Monday, December 17, 2007

recent spotlight on church security

Following the recent shooting at a mega-church in Colorado where four were killed before a security guard shot the gunman dead, there's been a little buzz in the news about church security. [I've heard different information about whether the gunman was killed or shot himself, but I'm writing while assuming the former. Even if this is not the case most of my comments are still pertinent, and, of course, the natural intention in firing at the shooter would be to kill him.]
Christianity Today recently posted an article in this vein.

Here's a quote from the article, from the security head at a Dallas church that draws approximately 8,000 folks to Sunday services:
You can use your hands, you can go tactical, but these days, that's not the way people roll... You have to match force with force.

This chilled me to the bone.

I know that I'll sound crazy here... but the church can't operate this way.
A church security guard killed a man... and Jesus absolutely would not have condoned such a thing. Period.

How can I say this? Pretty simply. Look at the scriptures:
You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5: 38-39

Everything Christ says of violence in His ministry is in the negative. And when push comes to shove, of course He sticks to it.
Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."
Matthew 26: 50-52

Now certainly this scenario is different from others that we may imagine: Christ is dying "that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." But can you honestly see Jesus having condoned the violent reaction in any other circumstance? If it had been the arrest of John the Baptist, perhaps, or someone else? No. We also see this reflected in the martyrdoms of the disciples, none of who offer violent resistance.
So, when the Lord Jesus's physical body was being destroyed by the Romans, He in fact did not call down the legions of angels to His aid. He didn't even so much as let Peter use his sword. Instead, Christ responded by calling down the grace of God: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Yet when we, the Body of Christ, see our members being harmed, we strike back in force, efficiently.
This is not what Jesus would have done.

Of course it just makes sense for there to be security at events with lots of people, and it's practiced across the board. Sports, political events, malls, Wal-Mart, where ever and whatever occasion. It's ethically justifiable for these security guards to kill, if they're protecting their charge. We have laws to protect those who kill in self-defense. But Christ is not operating this way.
It's almost like the flip-side of the "teleological suspension of the ethical" that Kierkegaard describes in Fear and Trembling. He is explaining how Abraham, as the man of faith, is absolutely justified in his deceptions leading up to the binding of Isaac, and would have been absolutely justified in killing the boy, because the call of faith supersedes the mandates of the ethical. Here however, the example of Christ is not allowing the Christian to supersede the ethical, but rather drawing a line before it is reached, and saying "this far, no farther. You are released from the ethical command to preserve your life."
This seems preposterous on so many levels. We know that the preservation of life is good. We know that you can't just let a man walk into the church and kill people. We seem to forget, however, that the church is not some other worldly organization. We are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. We naturally can not think of this in the same terms that the world does, in the terms that we have been raised to think of it in. Our kingdom is "not of this world."

So what's the alternative? I'm not sure. I'm torn between options.

One the one hand, I'm reminded of a story from Jim Cymbala's Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, where a gunman in the Brooklyn Tabernacle repents shortly after intending to murder the Reverend.

On the other hand I recall Columbine. These gunmen didn't repent, and Christians are murdered because they stand there and allow it--they choose it, even.

But then I'm also not sure as to why I'm unsure here. It does seem like this should be a difficult question to answer, or at least it seems this way so long as I ignore the fact that Christ has already answered it.
You seek the Kingdom of God, and, if need be, you let them kill you.

Now are we supposed to just stand there like sheep, letting the killer walk up to each completely unhindered? I think not. I think that Christians are called to stop the man, I just don't think we can justify whatsoever killing him. We catch bullets for others. We try our damnedest to get his gun away. But we do not kill him. We love him, all the while, as ourselves.

I realize that in the moment, with the man firing rounds nearby, the security guard's natural reaction will be to shoot him. Probably, it would be mine as well. That's just what we would instinctively do, what is ingrained in us. I'm not criticizing the guard for this. But is this what Jesus would naturally have done? No, I think not. And we are to be like Christ. "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ." I don't suppose St. Paul would have shot the man either. For Christ(and for Paul), this wouldn't have been the natural reaction. In the moment, His instinct would not be to kill the man. Thus ours should not either. He would simply have loved God, loved the man, and sought the Kingdom. We as a new creation, filled with the Holy Spirit, are to be cultivating these things are our new nature as well.

