In Memphis, gun violence is at the forefront of our minds. If the current rate of deaths by guns continues, this could be a record year. Because of the urgency, I have joined with several other Christian pastors to make curbing gun violence our highest priority outside of ministry to our congregations. We are meeting weekly for prayer, strategic planning, and coordination with other community and government leaders addressing the same need. While our primary emphasis is on prevention, we are also leading efforts to intervene and suppress.
Our aggressive effort to stop gun violence is driven by the Bible’s teaching that mercy is at the center of God’s being. To learn that vast numbers of those who bear his image are dying violently requires us to imitate the mercy we have received from our Savior. The lethality of a thing or action makes it an emergent ethical consideration, because protection of human life is foundational to God’s covenant of grace (Ge. 9:6). Therefore, out of love and reverence for our gracious Creator, we must give our urgent attention to gun violence.
Memphis is not the only city suffering from gun violence. It is an American epidemic. The United States has the highest percentage of violent gun deaths of any affluent nation—twenty-five times more. Deaths by guns are disproportionately represented among vulnerable populations and are concentrated in poor communities. Twenty-eight times as many women are killed by guns in America than in any other country. One million women will be shot by a domestic partner this year. Black Americans are ten times more likely to be shot dead than white Americans. And firearms are the leading cause of death for American children. Ninety-five percent of gun deaths are murder or suicide. In the last decade, those violent deaths have increased 50%.
While there is a universal consensus that death by guns is a crisis, there is no broad consensus on what to do about it. Neither is there an expressly Christian strategy. However, Christians must prayerfully ask, “What can I do? How can I help protect my neighbor?” Then Christians must humbly ask, “Who has good initiatives I can join, even if, at first, their views offend my sensibilities?” It is to approach the issue with the spirit captured by the title of former Tennessee Governors Haslam and Bredeson’s new podcast, “You Might Be Right.”
Ethical consideration of a thing or action requires not only asking about its lethality, but also its teleology. That is, what is its purpose? Does it have a just purpose? An important question to ask, then, about owning and/or using a firearm is, “Does it assist in providing what is due to an image bearer of God?” Christian theologians have traditionally understood self-defense or defense of a vulnerable neighbor against violence with means proportionate to the attack as a sacred right. Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1623-87) said every human being has, “a right to exist and to defend ourselves.” That is clearly the point of Exodus 22:2, “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” Such ethical consensus explains Joseph Story’s addition of the Second Amendment during the constitutional debates. The framers reasoned that an armed citizenry was necessary to defend against rogue governments who would violently impose their policies.
For the first three centuries following Pentecost, the Church almost universally taught Christians must not join the military or take another’s life for any reason. For this reason, together with New Testament commands to “turn the other cheek” (Mt. 5:38) and “do not take revenge” (Ro. 12:19), pacifism is also considered a Christian position.
However, Augustine (354-430) turned the tide of Christian opinion away from pacifism. From the command “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Augustine developed his concepts of self-defense, defending one’s neighbor, and just war. Amid an increasingly hostile geo-political world, the north African bishop reasoned that love for the image of God in oneself implies we have a right to defend ourselves against violence. Likewise, love for neighbor implies a just obligation to defend our neighbor from violence. Augustine even taught that mobilizing an army against an unjust military aggressor is ultimately an act of love toward an enemy. His hope was that military strength would serve as a severe mercy to turn the enemy from evil.
In the Middle Ages, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) inferred from observing the general principle in nature that every organism has an instinct to preserve itself, that using every means to defend a human life was a matter of natural law. The Reformers tended to make their ethical arguments from Scripture rather than natural law and most all found the defense of human life, even by force, to be an implication of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” John Calvin wrote,
Each man ought to concern himself with the safety of all we are accordingly commanded, if we find anything of use to us in saving our neighbors’ lives, faithfully to employ it. If there’s anything that makes for their peace, to see to it, if anything harmful, to ward it off. God’s law commands us to love our neighbors by protecting their existence and defending them against unjust harm.
The Westminster theologians concluded the same a generation later:
The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies and lawful endeavors to preserve the life of ourselves and others, including just defense against violence. . .the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are all taking away the life of ourselves or of others except in case of public justice, lawful war or necessary defense.
