Why I Am Unarmed

Why I Am Unarmed

This post originally appeared in The Banner, January 20, 2014

My neighbors were recently mugged at gunpoint not far from where I live in Washington, D.C. A nice evening out for dinner with another couple quickly went awry as two young men pulled a gun on them and demanded their wallets and phones. The four of them hit the ground and did as they were asked. After being accosted in this way, my friends felt rattled. Unsafe. Sad.

Some might say: “If only they’d been carrying a weapon of their own, they might have been able to turn the tables, or at least hold onto their wallets.” A good thought. After all, they say the best defense is a good offense, so why not be ready to take charge in such a situation? An argument could be made that a gun might have helped. The instigators could have been forced to flee out of fear. The potential firepower might have caused panic, and my friends might have been able to take control of the situation.

But it’s also true that bringing a second gun into the picture might have escalated the situation. It is likely that the perpetrators did not plan to use the gun. There’s a good chance that these two young men found themselves in a desperate situation requiring desperate action.

I’m pretty sure this situation would not have been improved by issuing a threat of violence in response to the initial threat of violence. A response in kind, even in self-defense, is exactly what it sounds like: a response in kind.

With these types of incidents happening close to where I live—in an urban setting—some might recommend that I own a weapon. That I protect my family. That I prepare for the worst.

Yet I remain unarmed.

For me, carrying a weapon is in direct conflict with my desire to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. How can I justify responding to violence with more violence when I follow the Prince of Peace? How can I think of carrying a weapon designed solely to kill efficiently if I’m seeking to follow a God who instructs us, “Do not kill”? How can I think of owning a gun when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who hurt us? How can I stock up on ammunition when Romans 12 clearly instructs us to “not repay evil for evil” and to “live at peace with everyone” (vv. 17-18)?

These days there is a lot of conversation about guns and gun rights, particularly in the wake of last year’s Newtown school shooting and the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Many note that it is their constitutional or even God-given right to carry a gun. Some are sure that the answer to the outbreak of violence in our schools, homes, and streets is not fewer guns, but more.

More guns in our schools. More guns in our homes. Moreguns in our neighborhoods.

The argument that we need more guns, and more people trained to use them, boils down to “we can kill before we get killed.” At some level, this argument may be right. This strategy may well be effective—even the most effective. But what kind of society do we want to have? What kind of people do we want to be?

One response to violence is to admit that we live in a sick society and increase weapon proliferation to deal with the issue. “It’s effective.” “I’ll feel safer.” But do we really want a society in which there are more weapons that can be unleashed on a schoolroom full of unsuspecting children? A society where our children are afraid to walk the streets because there may be a neighborhood watch person following them with a gun?

The more poignant question is this: Do I really want to become someone who has to be trained to kill someone else as the answer to reducing violence? To me, this stems from a lack of imagination and a lack of hope.

I’d rather we work on connecting better with our neighbors, getting involved in our neighborhood schools, and learning the opportunities and challenges we face together.

I’d rather we dealt with mental health issues and make counseling accessible to those who need it.

I’d rather be a person who is trained to love than one who is trained to kill—even in self-defense.

That’s why I am simply not interested in carrying a firearm. In the U.S., the Constitution may grant me such a right. But I follow someone who eschewed his rights to self-defense (and many other things).

Some will point to Jesus endorsing the carrying of swords in Luke 22 and note that even he knew when it was time to arm oneself. Yet when the disciples say, “See, Lord, here are two swords,” Jesus replies, “That’s enough.” Or as another translation puts it: “Enough of that!” The point is notthat he endorses the private right to carry weapons. Rather, the display of two weapons in the face of a contingent of armed Roman soldiers from Pilate makes the point that Jesus and his disciples are not there to act in violence. Jesus notes that he has the power to call down legions of angels to his defense. But he refuses to resort to such violence, even when self-defense might call for it. He says, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my servants would fight.”

When the kingdom of heaven breaks in, there is a refusal to respond to violence with more violence. There is a love that is greater than calling upon our “rights.” There is a forgiveness that can be extended even to those who would put us to death, as Jesus and many of his earliest followers exemplified.

In our society, people have the right to carry or own a gun. But I’m not going to be one of them because my hope for peace outweighs my desire for personal safety. Because my desire to follow Jesus exceeds my desire to defend myself. And because responding to a threat upon my life with an act of love, even if it costs me my life, might be one small piece of God’s kingdom being realized here and now.

There are no easy answers or solutions to the reality of gun violence in our nation and our world.

