I wish I had written Jim Atwood’s book. It not only powerfully places America’s deathly covenant with arms and violence within a sinister theological framework of idolatry, it also is a wake-up call for the church to give voice and lend action to a national obsession that is literally killing us. Atwood is thorough, well-researched, and compelling. He earned the right to write this book. His impassioned presentation leaves no holds barred.
April 20, 1999, changed my life. I was on the scene within minutes after the shootings broke out at Columbine High School. I spent the day as a victim’s assistant, was the first face that many students and faculty members saw after being evacuated from the building, and was certainly traumatized myself by the senseless carnage and terror of the event. From that day and into the weeks that followed, I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and pain. As the lead pastor of what was described as a "ground zero" congregation, "Columbine," as the event would be known, became a part of who I was.
Whether speaking with the media in the aftermath of the event, preaching at specially called worship services, or being called upon to speak in places like Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Blacksburg, I shared a very thoughtful message I had honed entitled, "Lessons from Columbine: A Theological Perspective." My voice in the aftermath was to address the stubborn questions that surfaced immediately, such as, "How could God let this happen?" I would also speak to the difficulties communities had in finding healing after such an event. In response to the God question, I would use Luther’s theology of the cross and reframe the question into proclaiming the very presence of God in the tragedy. "God took a bullet and died in the halls of Columbine." I would point to the empty tomb and the power of God to raise up the dead and communities who grieve. When asked about guns, I would give an answer that was not as thoughtful. "I call for a national meltdown of all weapons." I even tweeted that mantra in the hours after the recent massacre in the theater in Aurora. Never did I get at the heart of the matter as Jim Atwood has. Again, I wish I had written Atwood’s book.
Atwood reminds us that when President Bush addressed the community at Virginia Tech, he said that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Actually, they were in the right place at the correct time. They were doing what college students do—going to class. The students were shot because of the "Empire" and the "principalities and powers" (cf. Ephesians 6:12) created by America’s love affair with violence, guns, and power. This obsession has created in our minds enemies we have to fear, cemented a God-given calling to arm ourselves, and raised weapons that kill to idolatrous levels. The result is a culture in which guns—even weapons that have no purpose other than to kill—are readily available to anyone. In the 17-year period between 1979 and 1997, there were 651,697 deaths by guns in America. This is more than the number of all US servicemen and women who have died in all of our wars since 1775. The belief in guns and their proliferation is such that a child in the United States is twelve times more likely to die from a gunshot wound than in 25 other industrial nations combined. Between 1997 and 2007, there were 41 separate school shootings in the US—Columbine plus 40 others.
Atwood looks deep into the soul of America and the ideology of its first white settlers or conquerors. He explores how this uniquely American self-understanding so deifies power, weapons, and their use that not only do we have the most dangerous culture among developed nations, our speech also is peppered with phrases, slang, and idioms all grounded in violence. The proliferation of such language dwarfs any like language in other countries and cultures. Little wonder that video games, our action heroes, movies, and television screens all are filled with violence, and we consider it normal. So religious is our faith in power defined by weapons and the ability to use them that we coined the term, "redemptive violence." Redemptive violence is a way of justifying the use of force if we believe that we are threatened. The creed of the gun religion is "Guns do not kill. People do." This creed has resulted in a constant escalation of weaponry and guns and laws that protect gun owners and manufacturers more than the public. This reality is built upon the lie that the more people are armed the less likely there is to be violence.
Atwood calls us to turn from expecting political and legislative solutions. The NRA and related lobbies are too powerful. The religion of violence and the right to bear arms is too insidious. Instead Atwood calls for a spiritual reawakening of the churches in America to speak against the gun culture and commit to activism to bring about the enactment of different laws. Atwood issues a call for us also to live differently – to live out of the sacred story of the church. As members of the church, we are constantly confronted by two stories. There is the story of the world that offers violence, force, and self-protection at all costs as means to our salvation, and there is the story of the crucified and risen Jesus that offers peace and love. Only one of these stories is true and worthy of commitment. The other cannot deliver on its promises. As the church we are told that "the lamb who was slain" is the one who ultimately reigns, not by violence but by peace, love, and shining light in the darkest arenas of human existence. Under the reign of the lamb, love always trumps hate. Peace always trumps violence. Forgiveness always trumps retaliation. Life always trumps death.
Reviewed by Rick Barger, pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Suwanee, GA, and former pastor of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, CO. This review will appear in the fourth 2012 issue of Congregations magazine. Barger is the author of A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture.
The Washington Theological Consortium has developed a Resource Page on Religion and Gun Violence, available here.