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Guns in Church


Pastor Ken Pagano’s invitation to his congregation to bring their guns to church made the New York Times. It apparently made the news in other countries as well. Great. Conservative Christians are gun-toting sociopaths. Liberal Christians are peace-loving and reasonable, like Jesus.

Only Jesus wasn’t. He told his followers that they would have enemies everywhere. He told them he came to bring division and strife. “A man’s enemies,” he said, “will be members of his own household.” He told his followers to bring swords for protection, even though he planned to give himself up. He deliberately broke the law to call attention to its oppressiveness, and he openly challenged the authorities of his day. He died a convicted felon.

If you want to invoke a role-model for peace and respectability, Jesus is not your best bet.

I think Pastor Pagano’s stunt is ill-advised and unwise but Constitutionally protected. Minnesota had a law for a while requiring businesses and institutions to post a sign if they banned guns. Our church dutifully complied: “The Harbor Church bans guns on these premises.” So did our local YMCA and several community colleges. It sort of made sense in the Twin Cities. The law eventually fell to legal challenges.

(When I was teaching at a local community college, I was told first that I could not carry a gun anywhere on school property,  even if I had a permit. A few weeks later, the policy was amended. I could bring a gun to school as long as it remained unloaded and locked away in my car. I own an ancient shotgun that my dad gave me years ago to hunt pheasant. I don’t consider a gun my best protection against armed criminals or an overreaching government, but that could be because I am not very proficient with a gun and can’t imagine actually shooting someone with one.)

But rural Minnesota is famed for its prime hunting lands. I’ve heard of places where the kids bring their guns to school so they don’t have to go home before going out to hunt. Of course, the guns are hunting rifles, and they are locked up during the day, and the kids are all well-versed in gun safety. But I can’t imagine a school in the Cities giving the go-ahead for such a scheme.

The Constitutional right to bear arms is based on the premise that arming our government without retaining the right of the citizens to arm themselves could lead to the collapse of our democracy. Armed citizens are a check on overreaching government. The history of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s demonstrates the limitations of pitting armed citizens against an armed government. While the federal government effectively demonstrated its authority, the army was unable to enforce the whiskey tax, and it was repealed in 1803. Both sides could claim a victory.

A lot of NRA members and other gun enthusiasts still consider the right of citizens to bear arms as a protection against the government. That’s why they don’t want a ban on assault weapons. A group of guys with shotguns and hunting rifles would not last long against a trained military force armed with M1s and 50-caliber machine guns. It’s not that they expect the government to turn on them any time soon; it’s a matter of principle. They want to be ready if the government gets out of hand.

For a lot of Democrats the NRA stance borders on insanity. Not only does the NRA oppose restrictions on gun ownership, but they regard the government as a potential enemy. For those accustomed to thinking of the government as the solution to their problems, it’s hard to conceive of people who consider the government to be the source of theirs.

I doubt Jesus would advocate on either side of the gun debate. He always seemed more interested in personal responsibility than in questions of policy, unless the policies were unjust to the poor. When his critics tried to embroil him in the hot-button issues of his day, he always refocused on our obligations before God: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He would remind gun advocates that God told us not to kill but to lay down our lives. He would also call the gun opponents to repentance.


Laid Off


Last Monday I was laid off from my job. I had worked at the same company for three years—not long, but long enough to feel comfortable, long enough to be part of the family. So being laid off came as something of a shock.

At first, I told people I was fired, but then I found out that being fired carried with it the connotation that I had done something to deserve what happened. I also didn’t like saying, “I lost my job.” It sounded like something I had misplaced, like my car keys or glasses. If only I look hard enough, I can find it again.

I’ve never been laid off before. Previous job changes have always been at my discretion. I’ve never been eligible for unemployment before.

It has been more painful than I expected.

At first, I was simply stunned. It took me a couple of days just to get used to the idea. I found myself thinking about work I had to get done, stopping mid-thought, and realizing I didn’t have to do it after all. Not only didn’t have to, but prohibited from. One day I was working. The next day, I was barred from the corporate network, barred from my email account, barred from my online tools. Since I worked from home, I had to pack up the equipment owned by my employer and ship it back. I was surprised at the emotions welling up as I did this.

