Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.
Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.
When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.
It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.
Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).
Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.
Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?
But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.
There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.
So what to do?
The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.
It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.
Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.
Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.
I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.
What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.
Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.
But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.
But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.
Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.
Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.
Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.
But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?
A thousand times, yes.
And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.