On Jan. 25, America’s scourge of gun-related violence descended on our congregations.
Early that morning, Caldwell Presbyterian member Mike Middleton was shot and killed in his driveway. A dedicated mentor and friend to hundreds, Mike had once served as his assailant’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor.
Hours later, a thief burst into the college apartment of Covenant Presbyterian member Robby McNeil, firing a shot that caused significant brain damage. Robby, 19, has begun his long road of recovery.
Faced with these tragedies, our congregations are now searching for a faithful response to America’s epidemic of gun violence. As their pastors, we take our place in a confession that we, as a society, did not do enough to protect Mike and Robby. At the same time, our faith requires that we recommit to the passage of common sense public policy that makes ours a safer and more peaceful nation.
We stand with virtually all major world religions, which share an ethic that parallels what Christians call the “Great Commandment” to love neighbor as self. Our Old Testament tells of a people whom God commanded to live in a just covenant community, elevating the common good over individual rights. The prophet Isaiah envisioned “new heavens and a new earth … where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” We hold fast to that vision, not as a soft, idealist sentiment but as a sacred duty we must pursue, even in the face of failure and tragedy.
The Gospel in particular envisions a radical reorientation away from self and personal piety and toward God and neighbor. Love of God without love of neighbor amounts only to selfish spirituality, vacuous in content and insipid in application. Leave out love of neighbor and religion becomes exclusive, self-righteous, and oftentimes dangerous. Our nation’s love affair with guns has moved well into the dangerous phase.
As Presbyterians, we are particularly mindful that our Reformed tradition emphasizes a responsibility beyond a private faith to the larger ordering of a peaceful society in which each human life is valued equally.
To that end, we endorse a coalition of nearly 50 denominations and faith-based organizations observing a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath this weekend. It is a time to reflect, unite and act on the issue of gun violence. We do so aware of the potential for disagreement but confident that this world needs more than peace-talkers; it needs peace-makers.
We urge a call on federal and state lawmakers to:
• Reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Assault weapons are weapons of war and have no place in the hands common citizens.
• Require universal background checks when purchasing any firearm. Guns only belong in the hands of those who know how to handle them with correct intention.
• Make gun trafficking a federal crime and require all guns to be registered with the state and insured by their owners, as we do automobiles.
We also suggest a hard look at taxing the sale of bullets – as we do cigarettes and alcohol. This could offset the public costs that bullets help create, estimated to be $12 billion a year in court proceedings, insurance costs and hospitalizations paid for by government health programs, according to a recent study.
As Americans, we are grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in our country. As Christians, we also remember the Apostle Paul’s teaching, “For you were called to freedom… only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another.”
In this Christian season of Lent, we reflect on our belief that God came into the world in Jesus Christ “not to be served but to serve and to give his life.” Surely, that sacrifice is for something greater than the violence we experience today in our neighborhoods and in our congregations.
Lent is also a time to turn in a new direction. As a nation, let us turn away from our violent ways, for Mike Middleton, Robby McNeil and all others whose lives have been changed forever by our loving guns too much and God not enough.
Rev. Bob Henderson is senior minister, Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte. Rev. John Cleghorn is pastor, Caldwell Presbyterian, Charlotte.
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