thoughts and prayers but put feet on those prayers and change policies. There’s that beautiful verse in James that says, “Faith without works is dead.”
Let’s do it — let’s choose to protect children instead of guns. In the name of Jesus … and in the names of those killed this week in Nashville.