If you have a gun, should you start taking it with you to church? If you don’t carry a gun, should you get one in case someone starts shooting up the sanctuary while you’re praying? Should your pastor in the pulpit begin packing heat?
There was a time when these questions would never have been asked, church being a place where we go to abide with God, where hearts are opened and grace and mercy are sought. Is church now a place for guns?
The question isn’t abstract.
Shortly after last Sunday’s massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, told Fox News, “In Texas at least we have the opportunity to have concealed carry.” Asked whether it was appropriate to bring guns inside a church, Paxton said, “We need people in churches … at least arming some of the parishioners or the congregation so that they can respond if something like this, when something like this happens again.”
He’s not alone.
In California, Geoff Peabody has been teaching free gun-safety courses to local church members. He’s trained close to 1,000 people, and all of his classes have been accident-free. “We are directed to protect the flock,” he told a local television station.
Protection, these days, is not limited to armed worshipers, either.
At Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Emanuel,” in Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed the pastor and eight other worshipers in June 2015 during Bible study, there are changes in regular church services: in-house security.
Back down in Texas, as many as half of the members of Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist Church of Dallas bring firearms into church, he told “Fox & Friends.” If shooters tried to open fire at his church, Jeffress said, “They may get one shot off or two shots off, but that’s it - and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life.”
God and guns: part of our new normal?
As we contemplate God in our spiritual journey, must we also now pray for the capacity to shoot back?
Hold on. I get it. How can I not grasp the gravity - and depravity - of what 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley did to those 26 women, men and children at last Sunday’s worship service? And to all the others wounded in his rampage?
How can I not acknowledge the role of the armed neighbor who returned fire before first responders got to the scene? “It would have been much worse,” as President Trump said, if not for the citizen who shot back at Kelley, wounding and chasing him off before Kelley died from a self- inflicted wound.
But isn’t it also worth asking: What have we come to in this country?
Churches needing members trained in handgun skills? Parishioners trained as personal protection officers, skilled in the use of clubs, nightsticks and pepper spray? Is that where we are?
Human logic tells us we are living in times of danger. When have we not?
Set aside for the moment the risk of armed church members confusing congregants they don’t recognize with an assailant, or the danger of friendly fire, or protectors who accidentally mishandle their lethal weapons.
Consider what we are giving in to. Some may call it reality. How about resignation? To think: gunning up and hunkering down in a house of God.
Shootings, at churches or anywhere else for that matter, are not inevitable.
But they happen, as did the one two nights ago a few blocks north of my home, leaving 16-year-old Yoselis Regino Barrios dead and an adult wounded. And a second shooting that took place three blocks east, which left one adult male dead and another wounded.
Gun violence is our problem. And we, holed up in our sanctuaries, seem to be losing heart as we resort to building arsenals in our churches and homes.
We know better. To return peace to our houses of worship and communities, we need to start by fixing our gun laws. We need to restrict access to those deadly weapons, keeping them out of the wrong hands - domestic-violence offenders, people with histories of violent behavior and the like.
We can’t set ourselves apart, hunkering down behind church walls. We need to keep faith that things can be made better, that there are ways - legislatively, medically, communally - to prevent the violence that takes a toll on our lives, done in the spirit of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
If we can’t do that, if we don’t want to try that, really, what’s the point?