So should the guard have been put in this situation in the first place? Should we really carry guns in a church? Well, here we must ask ourselves what the point of the gun is--is it to prevent something? How? By killing? I don't think Jesus would have owned a gun.

Is there a difference between the man killing Christians and the murdering robber or psychopath? To say 'yes' and act accordingly, I think, would be to confirm some sort of spiritual/secular rift in regards to our actions: here killing is a spiritual issue and I will not do it; here, on the other hand... can we say that?

There are a lot of questions and there is nit-picking that can be done, but in the end, I can't help but point to one real question, one that surely, and perhaps only, must matter: how much are we REALLY supposed to be like Jesus? Because I simply do not see the Son of Man killing someone in ANY circumstance whatsoever. Ethical justifications, natural, good inclinations, the realities of the deadly potential of our weapons, whatever--these must go out the window, and the hackneyed but important question remains: what would Jesus really do?

For some more reading on all of this, Ben Witherington III also has a long, interesting post on the recent shooting(s) in the news.


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Can I enlarge the issue, a bit? I assume that the ethical norms for Christians will be the same whether or not they are inside the Church building (though I realize the fact that this incident takes place at the gathering of the New Creation people - the very place and time at which the alternative polity is enacted - brings the issue into sharper focus). Still, I expect their ethics to travel well. SO...what if they are on the battlefield? Then it is OK to kill?

It seems to me this is a sub-question under the larger question of pacifism v.s. just-war v.s. crusade/jihad. Of course, there are differing nuances within each of those three positions and on some level I can see the appeal of them all. If we accept a just war theory, then it seems we can put the guard's actions under that heading (on a much smaller scale). Some forms of modified pacifism might also fit (wherein violence may be used to defend others, but not one's self).

Of course, all of this is a subset of an even larger question: How can we be in the world but not of the world? How can we be citizens of the City of God, while living in the City of Man?

This I constantly grapple with...

Nance said...

I actually considered that an implication of the larger question should a Christian ever take a life in a worldly scenario(excluding things like the binding of Isaac, as that was at the direct behest of God). But, I agree, they are very closely related.

"Follow Jesus" probably sounds quaint and seems a bit too ambiguous to answer the question about living in the civitas Dei on Earth... but is that not still ultimately the answer? And didn't Jesus make it pretty clear that we're not to retaliate? What of defense? Where, there the ambiguity seems to step in, but then, Christ never defended Himself, either. He simply responded the only way we'd expect Him to, by showing the grace of God to the offender.

I don't know.

Josh said...

This is a thorny issue, Nance, and I'm glad you're wrestling with it. I don't know if you read the comments to Ben Witherington's post, but there's an interesting discussion there.

You said: "You seek the Kingdom of God, and, if need be, you let them kill you.

"Now are we supposed to just stand there like sheep, letting the killer walk up to each completely unhindered? I think not. I think that Christians are called to stop the man, I just don't think we can justify whatsoever killing him. We catch bullets for others. We try our damnedest to get his gun away. But we do not kill him. We love him, all the while, as ourselves."

There's another issue here, one that you touch on and which is discussed at length by some of the commenters at Witherington's site - namely, that I am responsible for deciding whether to lay down my own life in a violent situation, but how can I decide when to lay down someone else's life?

It is hard to argue with all of the Biblical evidence you cite concerning what our individual response ought to be to predators. It may be worth considering whether Jesus' command to "not resist the one who is evil" is absolute, or if it refers specifically to those being persecuted for their faith. It may well be intended as an absolute command, in which case you would be right - violence in the name of self-defense would not be justified.

With regard to what happened at New Life Church, let's consider some of the complicating factors here:

A. the news media's accounts of the incident are never going to be able to give us the full story; we simply don't know if anyone tried to engage the gunman peaceably before he was shot, and we don't know what the security guard heard or observed from her vantage point that convinced her to open fire. Therefore, we need to be more careful than some of the responders to Witherington's post when we make assumptions about how the sequence of events happened.

B. the gunman's actions indicated that he was intent on causing destruction, and hindsight confirms this even more. Thus, when Witherington makes assertions like these:"2) we absolutely do not know what was going to happen next, if the young man had not taken his own life.

"3) we do not know what would have happened if the woman security guard had wounded and disabled the young man, and the young man had not taken his life. We do not know."

Actually, I think we can say with some certainty what would have happened: the young man would have continued firing until he ran out of ammunition or until he was physically restrained, which might not have happened until after dozens more lives were lost.

