Shootings expose divisions on gun issue in faith communities

·6-min read

After a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, several pastors around the country challenged their conservative counterparts with this question: Are you pro-life if you are pro-gun?

One of those faith leaders is the Rev. Steven Marsh, senior pastor of Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. That's where a gunman, who officials say was fueled by hate against Taiwan, opened fire on May 15 at a luncheon organized by members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, killing one and injuring five others.

“I’ve heard people tell me I’m not Christian because I’m pro-choice,” Marsh said. “I ask those people: How can you be pro-life and not support getting rid of assault rifles? You can’t pick and choose where you want to be pro-life.”

Marsh’s emotional statement is a vignette in the larger narrative of a nation divided on how – or if – guns should be regulated. The faith community is not monolithic on this issue.

People of faith who are tired of years of failed gun control efforts and grieving the latest mass shooting victims are pointing out what they say is hypocrisy – conservative Christians pushing to abolish abortion and grant unfettered access to guns. Those who disagree contend the real problem is sin and soft targets. It’s not guns, but the “evil” in people and abortions that kill, they say.

These entrenched, partisan divisions in the U.S. on abortion and gun rights are stark after high-profile massacres in New York, California, Texas and elsewhere as the country awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could overturn the constitutional right to abortion.

According to 2017 Pew Research Center data analyzed for Christianity Today, 41% of white evangelicals own a gun compared to 30% of Americans overall – the highest share of any religious group. The survey also shows 74% of all gun owners in the U.S. agree that their right to gun ownership is essential to their sense of freedom. Most states also allow firearms in places of worship.

Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne disputes the notion that the U.S. has a sin problem, but not a gun problem; he says it has both. Claiborne recently went to Uvalde to support victims, and to Houston to pray and protest at the National Rifle Association's convention held days after the massacre.

He passed out tracts asserting “We can’t be pro-life and ignore gun violence” and asking “Will we choose the gun or the cross?” Claiborne said he was among those asked to leave the NRA’s Sunday prayer breakfast after disrupting the program to call for prayer for the Uvalde victims.

Claiborne wants to see laws change, including policies that would raise the age of gun ownership, limit magazine capacity, ban assault-style weapons and mandate training. He said laws can't make people love each other, but they can make it more difficult to take a life.

“We want to make it harder for folks to kill other people, and we’re making it really easy right now," Claiborne said.

Conservative pastors have said mass shootings and other social harms are the result of an overall degradation in moral values and disregard for human life.

Pastor Tim Lee, an evangelist and a former U.S. Marine who lost both legs during the Vietnam War, was one of the featured speakers at the NRA prayer breakfast that Claiborne and others were asked to leave.

After the Uvalde shooting, Lee posted on his Facebook page: "This is so heartbreaking. I have said it so many times – When kids hear adults say that it’s OK to kill babies (abortion) then all respect for human lives is gone.”

The gun debate is deeply personal for the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin. Her best friend, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was one of nine people shot and killed by Dylann Roof in June 2015 as they sat in prayer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Goodjoin, who leads New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, said people of faith must rise up in “righteous anger” to demand common-sense gun regulation. When massacres occur in community spaces like churches, schools and supermarkets, it tests an entire community's resiliency, she said.

“How can you teach in schools when people are traumatized by gun violence?” she said. “When a church is no longer a safe space, do I work to enhance security or enhance people’s faith? The impact is like an epidemic that touches every fiber of our being.”

But others, like the Rev. Russ Tenhoff, say it is simply not possible to “legislate safety.”

“There are plenty of laws, but people who are lawless don’t obey them,” said Tenhoff, lead pastor of Mountainside Community Fellowship in Kingwood, West Virginia. “Murders are going to happen even without firearms. We’re never going to be able to prevent gun violence.”

As a firearms safety officer who trains adults and children, Tenhoff says the solution is to “harden the schools,” which have become soft targets.

“We need to put one-way locks on schools, have metal detectors and an armed officer in every school,” he said.

For a Catholic pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, who a decade ago experienced the grief that now envelops Uvalde, the lack of political will to enact gun legislation is unfathomable.

Monsignor Robert Weiss, who leads the St. Rose of Lima parish, presided over the funeral of eight victims who were murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. He held an evening Mass in his church the day after the Texas shooting.

“I guess I was a fool to think Sandy Hook was going to change the world,” he said in a video recording of the service.

Weiss also questioned the consequences of individualism in America.

“Is that what our forefathers intended for us?” he asked. “To live in a country where unborn babies are aborted, where children are murdered in school where they should be safe, where you can’t even go to a grocery store or to a church or to a library and feel like you’ll be OK?"

Pastor Mike McBride, who leads The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, California, said those on different sides of the gun issue must find common concerns to unite around and work on solutions together.

McBride says many who are pro-gun are also worried about accidental gun deaths, intimate partner violence and suicides.

“Those shared concerns can be addressed with targeted strategies that don’t keep us bogged down in the Second Amendment fight,” he said.

McBride suggests having listening campaigns across church groups and neighborhoods — a “peace infrastructure” to combat violence.

Marsh, the Laguna Woods pastor, says the shooting in his church and other recent massacres have inspired him to have “more serious conversations about this issue” in his community. He would like to see diverse faith communities organize marches in local seats of government to push legislators to act.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to stop using Christianity as a veneer to deny reality.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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