I always worried about the day a mass shooting happened in a church. As a seminary student, immersed full-time in applying Jesus’ teachings to the modern world, I knew the church could not escape it for very much longer. Perversely, I wondered if our increased security in schools has driven shooters to find new targets. I knew the church’s designation as sacred space would not last in the mind of the shooter, and I knew I would have to face it as a pastor.
What would I tell my congregation, I wondered, when this public health crisis finally arrived in churches?
We were lucky — white Christians were lucky — that the first time it happened, in 2015, it was a clear hate crime, a white supremacist targeting a black church. Now we can no longer avoid it: The church is not a sacred space in the landscape of American violence anymore.
As I consider how to comfort my congregation — not in the face of tragedy, but in the face of a present fear about security in the place where I meet them — a few things come to mind. Some of these ideas are abstract, but I hope they are enough to push away the sense of helplessness.
Advocate for policy. The obvious solution is to encourage pacifists to be more vocal on gun policy issues — according to a Pew Research study last month, pro-gun advocates are almost twice as likely as gun opponents to contact their elected officials. Mennonites ought to take a more active role advocating for gun restrictions.
Address the root causes. It puzzles me when the media search for a motive in a mass shooting. The motive is clear, when we realize that the U.S. outpaces gun deaths in every other developed country and that nearly all mass shooters are men. It is the unique combination of culture, masculinity, loneliness, media frenzy, access and helplessness. It is the air of America. Pacifists must, as a matter of conscience, support mental health access; turn off the TV when the media vultures circle the story; reach out to those around you and pull them out of isolation.
Rebuild positive masculinities. It is clear to me that gun violence is related to the dismantling of patriarchy and the way that leaves individual men stranded without a clear sense of what it means to be a man. Anabaptists need to be active in rebuilding healthy masculinity and giving men new ways to assert themselves with what psychologists call pro-social behaviors.
Rebuild a sense of the sacred. The best way to protect our churches — all of our churches — is to ensure they are sacred spaces. To ensure that the church mediates experiences of the sacred for all people. To act in a way that is above reproach, that is compassionate, patient and public.
Be prepared to die for what you believe. I want to build up parishioners who are willing to die for their beliefs. I want to nurture souls who are strong enough to resist the false god of guns. I read an article that defined pacifists as having “an obligation to be a victim.” Perhaps, in that we choose to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence. But that does not make us victims; the victims are the ones who give in to the devil and the world’s call for violence. If, God forbid, I die in a mass shooting, I hope that my congregation will not call me a victim. I hope they will call me a witness to God’s mercy and love. I hope that, God forbid any of our churches feel this destructive violence, we will yet be faithful witnesses to the God of peace and justice.
Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.