Here is a dilemma for a church group. Do you post a “Gun-Free Zone” sign on the entrance knowing it could either make your church more safe or less safe?
In the first instance, the absence of weapons generally reduces the risk of people getting shot. But in the second scenario, an extremist might view the sign as an invitation to kill others without impediment.
James A. Atwood, author of Collateral Damage: Changing the Conversation About Firearms and Faith (Herald Press, 2019), helps churchgoing readers think through the complexities that surround the topic of gun violence in the United States.
But he also goes further. The book is a clarion call for Christians to take action in a society that loses 40,000 people a year to gun deaths, topping all other nations.
For the past 45 years, Atwood has integrated his dual work as a pastor and activist in Virginia, promoting gun laws that aim to protect people rather than the gun industry. As one who enjoys deer hunting, he is in a better spot than most progressives to raise a prophetic voice against firearm mania. A strength of this book is that it comprehensively covers the tragic trail of collateral damage left behind by gun violence.
I was stunned to learn there are more guns than people in the United States. This ratio has doubled since the mid-1990s. I also didn’t know that until the mid-1970s the National Rifle Association was largely known for advocating gun-safety measures and gun-control policies. In 1977, new leadership started to spread a fear-based message that the government wanted to restrict and confiscate guns.
Ironically, 90 percent of U.S. gun owners favor the passage of gun-control laws so that fewer guns end up in the hands of dangerous people.
Only a fringe minority of gun owners espouse an extremist view Atwood calls “gundamentalism.” This group continues to misappropriate the Second Amendment: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The irony is that gun owners who tout the Second Amendment generally disfavor any regulation overseen by the government. They also ignore the historical context of local militias regarding the protection of towns, not individuals.
Unfortunately, fear often holds greater sway than faith. Many people are afraid of extremists who might be mentally unstable and ideologically driven, since those two elements match the profile of many perpetrators of mass shootings.
Then there are those who amass large quantities of guns and ammunition. For them, fear may play a role not only in taking extreme measures to defend themselves but also in the concern many have about losing their freedom to own guns.
Let’s return to the “Gun-Free Zone” sign. What this issue raises for us is the tension between acting upon our fears versus acting upon our faith. Atwood does a fine job in helping readers to focus on the hard but biblically shaped questions. As Christians, what do we ultimately want to bear witness to with respect to weaponry?
Collateral Damage is full of revealing anecdotes, such as a 4th of July event in Los Angeles when folks shot bullets into the sky and one came down into a shooter’s head. A more sobering one involves a father whose 17-year-old son was killed by a shooter, which eventually inspired the father to be a speaker to school groups in Washington, D.C. When middle school students who packed a gym were asked to stand if they personally knew someone who was killed by a firearm, the entire group stood up.
Atwood does not avoid issues of race, nor does he treat racism as an obligatory token issue. I was impressed by his honesty about his efforts to unravel his own hidden biases, even after four decades of advocacy to reduce violence. His analysis of racism connects the dots between the “law and order” campaign of the Nixon era (now reprised by President Trump), the Reagan-era war on drugs and the exponential growth of prisons under President Clinton, all of which are stained by racial disparity.
Accidental deaths, suicides, domestic homicides, families who lost a loved one to a bullet all add up to a huge cost and a loss of security and well-being for the American people. Thankfully, Atwood, like Paul in Ephesus, is willing to “speak boldly and argue persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8), which spreads without fear or force.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” he writes at the end, “if the church of Jesus Christ stepped out front to stop the killing?” That just might happen if enough of us decide to be partners in the fulfillment of a prayer we often say together: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer and consultant, living in Duluth, Minn. He also runs the Agapé Peace Center, a ministry initiative of Central Plains Mennonite Conference.