Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Violence in Church

By now you’ve probably heard all about the shootings at a missionary training center and a mega-church in Colorado (if you haven’t, here’s a report courtesy of the New York Times). Whenever a senseless act of violence occurs theological questions inevitably follow, mostly asking why a good and loving God would allow such a thing to happen. This incident is no different, but the fact that the gunman was killed in a church by a volunteer security guard raises some serious ethical questions as well.

I am torn on whether having armed security guards in a church is a good thing or not. As a pastor I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel if someone walked into my church and started shooting. If one of my parishioners killed the shooter before he could do any further harm I would be relieved because I don’t want to see anyone in my church (or anyone else, for that matter) hurt. And yet I’m not totally comfortable with church condoning violence, even if it is in self defense.

In Matthew 26 we find Judas leading a large group of armed men straight to Jesus. Peter, attempting to defend Jesus, draws a sword and cuts off a guy’s ear. Simon Peter: God’s soldier. Great idea, right? Except that Jesus stops him, supernatural-glues the guy’s ear back on, and says, “All who live by the sword will die by the sword”, and then submits himself to torture and execution. So began the Christian tradition of non-violent resistance to evil. The list of notable exceptions is too long to mention (we’re still paying the price for the actions of our Crusader ancestors), but the fact remains that Jesus was a non-violent person, even though his instinct for self-preservation was as strong as anybody else’s. So does this mean that followers of Jesus can never engage in violence of any sort?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this very same question. In 1937 he published The Cost of Discipleship, his own study of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and probably the greatest articulation of a Christian theology of non-violence ever written. And yet Bonhoeffer was executed at Buchenwald in 1945 for his participation in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler. A man who preached non-violence so passionately participated in attempted assassination, and suffered a violent death as a result. Does this make him a hypocrite? I don’t believe so. Bonhoeffer wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison that he could not justify his violent actions. He said that not acting in the face of evil was itself evil, and that he knew what he must do even if he went to Hell for it. This action was, in Bonhoeffer’s view, not a necessary evil, but a lesser evil.

Killing a gunman in the lobby of a church undoubtedly resulted in fewer lives lost than would have been had he gone on with his shooting rampage. But I’m not ready to say that it was a justifiable or necessary act. The volunteer security guard claims that God steadied her hand and guided her aim. Whether or not that’s true is between her and God. All I know is that she made a choice in a situation where no ideal outcome was possible, and the result was probably the lesser evil. Violence is always evil, even if it is done for the right reason. All we can do is ask God for forgiveness for all our sins and pray for the courage to make the best decisions in situations where no one wins.

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