People of faith hold signs calling for prayer and action at a spiritual event preceeding the March for Our Lives a student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control that took place on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Bring public theology into the gun debate

By the Rev. Alan Rudnick

Santa Fe, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, Newtown, Las Vegas, Charleston and Littleton. What do these communities have in common? Mass shootings. With each mass shooting, politicians, public figures and pastors offer “thoughts and prayers,” then not much happens.

When Parkland, Fla., was victimized by a mass shooting there was an outpouring of emotional support. Unlike other mass shootings, we saw a change in the way the victims and their community responded. The students and young people of their community went beyond “thoughts and prayers” and put their grief into focus: Let’s stop this violence and be reasonable about gun reform.

In an era when President Donald J. Trump ended gun check measures for those with mental illness, and AR-15 assault rifles have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters, more people realize something must be done.

In an unprecedented response, thousands of other students in middle and high schools across the country are protesting our culture of violence and our love for guns. We watched hundreds of thousands of children, youth and adults march in Washington, D.C., to protest adherence to blind acceptance of unfettered access to weaponry that causes mass violence and death. Media commentators called these young people “socialists,” “opportunistic,” “snowflakes” and “crisis actors” for wanting to change the conversation on guns.

Evangelicals, Catholics and anyone else who calls themselves “Christian,” take note. This is a public problem. Since our elected officials are not doing much to address the problem, our young people are starting to address the problem.

The Christian populace has largely stayed out of the gun debate. The Jerry Falwell Juniors and the Franklin Grahams of the debate reinforce a Christian nationalistic need to blindly uphold the Second Amendment. There was a time when Christian leaders would come to the forefront of public problems: Martin Luther King Jr., William Temple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Max Stackhouse and many more. We used to call this type of Christian witness “public theology.” Public theologians and leaders regularly injected the Christian call for the common good of all people. They served as the voice of Christian reason in chaotic times.

Now, we have talking media heads who want to create a Christian nationalism in which God and country come first, and the public good comes second — or not at all.

A few bright spots emerging out of this chaos of grief, death and violence are bringing public theology back to Christian witness. One is the Rev. Rob Lee, descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Having engaged with him on Twitter and Facebook, I have increasing hope that public theology is returning to the ethical conscience of the American public.

Many in the media and Evangelical Christianity have painted any reasonable gun reform as anti-American or anti-constitutional. Many Americans and American Christians have no interest in “taking” people’s guns or abolishing the Second Amendment. Most Americans believe in gun reform. A 2017 Gallup poll indicates that 60 percent of Americans believe in stricter gun control laws, and 71 percent disagree with a ban on all firearms. In a nation where 75 percent of Americans identify as “Christian,” it is clear that most Americans — and most Christians — believe in reasonable gun reform measures.

President Ronald Reagan, hailed by most political and Christian conservatives as the golden example of what a true president acts like, advocated for reasonable gun control measures. Reagan believed banning assault-style weapons was a critical step in improving public safety. In 1994, Reagan joined with presidents Carter and Ford in writing the following:

“This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. … While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

Reagan, Carter and Ford all had a concern for the public good. Republican and Democratic presidents came together and saw the need to advocate in the public’s best interest.

Now is the time for Christian pastors and people in the church pews to develop a theology for the gun debate that concerns itself with the common good of the people. This public theology is not about voiding the Constitution but about common sense adaptive approaches centered in a concern for public safety and the well-being of all Americans — a public theology that does not get mired painting each other’s viewpoints as un-American or anti-Christian. It is time for a public theology that, as a voice in the wilderness, calls people to act. It is time for a public theology in which we listen to victims, gun owners and our young people. It is time for a pubic theology that seeks to listen to God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It is time that we carry out our public theological call from Matthew 25 to care for the least of these: the young people of our country who are being gunned down just for going to school to receive an education.


The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.