Pastors: On guns for safety, ‘do not be conformed’

After shooting in Texas, churches won't put faith in weapons for security

Nov 13, 2017 by and

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About 35 miles from where 26 people were killed in a Nov. 5 shooting during a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas, members of San Antonio Mennonite Church participated in a vigil mourning the deaths a few days later.

The massacre has prompted congregations to ask what security measures might be appropriate, including the use of firearms.

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. — Eric Gay/Associated Press

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. — Eric Gay/Associated Press

San Antonio Mennonite has already given thought to its safety. Last year, when the congregation of 80 opened its building to shelter hundreds of people released from immigrant detention facilities with nowhere else to go, they received an online threat. Pastor John Garland said some of the church’s men chose to act as greeters and sit in the back of the sanctuary — “not as armed greeters, not as folks who are taking a gun-training class from the church, but people saying, ‘If this threat is real, I will be the first person [to confront it].’ ”

Garland said it is common in his area for pastors to carry guns, but he wants to do things differently.

“The pattern is, ‘You give good guys guns,’ ” he said. “Paul says, ‘Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed.’ That’s something we’re committing to do — not be conformed.”

Garland said spiritual warfare is the only just war, but many Christians ignore Jesus’ teaching on not resisting evil because it demands a sacrifice.

“When the body of Christ was threatened — the actual physical body of Christ was threatened in Gethsemane; they were going to lead him off to a horrible death — he said, ‘Put your sword back in its place.’ All the disciples deserted him, and I completely understand why,” Garland said. “We want to desert him, too. Should we? The answer is no. . . . We can win this battle with metal cutting into our flesh.”

With the privilege of meeting publicly for worship comes risks, Garland said.

“The Christ-following [security] measure is prayer,” he said. “We’re called to pray for God’s protection, and not donate our faith to metal and gunpowder. When we gather publicly and invite the community in, we’re receiving a gift, and that comes with a risk. . . . [We could] lock our doors and only invite in people who look and smell like us, but the reality is that’s not who we’re called to be.”

Yet Garland acknowledged there are situations where safety became more of a priority for him. San Antonio Mennonite has an anti-domestic abuse initiative that holds meetings in the building. Garland said the group meets in a part of the building that is securely locked, because the participants need to feel safe.

Violence not an option

The day of the Sutherland Springs shooting, two people were shot and killed in the parking lot of St. Alphonsus Church in southwest Fresno, Calif., after the service, according to The Fresno Bee.

James Bergen, lead pastor of North Fresno Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation, said he and his staff discussed responses to a hypothetical active shooter situation after hearing the news of both shootings.

“We definitely need some kind of protocol with an active shooter or imminent danger,” he said.

The church hosts a preschool during the week, and the doors are locked, telephones are available and possible escape routes are planned.

Mourners participate in a candlelight vigil in Sutherland Springs, Texas, held for the victims of a fatal shooting Nov. 5 at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. — AP Photo/Darren Abate

Mourners participate in a candlelight vigil in Sutherland Springs, Texas, held for the victims of a fatal shooting Nov. 5 at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. — AP Photo/Darren Abate

“In terms of a Sunday morning worship gathering with an active shooter, we will be working on implementing something,” Ber­gen said. “But it won’t involve arming anybody. . . . That will never happen.”

Bergen said that as an Anabaptist church in the peace tradition, how they respond to the threat of violence is part of their witness.

“Jesus invites us to a way of love and nonviolence, so I think [responding with violence] gets taken off the table,” he said. “I understand some read Scripture looking at redemptive violence as a possibility, but we read Scripture through the lens of Jesus. Using violence or choosing to kill somebody wouldn’t even be something we could choose as followers of Jesus.”

The church of about 325 people tries to balance hospitality with safety. They shelter homeless people overnight but ask them to leave in the morning before parents drop off their preschoolers.

Bergen said that although the church doesn’t encourage people to carry concealed weapons, he knows some who attend do, including police officers.

‘Take up our cross’

In the aftermath of the Oct. 1 concert shooting in Las Vegas, Nev., Horace McMillon, pastor of Open Door Mennonite Church in Jackson, Miss., wrote a blog post on Mennonite Church USA’s website:

“In America, the gun reform discussion is a religious discussion. . . . In the U.S., we have placed our faith in the false idol of personal protection.”

After that, McMillon was the guest on “The Peace Lab Podcast,” a project of MC USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network and The Mennonite, recorded days after the Texas church shooting.

“It’s one thing to say that we live in a fallen world and we’re fallen people and we’re not able to live the way Jesus modeled, but it’s another thing to say that Jesus would want us to gun our enemy down,” McMillon said in the Nov. 13 episode. “To me, that seems to go against the heart of Jesus’ teaching and what he called us to do. Jesus understood, and we understand that we live in a dangerous world, but I believe that we’ve committed to live a different way. We don’t answer evil for evil, but we answer evil with good.”

In a Nov. 10 interview with MWR, he elaborated on his comments.

“I don’t believe that arming someone so they can shoot someone before they shoot your congregation is appropriate,” he said. Instead, he recommended greeters heartily welcome all visitors, making eye contact and a personal connection that might defuse ill intent.

“People will know we’re Jesus’ disciples by our love for one another,” he said. “We need to be a people of love and practice hospitality, even if it’s dangerous to practice hospitality.”

McMillon said the focus should be on de-escalation of violence rather than responding with weapons. At the same time, Christians should know there is risk, he said.

“Jesus calls us to take up our cross,” he said. “Sometimes people have the idea that being a Christian means everything is going to turn out better. Sometimes that’s the case, . . . but that’s not the guarantee we receive in following Jesus. . . . There’s going to be times that being faithful means we’re not going to be better off.”

McMillon said he would not take someone else’s life in order to save his own.

“Who are you placing your faith in?” he asked. “Are you placing your faith in the ability of the gun to keep you safe? Are you placing your faith in following Jesus? That’s a challenge not everyone is able to receive very well.”

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