But should that stop us from dreaming? What if we tried to enact the prophetic dream now, and gave up our obsession with violence? What if we didn’t wait for someone else to beat the pistols into plowshares but set the example ourselves? What’s the worst that could happen?

Ask Jesus.

The Voices of the Past Are Calling Out to Us

The Voices of the Past Are Calling Out to Us

OR: An Ode to White Christians
by Thom Stark

Every Sunday you go to church and you participate in a celebration of an unjust execution that took place 2,000 years ago, and you confess your sins and you consider your guilt. And you celebrate an exodus from 400 years of slavery that took place 4,000 years ago. And you listen to stories about sins committed by the Patriarchs and Israel and the Prophets and the Kings and the Apostles and the Early Church, and their sins are identified with your sins, and you live in their sins and you receive not acquittal but forgiveness and reconciliation. And you are taught that you are a sinner saved by grace. That you are guilty, and share in and identify with the guilt of your forebears, while walking in forgiveness. Every week you are confronted with your guilt and you participate in the pattern of transformation and reconciliation.

And then you leave church and you scream at black people for remembering their past and tell them to live in the present, and you deny that you are guilty, and refuse to be ashamed, and refuse to confess the sins of your forebears as sins in which you share, and you condemn those who see the past in the present, and those who remind you of your condition. You deny your guilt and refuse to look within yourself and around yourself. In doing so, you cut yourself off from grace, from reconciliation. You blaspheme the Spirit through whom you claim to participate in a suffering most ancient. You refuse to suffer now with those who suffer. You claim victimhood for yourself and never hold yourself accountable for anything but the most personal and banal of sins. Your religion is purely one of self-interest—you see sin and forgiveness as conditions of the individual. Heaven is a place prepared for you. Jesus belongs to you and you to him. Yours is a religion of cheap romance, devoid of justice.

You don’t know Jesus. If you did you would stop defending yourself and your own kind. You would stop pledging allegiance to a national flag and putting your hand on your heart for a national battle hymn. You would worship God alone and demonstrate your allegiance to God’s reign by eating with and listening to those you hate and fear. You would know that the past has always lived in the present and always will, and that we must remember the sins of our forebears in continual acts of confession, contrition, and reconciliation. You would understand that we are not autonomous creatures; we are the products of yesterday and the fashioners of tomorrow. When we participate in Eucharist, we join with all our ancestors and we identify with all their sins, and together we reenact the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth, who was publicly executed in the manner of thieves, rebels, and runaway slaves. If the past was not in our present, Christ and a cloud of witnesses would not be with us.

And if the past is not in our present, our ancestors’ sins remain unresolved. We have silenced again with lashes the voice of the slave who spoke his mind. We have murdered again the mother who tried to escape to find her son. If they are not alive among us now, we silence them all over again. The voices of the past are calling out to us, with Christ among them. We have access to them only through a living tradition. The living memory of the black and native communities connects us to this past. In order to confess our sins at Eucharist, in order to receive grace, we must hear the voices of the past speaking in the present. Habitually. Ritually. The people with whom you now have enmity are your only way to the table of thanksgiving. If you’re not sharing that table with them, you’re not at the table of the Lord.

I think you will always be blind and your heart will always be hardened to the truth.

You’ve had too many chances already.

Finding Life in the UCC

Finding Life in the UCC

So it’s been a year since I’ve posted! Whew! Time for an update. In the past year I’ve moved my ministerial credentials from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to the United Church of Christ. It’s been a healthy and hopeful move, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you. I am posting here the “Theological Paper” that I had to write as part of my transition to the UCC. In the past year I’ve also been a part of starting a new UCC community in Holland, MI: Holland UCC. You can read more about that at hollanducc.org. It’s a long paper, but I thought you might enjoy reading about some of my spiritual journey and theological evolution—which of course is ongoing! Here’s the paper (including endnotes!):

Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in small fishing towns in the first century of the common era, these simple words rang out: “Come, follow me.” Words that echo through the centuries. Words that evoke something within us: a longing to go, to participate in something large and meaningful, to hear the voice of God in our lives, and respond. This simple beginning for Jesus and his disciples reminds us that the spiritual life is above all a journey. My own journey of faith started early, as a child raised in a loving, Christian home. I was taught the tenets of the Reformed faith from a young age, as expressed in the Christian Reformed Church. This was a wonderful foundation for my faith journey and I am grateful for it. Yet my journey has taken me beyond the inherently narrow confines of this confessional tradition with largely conservative values. A confessional tradition like the CRC requires consent for all pastors and office bearers to uphold, defend and be governed by certain Reformation-era doctrinal formulations.[1] My journey, some of which we’ll discuss in this paper, has led me to a place where such consent is no longer possible, and further, seems unnecessary. This has led me to the United Church of Christ, where there is “no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures” and the “overarching creed is love.”[2] Those words are incredibly welcoming to someone coming from a tradition with quite rigid formulations, and incredibly strong attachment to its confessional identity. The “What We Believe” section of the UCC website notes that “In the UCC, members, congregations and structures have the breathing room to explore and to hear … for after all, God is still speaking, …”[3] I find this a healthy and hopeful statement, because it creates space for real journeys by real people seeking to hear that ancient and simple invitation of Jesus. It opens to the real possibility of the Spirit at work in new ways in our lives and world today. Continue Reading..

Iona Musings

Iona Musings

Not I—not anyone else, can travel that road for you.
You must travel it yourself.

~Walt Whitman

A slight wind sweeps over the rocky hill, a cool relief after my quick walk and brief climb. Shoes off, I lean back on the grassy spot I’ve claimed and look around to get my bearings. Wide expanses of blue sea encircle this small island I’ve just arrived on. Green pastures filled with grazing sheep and cows stretch out below me. Occasional white farmhouses dot the landscape. Across the bay, small islands and the rocky coast of Mull are visible. In the distance, I can see the Abbey – outpost of monks and pilgrims, survivor of centuries of harsh coastal weather, and emblem of the holiness that permeates this sacred isle.

I have arrived on Iona—place of pilgrimage, refuge, and prayers. A spot thought to be so holy that only the thinnest of margins separates heaven from earth. The thinnest of thin places. A small western isle where an Irish abbot established a monastic community around 563 CE, and where pilgrims have been traveling ever since.

Our ferry has landed moments before, and I immediately felt drawn to walk to the hill of Dun-I (hill of Iona) – the highest spot on the island. I’ve come as part of a group of pilgrims from across the U.S. and Canada with Shalem Institute, a leading contemplative organization based in Washington DC. We each come for our own reasons, though connection with the holy and with the earth are the themes of our collective journey. Continue Reading..

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Reflections by Pastor Lee Ann Bryce of First Congregational UCC, Fort Worth, TX. Delivered during a Service of Lament, Healing, and Courage at Amistad Chapel UCC in Cleveland Tuesday. Shared with permission.

 

This is a beautiful church
and we’re grateful to be here,
but I want to talk for a moment about gay bars.
I came out as a lesbian many years ago
and I’ve noticed that at times,
particularly early in our movement for equality
gay bars have been referred to as a sort of necessary evil;
at one time, they were one of the few public places
where LGBTQ people could meet and be in community.
The truth is
long before we were widely welcomed in churches,
we were welcomed in gay bars.

And so to me, gay bars and nightclubs,

many of them at least,
are like churches.
Or at least like churches should be –
places where you are welcomed just as you are.
Continue Reading..

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

“Listen to what your heart is telling you.”

I had the delightful experience of attending a middle school play recently: Cinderella and the Candy Kingdom. It’s the usual Cinderella story, but set in a world of chocolate, sugar and sweets. Plenty of puns made it a very fun show: the wicked stepsisters of Cinderella were named Kit and Kat. The prince of the kingdom was named Reese, who rarely appeared without his squire, Hershey.

While Hershey won the audience with his consistent jokes and eager banter, it was Prince Reese who brought home the underlying meaning of the play. In the world of the Candy Kingdom, everyone loves sweets: first dessert, second dessert, third dessert. Whip cream and chocolate syrup on everything. You get the idea. Yet the young prince has a secret: he doesn’t like sweets. In other words, he’s not like everyone else. He doesn’t belong. Not only that, he’s in line for the throne, but isn’t the “right kind of prince.” Continue Reading..

The Ancient Wisdom of Proverbs

The Ancient Wisdom of Proverbs

I was invited recently to participate in the 30 Seconds or Less project of presenting every book of the Bible for Lent. In thirty seconds.

That wasn’t at all intimidating! I was to try to distill the ancient wisdom of the book of Proverbs down to thirty seconds. Or less. Fortunately I was also given a chance to state what I thought the “Good News” of Proverbs was, also in thirty seconds.

Here are my attempts, with text and video. Enjoy!
Continue Reading..

