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Guns in Church

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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.

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Jesus Weeps

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Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. Those who were present thought he wept for Lazarus’ death. But how could that be so since he knew he was about to restore Lazarus to life? What was it that made Jesus weep?

I’m not sure what it was, though I have some ideas.

Actor Heath Ledger died recently. He was only 28. As is bound to happen in our celebrity-obsessed culture, his untimely death has become round-the-clock news. I feel a touch of vertigo when I consider the unknown but no less loved men, women, and children who die every day—some from malnutrition, some from preventable disease, some from violence and war. All untimely deaths are tragic, and I am glad, really, that I don’t have to read or know about them all. I would be overwhelmed by death.

Still, Mr. Ledger’s death is likewise tragic. Even if Jesus welcomed him into heaven, it is tragic for the family and friends he has left behind. I think Jesus would weep with them for their grief, for their loss. He would want to comfort and encourage them, show them kindness and love, send them flowers and bake them cookies, eat with them, grieve with them, weep with them.

Not so some who have taken his name. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, plan to picket Mr. Ledger’s funeral. They plan to spread hatred and lies in Jesus’ name. They plan to disdain the grief of Mr. Ledger’s family and friends, denounce his life, and callously make use of his death as an occasion for furthering their own perverse agenda. Nothing could be further from the love of Jesus Christ.

Let no one dare consider their actions Christian; they are wicked and hypocritical. By their actions, they exchange the glory of the one they call their Lord for fleeting infamy and self-martyrdom. Jesus spoke of such people when he said, “They have their reward.” Perhaps for them, too, he weeps.

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