God’s mercy requires his disciples to be compassionate toward victims of gun violence. God’s justice demands defense of his image against violence, even in extreme circumstances, with lethal weapons. So then what does his faithfulness to us imply for us? His faithfulness to us is covenantal. That is, because he created us in his image, he has bound himself to pursue our supreme good in love. That love compelled him to pursue humankind’s redemption, even though we declared ourselves his enemies. That faithfulness to his pledge cost the death of his Son. He initiated toward us and our world to bring flourishing before we deserved it, showed any promise, or even welcomed it. Those individuals and communities that accept his grace thrive. Those who do not, forfeit life.
As his redeemed, we have the privilege of imitating his faithfulness. We pursue loving Memphis before it is lovable and regardless of whether it loves in return. Our beloved Memphis is roiling in self-destructive gun violence, so we must move toward her and sacrificially love her more than she loves herself. To be Christian love will require dying, maybe physically, certainly to self, perhaps to comfort, and probably to being appreciated.
To be faithful to our respective callings with regard to gun violence requires suppression, intervention, and prevention. Police must enforce the laws equally on all law breakers, without brutality, at risk to their own lives, and using their lethal weapons only when all else fails to stop a killer. To be faithful requires the District Attorney, federal prosecutors, Mayor, Sheriff, and Police Director to make a concerted and cooperative effort to rid Memphis of the kingpins of gun violence with Federal prosecution and then promise the same to anyone else who pulls a trigger, even in an attempted crime. Negligent judges must change their ways or be impeached. And police who abuse their authority must be prosecuted swiftly.
Perhaps additional legislation regulating gun ownership needs to be explored like red flag laws, limitations on assault weapons, regulation of unlicensed brokers, or mandatory reporting of stolen firearms. However, it is hard to imagine any of those additional laws reducing our typical gun crime in Memphis. Our city is having a heart attack, so immediate lifesaving efforts are required to provide safety for the most vulnerable in our city.
Faithfulness also requires intervention. Constructive engagement must be provided for every 8-15 year-old in the city. A united effort by churches must take the lead in mapping out existing extracurricular ministries and programs like MAM, Streets, Red Zone, Memphis Rocks, Stax Academy, Youth Villages, SOS paid internships, and Boys and Girls Clubs. Then, finding the pockets where no such programs exist, these same committed church partners will coordinate to provide those services. This will require raising the necessary funds privately and publicly and personally committing to provide pastoral care to the staff and students of those programs.
The most effective act of faithfulness most every Christian in Memphis should engage in is prevention. The primary predictors of violent crime are the inability to read by third grade and deprivation of positive words in the home. When a kid can’t read and doesn’t know he’s loved, he has no hope. When he has no hope, he has no motivation to live, so there’s no inhibition to risk his life or take another life to buy weed, beer, or a candy bar. These predictors are why at 2PC we have chosen to laser focus this year on multiplying Arise2Read programs in our public schools. The least dangerous and time consuming effort—to teach sight words one hour per week—to second graders is one of the most strategic preventions of gun violence you can sign up for. Another strategic opportunity is Child Evangelism Fellowship. For one hour per week, you can share the gospel with kids who have given their public school permission to hear it. CEF is reaching 5,000 kids per year in their ministry.
A few are called to defend the innocent through the use of lethal weapons, prosecution, or legislation. More are called to participate in some way to provide after school alternatives for at-risk 8-15 year-olds. Many more of us are called to read to and speak loving, empowering words to a little child. “Words of life” are “Jesus loves you,” “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” “Jesus died for you.” Words like “see,” “and,” “can,” “is,” and “the” can also give life and preserve lives. Anyone reading this article is capable of speaking all of those, so in one way or another, is called to speak them to a child who is not hearing them at home.
As you can see, a biblical approach to gun ownership and control is more multifaceted than any position proposed by any one political party. A biblical approach requires more thought – by applying justice and mercy and faithfulness – and will likely require more self-sacrifice – by involving oneself in the solution as Christ has done for us. A biblical approach also does not wait for others to change laws before getting involved. As citizens of a kingdom that is coming now and one day will come in full, we can get involved today. Finally, a biblical approach offers more hope. Knowing that we serve a God who is merciful, just, and faithful encourages us that our efforts to those ends are joined in God’s redemptive plan and so are never in vain.