incarnate faith
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incarnate faith

Church security, church purpose

I cannot imagine what our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs are going through. I’m almost stunned to silence by how often this happens, and how unbelievably tragic this is for this small community and small church. No one deserves to have to live through this kind of carnage and tragedy.

There are prayers of grief, prayers of peace, and prayers of justice to be had for this event and its victims. There are also conversations to be had about gun violence that started long before this and will continue long after. What I want to address here is how churches respond. Any honest church-goer now feels a little more uneasy, at best. What would it look like to respond responsibly and with an unwavering theological understanding of what the church is?

As a pastor myself, I struggle with exactly what a good, reasonable, prudent, and theologically sound response looks like for a church. I know better what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like churches saying they are armed and ready for when it happens there. Locked, loaded and ready for a wild west shootout doesn’t strike me as the ideal stance for disciples of Christ.

But what is a good, reasonable, prudent, and theologically sound response? The fact of the matter is, it’s extremely difficult to find a response that is all of those things. But I want to submit that, however a church and its leaders decide to respond to such things, the response must avoid three major pitfalls:

First, a church response should not be out of proportion to the likelihood of a mass shooting compared to other security threats. A tragedy can make us lose perspective, at least temporarily. Despite the horror that Sutherland Springs just faced, a shooter remains one of the least likely security events that any one given church will face. 24-hour news coverage does something to us. It makes us think that our next plane ride holds imminent danger. It makes us think terrorism is one of the greatest threats to our life that we face (for a civilian, it’s very low on the list).

Similarly, this shooting in which 26 church-goers were killed can make us forget that mass shootings in churches are still, statistically, very rare. Yes, mass shootings are on the rise, and yes, these statistics very tragically don’t matter for the church in Sutherland Springs (or Emanuel AME Church in Charleston). I get that. But these horrible events don’t somehow make us any more vulnerable than we’ve always been.

Do you know what’s more likely to shut your church down? Mishandling child supervision, mishandling money, and sexual misconduct, to name three of the most common. If I were a lay person, I would not take my children to a church with a bunch of pistol-packing members (or armed guards, as some megachurches can pay for). A church would do well to talk about church security in the context of a comprehensive risk management plan that looks at things holistically. There are many resources out there for this — start with your denomination and your church’s insurance company.

Second, a church response should not fall victim to the myth of security. A church can and should ask questions about safety and security; any responsible church does. But there’s another truth at work here also: I cannot keep my people safe from a mass shooter. There is no such thing as absolute safety, there is no such thing as complete security. We do not live in a safe world. I can’t help but think that some of that to which we subject ourselves stems from the myth of security (like how you can bring 3 oz of liquid on an airplane but not 4). No matter what we do, someone intent on hurting us will fairly easily find a way to do so.

We can get trapped in the dead-end pursuit of self-preservation. Adam E. Eckhart says there is a [false] wisdom of the world which says our purpose is to protect ourselves from all perceived threats. Deviating from this is seen as “foolishly exposing ourselves to attack from a hostile world.” It is self-preservation that makes us withdraw from others in suspicion. It is self-preservation that makes us want to build walls and seal up borders. It causes us to miss out on the amazing life God has for us when lived through self-sacrificial service to God and others.

Every time I sort through possible scenarios in my head that include people within the church armed and ready to respond, I cannot come up with something that would prevent loss of life, unintended consequences, or that first shot. A swift response that disables a shooter might be a little more realistic in a world where civilians cannot access assault rifles. We’re better off, if you ask me, on advocating for things like an assault weapons ban, for which American Baptist Home Mission Societies has taken a stand. Mass shootings have dramatically increased since our assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

Lastly, a church response cannot be based on fear. There’s a reason that Kirkegaard called fear “the psychological condition that precedes sin.” Fear, though it is a natural human response to perceived threats, has an incredible power to make us behave badly and only worry about ourselves. In his book Fearless, Max Lucado wrote that fear produces “spiritual amnesia,” making us jettison what we proclaim to be true and good otherwise. Our perceived loss of control makes us “grab for a component of life we can manage,” he writes. “Our diet, the tidiness of a house, the armrest of a plane, or, in many cases, people. The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become.”

Followers of Christ have a crucial witness to live and a message to speak to our culture of fear. The only time fear is mentioned in a positive light in the Bible is when it is used to refer to reverence for God. The command, “Fear God” or the adjective “God-fearing” are common in the Bible, used roughly 300 times throughout its pages. Any other mention of fear is negative. Around 110 times, biblical texts talk about not being afraid. “Do not be afraid,” God says to Abraham on several occasions. “Do not be afraid,” God says to the Israelites through Moses. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Mary and Joseph when they received the news. They weren’t told that because they weren’t in fearful situations (they were). They weren’t told that because nothing bad could happen to them (it could). They were told “fear not” because of what fear would do to them. Fear leads us away from both God and neighbor into the cocoon of self-preservation.

A disrupted and fearful life is the very goal of terrorism. We are told not to have that spirit (2 Timothy 1:7). “Perfect love drives out fear,” 1 John 4:18 tells us. For all the times that Christians quote those passages about not fearing and being courageous because God is with us (Joshua 1:9), it’s interesting and unfortunate to see us all of a sudden forget that or not apply it when we face an actual threat. I don’t think the biblical writers intended their repeated “do not fear” exhortations to be relegated to self-encouragement for things like starting a new job or running a marathon.

This is so important because fear makes us forget who we are. It has happened to our country since 9/11; we cannot let it happen in our churches. All the persecuted churches and martyred believers of our past have faced imminent danger and have much to teach us. As we grieve for those lost in Sutherland Springs, these horrible events don’t make us any more vulnerable than we always have been. Be prudent, yes. Acknowledge the grief, the sorrow, and yes even the fear that we all certainly feel, but we must not live by it, and we must not lead by it. Whatever happens, the church must not forget who she is. One of my colleagues posted the following on Facebook:

The only way to [fully] protect ourselves is to cease being who we are called to be: welcomers of the stranger, the foreigner, the broken; the visible expression of the love of God.

If we lock and load, and lock ourselves in under the myth of security, we will merely join the rest of the world in its hunkered down position, ready to do battle in a zero sum game. If we make survival our goal and security our dream, we will do no less than miss our calling and purpose as the body of Christ.

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