Also, it seems a little disingenuous to suggest that the security guard should have tried to merely incapacitate the shooter. We cannot assume that she did not, in fact, try to do this; regardless,it seems as though it would be extremely difficult to actually do that successfully in such a situation.

Witherington writes: "A good case can be made that it was a lesser evil to take out the sick gunman than to let him continue on his rampage. This makes very good sense, but we need to understand what it implies. It implies we know for a fact that he would and could have gone on killing, or at least we know this with reasonable certainty. To know something like this for a fact requires either omniscience or clairvoyance-- take your pick. I don't have either one."

I'm sorry, but I don't buy this. The evidence we have indicates the killer was trying to indiscriminately kill people in the church. In fact, it does not require omniscience or clairvoyance to know the killing was going to continue, it only requires (as he admits in the previous sentence) "reasonable certainty", and that is what we have based on the accounts of the eyewitnesses.

C. we cannot assume that all of the people in the church were believers (and thus compelled to give up their lives). What if there were visitors who did not know Christ? What if the security guard knew this? Would it then be OK to allow them to be killed because she did not want to kill the shooter out of concern for his eternal destiny? What if there were children in the area? Should they not be protected?

My point in all this is that while we are free - even commanded - to give up our own lives freely, we cannot assume to right to decide that question for others.

Think about the leaders of New Life Church - those who are charged with caring for that flock. Are they not to take the same responsibility for protecting the flock that a shepherd takes for protecting his flock? What does a shepherd do when he sees the wolf approaching - does he approach the wolf and lie down between the flock and the predator, or does he try to smite the wolf with his staff?

Perhaps I should let one of the commenters to Witherington's post speak for me:

"[M]y impressions of pacifists from this discussion aren't that they are wimpy, but that they are so brave as to be cavalier with *other* people's lives. They also seem to talk a lot in the abstract.

"There are a lot of propositions here that sound godly as we sit behind our keyboards in the developed world, but I have a hard time imagining applying them universally. I ask that you carry out your propositions to their logical ends.

"I can choose, in love, to not employ physical violence against an attacker, knowing it may well cause my death. Do I have the right to choose that for a defenseless person under my protection? Do I have the right to decree the sacrifice of their life (or innocence?)

"What if I'm the only adult in a room full of children? What is the correct response to a homicidal attacker? Yes, I should love him. But what form should that love take, in light of the others in the room with whom I've been entrusted?

"There seems to be an assumption here that to love an enemy means to not physically resist his evil actions. Is this true? If I defend the defenseless against an attacker using physical violence, does it necessarily follow that I don't love him? Is it necessarily out of selfishness or vengeance? I think it is arrogant to claim so."

In sum, I think you've raised some points that ought to trouble us. These are not easy questions. I think we can safely say that violence is undesirable and should be avoided at almost any cost (some would say "at all costs"). And feel free to object to this, but any time this subject comes up I feel the need to invoke the example of Bonhoeffer, an avowed pacifist who still felt the need to abet those who were plotting to kill Hitler. As he put it: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Of course, his resistance eventually cost him his life.

Bonhoeffer's words do not supersede those of our Lord, though Bonhoeffer himself said that his conscience was conflicted and knew he would have to answer to God for his decision. It is entirely possible that Bonhoeffer's decision was wrong. Yet we who talk about violence in the abstract must consider the example of one saint who encountered its most brutal manifestation in reality.

Nance said...

Thanks for the comments, JB.
I think you're right and the question of our obligation to our neighbor, be they a brother or sister in Christ or not, is of central importance here.
Bonhoeffer is an interesting name to bring up, as I am just reading The Cost of Discipleship, and some of his talk on murder from the Sermon on the Mount was very insightful; of course murder and the sort of killing we're talking about here are not the same thing. I'd have to make the same distinction between this and retaliation(Bonhoeffer calls it 'revenge'), as later touched on in Christ's sermon. This is a protective, preventive act of violence.

I also reread T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral today, and was struck by some of Becket's words. If yall will oblige me, here are some lines that I found very poignant. This is as the knights are entering the vespers to kill the Archbishop, and the priests would have him bar the doors...

Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!
I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
Give no stay but the Church shall endure.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!

[the priest then tries to argue against Becket, saying the the assailants are not men, but "beasts with the souls of damned men"]

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistence,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!