By now everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows about the Las Vegas massacre that took the lives of 59 people (thus far) and wounded five hundred others. That is news, but only because this shooting set a new record for American mass killings, beating the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando by ten fatalities. Mass shootings themselves are so common these days that they seldom make the headlines anymore. If we lowered the flag to half-mast for all of them, it would remain there for the better part of any given year. We have grown accustomed to gun violence. It is as American as the Pledge of Allegiance, baseball and apple pie.
I am not jumping into the gun control debate. There are far more people out there with a lot more expertise than me talking that issue to death. For the record, yes, I think some sensible restrictions on the kinds of fire arms people can buy and who is entitled to own them is long overdue. But our problem with guns goes much deeper than a lack of legislation or enforcement. In the final analysis, the Las Vegas massacre and all the bloody mass killings that preceded it are as much about idolatry as they are about murder. Las Vegas was yet another sad chapter in our country’s love affair with firearms and our deep societal conviction that our lives, freedoms and security depend on having guns at our disposal. That sentiment is expressed in the lyrics of a country western song by Lynyrd Skynard entitled “God & Guns.” The chorus reads:
God & guns keep us strong
That’s what this country was founded on
Well, we might as well give up and run
If we let ’em take our God & guns.
One particular verse is very telling indeed:
Oh, there was a time we ain’t forgot
You could rest all night with your doors unlocked
But there ain’t nobody safe no more
So you say your prayers and you thank the Lord
For that peace maker in the dresser drawer
Now listen to what Martin Luther had to say about the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.
“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Commandment (emphasis added).
A god is anything that promises to give us what only the true God can give: the confidence and security required to pray: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8. Take note of the word “alone.” Only the God and Father of Jesus Christ can give us the safety we need to sleep in peace. There is no mention of any “peace maker in the dresser drawer.” There is no such thing as faith in the true God and guns or anything else. There is no and. It is God or an idol.
You might be surprised to learn that there is no right to self-defense recognized in the faith of the church. In fact, Jesus instructed his disciples “do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42. According to the “Just War” doctrine espoused by Lutherans and most other mainline Christian churches, the task of wielding the sword to achieve justice and punish wrongdoing belongs solely to the civil authorities. Unless acting as an agent of the state, a Christian always takes the posture of non-violence in response to aggression. Defending yourself is not your job.
There is something further you need to know about idols. The protection they promise you does not come cheap. False gods typically require a blood sacrifice. They finally demand that you offer them what is most precious to you in exchange for their bogus promises of safety. The blood cost of our attachment to firearms is substantial. Between 500 and 600 people have been killed in mass shootings since 1983, depending on how you choose to define the term “mass.” But the real cost of readily accessible fire arms in the United States is better reflected in the day to day gun violence that does not rise to the level of “newsworthiness.” According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, our country loses a staggering 93 lives per day to gun violence. These shootings include suicides and accidents. To put this into global perspective, the United States incurs roughly 3.6 gun murders per every 100,000 U.S. residents each year. The ratio is 0.5 for Canada, 0.2 for Sweden, 0.1 for Germany, 0.04 for the United Kingdom and 0.01 for Japan.
Of course, these are only numbers. The numbers have names, families and dreams that will never come true, like Jessica Klym-Chuk, a mother of four from Canada who had just gotten engaged in April. There was Denise Burditus, a mother and wife from West Virginia who died in her husband’s arms. Also among the dead was Bill Wolfe, Jr., a youth wrestling and baseball coach from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Likewise Charleston Hartfield, a Las Vegas police officer, an accomplished Nevada Army National Guard sergeant first class, and a youth football coach. These are just a few of the mothers, siblings, fathers, sons and daughters ripped from the fabric of our country’s families, neighborhoods and worshiping communities. Amazing, isn’t it, the huge hole a bullet can make?
You can learn about many more lives that were so tragically cut short on that terrible day at the Kron4 website. Read and weep, but don’t expect anything but tears of joy from the NRA and the gun manufacturers. They are giggling all the way to the bank. At the end of Monday, the day after the Las Vegas shooting, Shares of Sturm Ruger were up 4%, while American Outdoor Brands, the company formerly known as Smith & Wesson, gained more than 3%. A company named Olin, which owns the Winchester brand of ammunition, rose 6% to an all-time high. CNN October 2, 2017. That was driven in large part by the run of gun owners on guns and ammunition prompted by fear that the tragedy might generate enough steam to limit their availability in the future. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but if the first thing that popped into your mind on Monday morning after you heard about the Las Vegas massacre was, “Gee! I better stock up on guns and ammo before the feds start regulating it” you are a sick, twisted and pathetic excuse for a human being. If you are a company that profits from stoking the paranoia of sick, twisted and pathetic individuals, you are, if such a thing is even possible, stuck at an even lower level of subhuman degeneracy.
Let us not be deceived by the high sounding constitutional rhetoric. This isn’t about the 2nd Amendment. It’s about money. Mass killings are good for business in the gun industry and so is the fear of mass killings. More fear means bigger sales, which means more guns available to depraved people looking for them, which means more mass shootings…and so on. So why discourage this lucrative spiral? What incentives do gun makers have to limit their market by restricting gun sales to people who are clearly mentally incompetent or emotionally disturbed? What incentives do they have to do anything that will threaten their cash flow? And what incentive have elected leaders, who depend heavily on contributions from the gun industry, to offend these heavy hitting donors? At the end of the day, it’s all about money.
But I digress. The gun industry is not the source of our problem with gun violence. It is simply a corporate parasite feeding on America’s pathological addiction to guns. We are drunks in desperate need of an intervention. Hiding the bottle is not the solution. Our country is awash in firearms and they will continue to flood our streets, infiltrate our schools and work tragedy in our homes as long as we look to them for the safety, peace and freedom only the true God can give us. Though more thorough background checks and bans on civilian ownership of extremely lethal weapons are steps in the right direction, on the whole, legislation regulating guns is likely to be as futile as laws against possession of heroin and cocaine. As long as people believe they must have guns to feel safe and at peace, the firearms industry will continue churning out guns and finding marketing loopholes in whatever law we pass.
In sum, changes in law and policy cannot help us unless changes are made in our hearts at the very deepest level. I fear that nothing short of societal rehab will cure our cultural addiction to fire arms and our false belief that only might can make right. In the language of our faith, we call that repentance. Repentance is a gift the church is uniquely qualified to offer the world. But before we can call the rest of society to repentance, we need to embrace it ourselves. That is why it is important for disciples of Jesus both to speak and to live non-violently. Concretely, that means no Christian home should house a firearm designed to take human life. Our bishops and pastors ought to be challenging us to purge all weapons of human destruction from our homes. Before we can unmask the idols of our culture and expose them for the frauds they really are, we must remove them from our own house. We must begin to live as though we really believe that Jesus taught what he taught, did what he did, died as the gospels tell us he died and was raised just as the New Testament confesses.
The Lord is God. There is no other. Jesus is our rock, our shelter and our peace. Jesus is perfect love and perfect love casts out all fear. Where there is no fear, idols lose their powerful grip on our souls. Faith that is grounded in Jesus has no use for weapons. Let us so live that all may finally hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.