This week, my three-year-old had strep, which quarantined him in his room, tracing letters, playing cars, watching some Netflix. It was an unexpected blip in the week, a day at home when I’d normally be in the office. As he gets older, I enjoy these times when he’ll sit still long enough for this. And while my son sat in my lap, watching the trials and travails of Lightning McQueen, 17 children were murdered in South Florida, in their school.
In a very short time, my kids will be starting school, entrusted to the hands of others for full days. They will be beyond my sight for these hours, in the presence of teachers who will instruct, but who should never be asked to do what has been done over and over again: protect with their lives.
In 2018, there have been eight school shootings in the first eight weeks. And so, on Ash Wednesday, as the events unfolded, the liturgy of horror unfolded, in ways which have been numbingly familiar: shock, terror, remorse, denials, blame, explanation.
‘All the arguments have been made’
The structural causes for this in the American situation are legion, a combination of the second amendment, American libertarianism and deep-seated cultural theodicies that we cannot live without. Stuck between the right to bear arms and the natural desire to protect our children, we propose more guns rather than fewer, turning educational settings into preemptive conflict zones.
America has similar rates of mental illness and depression to other industrialized countries, and so, attributing these killings at the feet of mental illness is both erroneous and derogatory of the mentally ill. Theologically, mass shootings have more roots than weapons, but materially, in America the issue is one of the sheer volume of guns, and it is far beyond time to say so.
According to the most recent estimates, there are currently 300 million firearms in America. This is nearly enough to arm every living person, or to give every adult two weapons each. Let this number sink in: if averaged out, every adult American could be armed twice over, and there would still be nearly 50 million guns to spare. But by now, all the arguments have been made.
We’ve had this conversation, as Christians and as a broader culture, way too many times. And, at this juncture, I am losing confidence that making any appeals rooted in conscience or goodwill have any traction, for this reason: when the open murder of children in schools fails to move a society to some kind of collective action, we have reopened the pits of Moloch and are now simply debating how many of our children to sacrifice.
‘Remove the idols’
Now is the time for Christians to remember that rights and freedom are those things exercised for others, not in protection from others. For a Christian, freedom is the ability to be exceedingly in service to one’s neighbor, to give oneself without restraint in service to the good of God in the world. Calling ownership of an AR-15 a freedom is beyond parody; it is idolatry. Brothers and sisters, it is time to name this for what it is. Call it idolatry. Call it pagan worship. Remove the idols from your house and houses of worship, lest they consume the foundations.
When we as Christians cannot think of giving up something, it is a sign that it has occupied its seat in the house too long, a houseguest long overstayed. If this happens, it signals that we have lost the ability to function as a church, for we have traded rights for the true freedom of the gospel, and the peace of God for the hunger of the pagan gods, who constantly offers us stability at the expense of human lives.
And so: a modest proposal.
‘Give up your guns’
We can — and will — have this conversation again. The children of Florida are demanding it now, and God help us if we do not listen to them. And so, we could begin this conversation, as we have always done, with nuance, by delineating between hunting rifles and other arms, debating age limits, forms of licensing, rights and duties and so forth. There will be time for that.
But before that, but I want to invite us — as Christians — in this season of Lent, to something more basic and austere: for Lent, Christians, in the name of Jesus Christ, give up your guns.
In the name of Jesus Christ, lay down your arms and walk away from them. Put them away, beat them into plowshares if you can, sell them for scrap metal if you must. If you are led, melt them into crosses to be placed in public spaces as a testimony to the life of the world to come.
But before we can talk, we must be set free, stepping away from the thing which possesses our collective imagination with such force, for it is only then that we can speak truthfully.
Let us begin by renouncing our idolatry, our fear and our right, that we might reclaim freedom.
Let this Lent be the season when we submit ourselves to the Spirit of God and see where the Spirit will lead us, and may it be to that world that we cannot yet imagine.
Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at Myles.Werntz@hsutx.edu.