Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Armed Church: A Sign of the Gospel?

I was listening to Over the Rhine's haunting version of "Little Town of Bethlehem" ("Snow Angels" CD) and was particularly struck with the verses added by Linford

The lamplit streets of Bethlehem
We walk now through the night
There is no peace in Bethlehem
There is no peace in sight

The wounds of generations
Almost too deep to heal
Scar the timeworn miracle
And make it seem surreal

The baby in the manger
Grew to a man one day
And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say

Put up your swords forever
Forgive your enemies
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let your little children come to me

Then came the announcement of the shootings in Colorado this past Sunday. Besides the obvious tragedy of the events, it seemed another tragedy nestled deep within them and went largely unnoticed. Until, that is, my friend David Lott put words to it. He has graciously given me persmission to reprint his blogged thoughts below:

By anyone's measure, this past Sunday's shootings at the Youth with a Mission training center in Arvada, Colorado, and the New Life Church in Colorado Springs were horrifying, and the five deaths--including that of the shooter, Matthew Murray--tragic. Yet throughout the prevasive media coverage of this incident, one dimension of it has gone relatively unremarked upon in both mainstream and religious circles, at least here in Washington--the presence of armed security guards at New Life Church, one of whom shot Murray three times (It was later revealed that he actually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound). Indeed, in their race to interview the guard, Jeanne Assam, and elevate her as a hero, most reporters have treated the presence of an armed security guard as normal in Christian churches. That Pastor Brady Boyd, New Life's senior minister, has a personal bodyguard, hasn't seemed to strike anyone as unusual.

I raise this point not as a lead-up for a polemic on gun control or to make moral judgments on the security guard herself. Even a pacifist such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably agree that Assam's actions were morally justified in their attempt to prevent a greater loss of life. But what would Bonhoeffer make of a church that employs its own security force, much less one that packs heat? This is not to say that churches have never had to seek special protection. Even Martin Luther had his protectors! Perhaps even the churches that Bonhoeffer knew had to be on guard against Nazi threats. I have little doubt that black churches in the South active in the civil rights movement had to take special measures to protect their congregations, as did many Islamic congregations after the 9/11 attacks.

Yet such security efforts seem historically to be attached to special circumstances where a real, often societal, danger has been identified to the church and/or its leaders. But the use of armed security personnel as a normal part of life at New Life Church and other megachurches (the 30,000-member Potter's House in Dallas reports having forty security staff) strikes me as a new, or at least unremarked-upon, phenomenon that raises significant issues for reflective people of faith. And the issues are not simply cultural, but also biblical and theological.

Even in the story of Jesus, we see a rejection of such defensive actions. In Matthew 26:51ff., we are told that when Jesus is arrested as he leaves the garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers "put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear." Jesus rebukes this man, saying, "Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish the sword." Jesus' disciples at this time were people still making a transition from a way of life that demanded such defensive measures; indeed, many undoubtedly came from less-than-savory, if not criminal, backgrounds. Given this, one can't help but imagine that Jesus would be at least somewhat dismayed by the presence of armed guards in a church setting.

I believe most American churchgoers would probably share such a sense of bewilderment. For most Christians, the idea of a hiring armed guards is not only unthinkable, but also offensive to their understanding of the antiviolent nature of the gospel message. Certainly, violence at churches is not all that uncommon, but in most cases it happens at churches that would never consider hiring security forces, even if they could afford to do so. In short, it's simply difficult for many of us not to think that a congregation which must resort to such measures has misplaced some dimension of its soul, or lost some of its vision of what it means to be called together and live as the body of Christ. The questions are unavoidable: Are these churches taking sensible and pragmatic measures in response to their circumstances? Or are they simply acceding to a violent culture rather than working to transform it and stand against it?

The pragmatic response carries an undeniably strong logic. Certainly, with the size of the offerings such worship centers bring in at each service, they could easily be targets for thieves looking for readily available cash. And as reporter Karl Vick noted in a recent Washington Post article, "the institiutions exist as clearinghouses for the kinds of personal strife that can spiral into conflict." In Lexington, Kentucky, I witnessed two megachurches in close proximity to each other who must use local police to manage the traffic in and out of their worship centers in ways that do not disrupt their neighborhoods or regular traffic. Indeed, as a person in Vick's article notes, "When you are dealing with a large congregation on a Sunday morning, it is like a small city."

Yet the cultural accession argument is at least equally strong. Where do we usually encounter armed security guards in our daily lives? At places like museums and monuments, in large office buildings, and at shopping malls. And indeed, that last location is exactly the form that many megachurches have come to replicate in their creating multibuilding campuses that feature not just worship space and educational facilities, but also gyms, coffee shops, bookstores, and other indigenous businesses. They have become spiritual lifestyle centers that mirror the consumerist centers that dominate our suburbs and are reviving our city centers by meeting the needs of their constituents (read: members). When one reaches a certain critical mass of stuff and property, finding ways to protect those belongings becomes paramount. And this kind of consumption has a way of feeding fear.

Yet it is not simply a materialist/consumerist ideology that is at issue, it is even more a matter of ecclesiology. Increasingly, today's parishioners and their leaders seem to understand the nature of the church as being a need-meeting place. One of my former colleagues used to assert that if a church wasn't meeting her needs, then she wasn't going to spend much time there. Such an attitude seems to pervade much contemporary thinking about churches, and shapes much church-oriented publishing as well. The needs of multiple constituencies all make demands on the congregation's programming, and a failure to meet even one of such needs becomes an automatic black mark on that church's perceived relevance. More classic understandings of the nature of the church, shaped more by theology than by culture, have come to be regarded as outmoded. Indeed, in my experience, talking about eccesiology with many congregational experts makes them extremely uneasy! If they don't embrace the need-meeting construction of the church, a sociological/psychological motif, such as that of family systems theory, becomes their ecclesiological substitute.

This is not to condemn out of hand any members of New Life Church or any other megachurch as being spiritually shallow materialists, ecclesiologically faulty, or focused only on self-need. Undoubtedly some powerful ministry comes out of many of these churches. But it's disheartening that many of these churches and their leaders seem to defend the pragmatic, cultural answer reflexively, without giving us any evidence of deeper reflection on the theological and church-cultural implications of reaching a point of growth where such security measures would become so necessary. Some will simply respond that the growing criminal nature of our society make such measures an unfortunate must. Yet when their church membership and attendance reached the point that hiring security forces became essential, did any of these leaders ever consider that other ways of managing such growth might be more theologically palatable than hiring armed guards? Has Brady Boyd, or his predecessor, Ted Haggard, ever considered that needing a personal bodyguard sends a message counter to what we hear in Matthew?

In the wake of these shootings, undoubtedly many congregations will be pondering what, if any, security measures they need to employ to keep their churches safe. Some will react out of fear, and take advantage of local gun laws that allow people to carry personal firearms, which they will in turn carry into their local sanctuaries. Others will reassert their convictions of the church as a place of open doors, of being a house of prayer for all peoples. This Sunday, churches across America will hear Isaiah's glorious vision of the ransomed of the Lord returning to Zion. Today we must ask ourselves, When these exiled get there, will they find the land open and accessible so that may rejoice in the blooming desert, obtain joy and gladness, and experience the flight of their sorrow and sadness? Or will they be greeted with the suspicion and fear that cooperation with violence breeds?
David B. Lott is editor of New Proclamation (Fortress Press) and online host for the Web site (subscription only), which features his weekly blog View from the Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C.
The article David refers to can be found at Washington Post

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