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

The Gospel Coalition posted a piece today asking whether or not Christians can “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality and marriage. I deeply understand the desire for unity in the church and share it myself. I have quite a few friends who hold to a conservative view on these matters. I disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t have a relationship. But can we be in the same worshiping body? [By which I mean denominational/institutional affiliation—not a worship service] That is another question.

I am inclined to not want to “agree to disagree” on this issue. There are a couple of points at which unity is very difficult here.

1) Understanding of the Bible. Most who have an “open and accepting” view toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have evolved in their understanding of Scripture, based in large part upon biblical scholarship, personal study, experience, reason and prayer. Some of this scholarship is recent, much has been around awhile. Continue Reading..

A Revolutionary Love for All People

A Revolutionary Love for All People

I haven’t posted much on the current election, but I really enjoyed these comments from the civil rights advocate and writer, Michelle Alexander. This is an excerpt from a longer recent Facebook post, but this was the part that resonated the most with me:

The conversation that I most want to have right now doesn’t have to do with Bernie or Hillary [or this election]. What I most want to talk about is this: What kind of revolution do we think we want and need? And what, exactly, are we willing to do to bring it to life? 

I am grateful that Bernie Sanders has called for a political revolution, and that millions are responding with energy, enthusiasm and a genuine desire to build a movement that will give our nation a chance at having a real democracy where people actually count more than corporate dollars. But the truth is that the political revolution did not begin with Bernie Sanders and it certainly will not end with him — whether or not he is elected. And it’s also true that we need much more than a political revolution; we also need a moral, cultural, and spiritual revolution — an awakening to the dignity and value of each and every one of us no matter who we are, where we came from, or what we’ve done.  Continue Reading..

On Restraint

On Restraint

I had the privilege of attending an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near Catholic University in NE Washington DC this week.

Under a dreary winter sky we walked toward the large cathedral, a few others blowing in alongside at the end of this busy workday. The large wooden doors welcomed us into the immense Basilica, where some hundreds were gathering to mark the start of this impending liturgical season.

I haven’t often made a big production out of Lent, in my personal life nor in congregational settings (production might be the wrong word here—observance?), though I’ve increasingly made varied attempts to recognize, honor, and live into it at some level over the years. Sometimes us Protestants tend to forget about Lent until Holy Week. Better late than never?

After finding a pew somewhere in the middle of this huge church, we sang a processional hymn. Many voices joined the cantor, singing; “Again we keep this solemn fast, a gift of faith from ages past, this Lent which binds us lovingly, to faith and hope and charity.”

It got me to thinking about the gift(s) of tradition—here we stood, as many have stood before us, in this vast, holy space—the largest Catholic church in North America. I am one who is quick to question, wonder, and ask whether various traditions, rituals and observances are worthwhile—Why are we doing this? When did it start? What purpose does it serve? What is its intent? How does this fit in the larger picture? Is there some Scriptural connection or basis? Is it still life-giving?

The next line of the hymn we sang went: “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we speak, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, ev’ry sense; learn peace thru holy penitence.”

Sitting in this vast, austere setting, with the wind blowing harshly outside, and pew after pew of darkly clad worshippers stretching out in front of me, it was easy to get into the spirit of “sparing.” I felt ready to abandon all extravagance for the next 40 days. Ready to swear off dessert and good wine. Ready to speak only when needed. To limit my too-frequent (and ill-fated) attempts at humor.

Could such restraint really lead me on a path of holiness and deeper connection this season of Lent? I think it actually could. I understand the possibility for “traditionalism” or “legalism”—but I also understand rhythm and season and intentionality. And if one’s heart is to seek fullness or satisfaction elsewhere than in the usual outlets—good food, glib conversation, excessive entertainment—I have to think one might well find it.

The idea of putting ashes on the forehead, as best history can remember, began about 1000 years ago. As I left my pew and stood before this graying, wise-countenanced African-American priest, and heard him say in a serious voice: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it had the intended effect. It reaffirmed the words of the hymn we had moments before sung, and I was ready to “more sparing make” quite a few things.

In the end, I haven’t necessarily decided to give anything up—except perhaps, as Pope Francis reminded, indifference—but I do long to give in to this desire to be mindful of what I eat and how much, what I say and how, where I give my time and to what, and see if this old tradition might have plenty of life left in it. I suspect I won’t be disappointed.


bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch. Listen to Bryan’s weekly podcast: Pub Theology Live! on Tuesday nights at 9pm ET.

Close