I was angry. I was sad. I was grieved.

In fact, grief seemed to predominate. I was not angry at my employer for letting me go. I understood the need for workforce reduction, and I was in full agreement with the reasoning that led to me being the one to go. I was angry because I had lost something I loved. What hurt most was that I could no longer do a job I loved doing. So I’ve been grieving, mourning the loss of my job.

“Blessed are those who mourn, …”

Of course, there are practical considerations. I have a family with three children still at home and two still partially dependent on Mom and Dad. I have a house payment, utility bills, expenditures for groceries and clothes and other necessities. I have children who expect birthday presents and a prom dress and a trip to Eagle Bluff. I have a wife who wants something really special for our upcoming 25th anniversary. All these things require income now lost. But they are ancillary concerns. I grieve because the work I loved doing is gone.

“… for they shall be comforted.”


Uncompromised Faith


I’ve been reading S. Michael Craven’s newsletters for a long time now. He takes on thorny and contentious issues in Christianity and writes about them with thoughtful clarity and compassion. His first book, Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity, shows the same intelligence and passion I have come to expect from his other writings. Despite tackling hot-button issues that usually inspire strident rhetoric—for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage—Craven almost always presents well-reasoned arguments without shrillness. Even when he sinks to ad hominem attacks, such as linking Carl Jung to Hitler and the Nazis, he forgoes lurid and inflammatory language. He writes about Jung’s pseudo-scientific spirituality:

The popularity of the Volkish movement, with its foundational concept of an Aryan elite, actually may have contributed to the preconditions necessary for the rise of Nazism in Germany. One scholar wrote, “By 1933 the German right was captured by Volkish ideas. It was a trend in German thought that became so strong that millions accepted it as the only solution to Germany’s problems.” Jung was regarded as an important proponent of Volkish thinking, a connection that many followers of Jung have worked hard to conceal, for obvious reasons.

It’s hard to find a Christian writer today who can write any kind of cultural critique without invoking the Nazis. They are to us what demons were to Jesus’ contemporaries. At least Craven sticks to references that have a plausible connection.

Craven identifies three isms—modernism, postmodernism, and consumerism—that in his view have most hindered the spread of the gospel and the effectiveness of the church in America. His book is unconcerned with the global impact of efforts in the American church to spread the gospel beyond the United States; he instead tackles the obvious decline in Christian influence in the public sphere in America. He does not mean political influence but cultural influence. The Christian right may have a stranglehold on the Republican party, but Christianity—right or left—certainly has little influence in Hollywood or Wall Street.

The book is long on critique but short on solutions. Craven identifies the cultural and ideological trends that have most harmed the effectiveness of the church, but he offers little as an effective strategy for combating those trends. Nevertheless, he provides a good start, and those who give serious thought to where the American church will be in 40 years should read this book. For the United States has been overtaken by a modern form of paganism, characterized by a diffuse belief in an impersonal God, confidence in progress, suspicion of history, and radical self-reliance.

Craven is not alone in his judgment that America is becoming increasingly pagan. Eccentric art critic Dave Hickey writes in a recent article,

Citizens of ancient Rome made sacrifices at the temple of the god most likely to find them a mate or cure erectile dysfunction. We Americans conflate the shops of Rome with its temples. We shop for dreams in galleries and boutiques–and every cent we pay for an object that exceeds its utility may be taken as a pagan sacrifice to the power of that specific object to lend us some assistance.

No wonder Craven calls consumerism idolatry. In America where do we turn in a time of crisis? What will save us from an economic tailspin? Shopping! When the politicos and pundits tells us our salvation will come when we break out the credit cards and cash and head to the nearest retail outlet, then we know we are no longer a nation that trusts in God, despite what it says on our currency. An earlier generation would have repented (or at least been urged to repent) of avarice. But now avarice, no longer a vice, is our greatest virtue—as long as it’s a democratic avarice and not elitist like those AIG bigwigs who reaped obscene windfalls after gutting their own company.

The promise of the subtitle is that readers would learn to overcome their culturalized Christianity. The book certainly helps with recognizing how our culture has not only influenced but actually subverted the message of the gospel, but it does little to help us overcome this subversion. For that we may have to wait for a prophet with more fire in his belly.