The standard response of one side to horrendous shootings is, “We need gun control!” I’m not going to address that now. The standard response from the other side is, “We need more guns. If we had more guns, particularly more good people with guns, they could stop rampaging murderers in their tracks.”
It is likely true that in at least some circumstances armed good guys will be able to stop armed bad guys before they perpetrate as much death and destruction as they would like. Columnist David French suggests that if one of the Charleston congregants had been armed, fewer, if any, would have died. The main point of his piece is to generate a readiness not only to be constantly armed in public, but to be ready to shoot when the need arises.
What does it take to be ready to shoot, not a target, but a person, a fellow human being? Soldiers (like French was) receive training not only in how to shoot, but also how to overcome natural proclivities against shooting people. What good is a soldier, after all, if he’s not willing and able to kill the enemy when under attack? Police also receive training, though (and here I speak from assumption, not knowledge), their training involves much less desensitization with regard to killing others. We want soldiers to be able to kill in normal soldierly situations; we don’t want police to do so normal policing situations. Killing in war is the norm; killing in police work is supposed to be the exception.
But what happens next? Suppose the soldier actually finds herself in combat? Enemies are shooting at her and her unit. She employs her training, shoots back, and kills the enemy. What’s her attitude then? Rejoicing? Triumph? Maybe so – at least as long as the adrenaline is flowing. But is that the end of the story?
What about the police officer that kills someone, even someone who is actively threatening the lives of others? Does that officer go home feeling victorious, “Yes, I killed the perp!” Again, maybe so, at least at some point. But is that the end of the story?
We hear over and over of the phenomenon of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers come home from war suffering from PTSD because of what they’ve seen and experienced. That experience includes not only their suffering and the suffering of their fellow Americans. It also includes the suffering they have inflicted on others. Though desensitized by their training so they could shoot to kill, the residual effects of killing, even killing obvious enemies, don’t always sit well with their psyches. Likewise with police who are involved with shootings.
Is this package – desensitization and possible PTSD – what we want for everyone? Do we want the entire populace of law-abiding citizenry to continually mentally rehearse scenarios of shooting people?
Stanley Hauerwas writes that the greatest sacrifice we ask of our soldiers is not that they be ready to give their lives, but that they be willing to kill. Taking up that mindset – and acting on it – is a sacrifice. We don’t want people feel nothing when they’ve killed others, even horrible miscreants.
And what about Christians? The folks gunned down in Charleston were Christians engaged in a prayer meeting. If they took up the attitude, “I need to be armed at all times so I can be prepared to put down rampaging murderers,” or, with a more altruistic tinge, “I need to be armed at all times so I can protect the people around me,” how would they be in line with the New Testament? At what stage of his ministry was Jesus physically and mentally prepared to kill, either to defend himself or others? At what stage of their ministries were Peter, John, James, Paul, Priscilla, Barnabas and the others prepared to kill, either to defend themselves or others?
I confess I like the idea of defending myself and my family from evil people. I would like to be a hero, saving others from the perpetrators of evil. That form of heroism, however, is not recognizably Christian. I could say something like, “Well Jesus just didn’t understand how things would be today.” Or, “Jesus never had the option of being as highly armed as his opponents; we do, so we should grab the opportunity.” Or, “Jesus would want us to defend the innocent.”
I understand this last notion – Jesus wanting us to defend the innocent. Such an idea matches my natural inclinations. My problem is that interpreting it as “being ready to kill those who threaten the innocent” simply doesn’t fit with Jesus’ words, actions, or life as a whole. It also doesn’t fit the words, actions, or lives of those who immediately followed him. In the New Testament literature there are many admonitions to embrace suffering; none to inflict suffering.
I’ve cast my lot with Jesus. I don’t always understand or even like what he says. But I’m his to command.