Matthew Morin worships with Milwaukee Mennonite Church.
We have been here before. Three years ago, almost to the date, a young man entered an elementary school in Connecticut and killed 26 people, 20 of them children.
The shooting occurred just before the third Sunday in Advent, and one of the passages read in worship that week included a promise from Zephaniah 3:
“I will remove disaster from you…I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast.”
“Be patient, people,” we were told after Sandy Hook. “God is coming to deal with the murderers.” In the words of the saints’ song: “Ain’t that good news.”
It happened again this week. Again a mass murder; again during Advent; again during “Year C” of the lectionary cycle; again, again, again.
Humanity never makes progress; we can never outgrow or outlaw the temptation to violence. Perhaps that’s why the liturgical calendar is in the shape of a circle—a cyclical calendar for recurring impulses.
This week, being the second Sunday in Advent, the promise from Scripture is different. It is not from Zephaniah, but Malachi 3:
“The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”
“Be ready, people,” we are told after San Bernardino. “God is coming to deal with all of us.” In the words of the saints’ song: “Oh, sinner, you’d better get ready.”
If I had to wager a guess, I would bet that most of us are more comfortable with Zephaniah’s message than Malachi’s. We are all for God removing disaster, but understandably less enthusiastic about God purifying us with fire. We are glad to know that God will take care of our oppressors; less so to know that God has work to do with each one of us.
I witnessed this tendency in the past week, through a number of conversations with fellow Mennonites about gun ownership.
Following the massacre in San Bernardino, many of my friends cried out once again for some type of meaningful political action in the United States. Banning assault weapons, prohibiting the sale of semi-automatic handguns and outlawing high-volume clips were all among the policy suggestions that I heard. No doubt these are much needed and long overdue measures.
However, when the topic of rifles came up, there was considerably less willingness to be disarmed.
“I have a rifle for shooting varmints,” said one Mennonite in an online forum. “One of our teens shoots competitively—skeet and target,” stated another.
I grew up in Evangelical circles, so I am well aware that Christians own guns. However, I was taken aback to learn that so many Mennonites—people from whom I am learning to practice and receive the nonviolent presence of Christ— apparently have few qualms when it comes to shooting hunting rifles. (As I processed all of this, the voice of theologian Stanley Hauerwas came back to me. “Don’t glamorize the Mennonites,” he once told a group of students. “I even know one who is a Yankees fan!”)
We want legislators to stop gun violence without considering the ways that our own decisions might shape collective consciousness and might contribute to the public problem of gun infatuation.
We ask God to remove disaster without considering that God might do so by purifying us first.
Advent is the time when we are prepared by God to receive the gift of Jesus. Be patient, people of God; the gift will arrive in due time. Be ready, people of God, to receive the gift when it arrives.
And most importantly, remember that the gift has not been given to you so that you may hoard it, but so that you might share. Your freedom in Christ has been given for the sake of the whole world. The peace of Christ is a gift for the whole world.
The guns we possess have come to possess us. This is evidenced not only in mass murders, but also in the adamant refusals by people of goodwill to surrender their guns for the common good.
No, shooting a clay target, a pheasant, or a deer is not the same as shooting a person—not even remotely close. But there is no such thing as a purely private decision. It is high time to consider the societal repercussions of using guns for hunting and target practice.
If faith is “empty hands held open for God to fill,” then perhaps laying down our hunting rifles and shotguns will make it easier to hold the baby Jesus when he arrives.
Have a comment on this story? Write to the editors. Include your full name, city and state. Selected comments will be edited for publication in print or online.