There’s a beautiful and jarring memorial set up a few blocks from my house, in honor of Philadelphians who have lost their lives to gun violence this year. T-shirts with their names and ages line a fence outside of a church. Those shirts hang are empty because the people who once filled them – many of whom were shockingly young – are no longer with us. They were humans, friends, neighbors, parents, and children who have left a tangible void in their households and in this city. Going past it this week has been particularly moving.
This week has been a challenging time of reflection, repentance, and lament for me and presumably many others. I’ve thought a lot about the things that I and our society hate, the things that make us angry, and what we need to do with that hate and anger. But I’ve also thought a lot about what I love, and what that love compels. I recently started reading Jamie Smith’s latest book, where he (as the title suggests) makes the argument that “you are what you love.” That is, our identity isn’t affixed to what we think, or pray, or believe, but what we love. It’s our loves that drive our thoughts, and, perhaps more importantly, our actions. So this has actually been a time of existential reflection – after Orlando, who am I? Who is the church? Who is America? What do we love, and what does that mean for us now?
And honestly, I’ve come at this from so many different angles – because what happened on Sunday is complicated and nuanced – but in my mind it keeps coming back to guns and rights.
Last night, I tuned into C-Span for probably the first time in my life, and ended up watching for far longer than I intended. It was hard to log off, because over and over, senators from all over the country joined Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy in his filibuster, sharing stories of constituents whose lives have been upended or cut short by gun violence. These stories were punctuated with argument after argument in favor of gun control. This is America, so many of those arguments were centered around rights – within our borders, who has rights? What are those rights? Whose rights are more important than others? What rights are protected (without question) by the Constitution?
I’ve written before about how strange rights-logic is. And I believe that now, more than ever. How is it that in America, in 2016, someone doesn’t have the right to simply say that he’s going to shoot an AR-15 in a crowded theater (or club, or school, or place of worship), but he does have the right to actually purchase that weapon, no questions asked.
The simplest takeaway that I have here is that we, as a society, love our rights more than we love each other. And for some people, that might be okay. But we need to acknowledge that openly. We need to start and finish any conversation about gun control with that. Because that’s what it comes down to.
The rest of this post is directed towards those of us who call ourselves Christians. In the greater political context, it’s fine for people to love their rights more than they love people. That’s their choice and we can’t do anything about that (other than preach the gospel and tell stories of those lost, in the hope that maybe it will help them to redirect their loves). But if you are someone who bears our family name – a baptized member of the church and an active follower of Jesus – then you actually don’t have a choice here. Our scriptures tell us over and over again that in our day to day lives, allegiance to God’s Kingdom takes precedent over whatever other citizenships we may happen to have. For Christian Americans, that means that we can appreciate the Constitution, and even work to uphold it, but we cannot love it more than we love people. Period.
I’ve also been thinking a lot this week about Christian formation and discipleship within the context of a country that has a (thus far) hardly restricted right to bear arms and a culture that has a strange fascination with violence. Because I think sometimes that this clouds our identities and interferes with our loves. When all is said and done, followers of Jesus must center their lives and loves around the empty tomb, the coming Kingdom, and the life of the world to come. We must actively work toward life and shalom, at all times in all places. We don’t get to add qualifiers here as to which people deserve to live, and which places deserve shalom. Other people can do that, but not us. Jesus made that clear on the cross when he begged for forgiveness for his enemies. Grace had no boundaries.
In practice, I know that this can get murky. The deep beauty and great challenge of the gospel is that it calls us beyond ourselves and our desires in every realm of life. But today, I genuinely believe this means that Christians need to metaphorically (and for some of us, maybe literally) drop our weapons and start turning them into tools for growth and peace. For some of us, that might mean changing our minds about the Second Amendment. For others of us, it might mean calling our political leaders and demanding that they work to enact gun control. For all of us, it means valuing other people’s lives over our own, all the time.
Our thoughts need to be centered on the Kingdom. Our prayers must move us to act for peace. And we must love grace above all else.
Photo: the aforementioned memorial, taken by Brian Thomas of Philadelphia Magazine. After writing this, I learned that the memorial was put on display by a group called Heeding God’s Call, which seems exceptionally appropriate.