As I write, America is reeling from yet another mass shooting. My social media has been overflowing with disturbing images—e.g., a dump truck emptying piles of waste labeled “thoughts and prayers”—along with loud calls for more gun control and equally loud calls to protect gun rights. I’ve long been reluctant to write on this topic, because there simply are no words. I do not know what to say. As much as we call ourselves to awareness of the vast number of lives taken by abortion, I expect none of us can mentally assimilate the shocking loss of so many young lives in one mass shooting.
Nonetheless, I am writing today because there is one thing I do know, one thing I can put into words, one idea I can assimilate: In moments when other people are suffering, the least possible Christian response is to stand up for one’s rights. It is wholly, profoundly, un-Christlike.
I know those are strong words, but I hope you will indulge me a moment while I explain. After all, no one should make such a claim without backing it up—on that I expect we agree. So, let me ask: What belonged to Christ by right? In the second chapter of his letter to the Church at Philippi (which, I might add, was a Church that would have wholly understood the Second Amendment argument, having been a military colony praised and elevated for its loyalty to secular government), Paul clearly states that Jesus is “one substance with the Father.” By right, every earthly and heavenly glory was his. By right, Jesus was (is) to be worshipped, glorified, and praised.
Jesus, seeing human suffering, did not stand on his rights, but emptied himself of them. He emptied himself of his equality with God, his heavenly rule, the praise of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. He emptied himself in order to live with us in our pain and filth. “He made himself nothing,” says Paul (v. 7), to become one of us, to die mocked, spat upon, naked and exposed, cursed even, on a cross.
It is for this reason Paul (in previous verses) instructed the military colony at Philippi to assume the same mindset as Jesus: “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you (look) to the interests of the others.” (vv. 3-4) The Philippians understood rank and honor and rights. Forming their identity in the secular politics of the day, they had proven themselves loyal to the authorities in Rome and had been honored for their loyalty. They knew they had rights—more even than average Roman citizens had—because of their loyalty. They were due their worldly honors. Paul was not denying that they were entitled to these things; he was telling them to lay their rights aside.
I am left with only one answer: In the face of suffering, we must lay aside our rights. In the presence of racism, we must step out of our cocoons and to the extent that we are able enter into the experiences of racial minorities. In the face of poverty, we must step into places of hunger and desperation and use our resources to feed and encourage others. In the face of the violence of abortion, we must open our hearts and homes to protect vulnerable women and their unborn babies.
Why should it be different in the event of gun violence? Fellow Christians, in the face of mass shootings, please stop standing on your Second Amendment rights. The early Church could not have imagined that any Christian should wish to own or use a weapon that allows its owner, with little training or forethought, to take multiple human lives in seconds. The very concept of assault weapons would appall those Fathers who intimately owned the meaning of the Scripture which laments, “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Ps. 44:22, ESV) It does not matter if it is our right to own these weapons; our right is only there so that we can empty ourselves of it and go sit with those who are suffering.
I come from a long line of gun owners. I grew up in rural Appalachia. I understand the desire to own guns for hunting and to defend your home from an intruder. My father and uncle owned guns for such purposes, as did their parents before them. Nonetheless, I also understand that you do not need an assault weapon to hunt for food. Responsible gun owners seek out training, maintain their weapons in good repair, and keep them in safely-locked storage when not in use. Responsible gun owners see their guns as valuable tools. They are not afraid of background checks that keep guns from the hands of irresponsible and unstable people. They are not afraid of training that equips them to better use their own tools. In the hands of a responsible owner, guns are like cars, both useful and potentially dangerous. There should be no need for the state to interfere with responsible gun owners, and the Second Amendment exists to protect these people.
Nonetheless, responsible Christian gun owners need to know when to put their weapons and their secular rights away and sit with the suffering. I will agree with you that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” I will agree with you that this is as much a mental-health issue as it is a gun-control issue. I will agree with you that Americans have a constitutionally protected right to own their own gun—responsibly. Nonetheless, I will challenge you by insisting that sometimes rights are for setting aside, sacrificially, for the sake of your neighbor.
In the end, I will not agree with your choice to cling to your rights rather than to embrace those who grieve. You have rights, not for your sake, but to lay them aside for others. Look not to your own interests but look instead to the needs of those who suffer, who fear, and who mourn. This is the Christlike response.