Magazine article The Christian Century

Guns and Baptism

Magazine article The Christian Century

Guns and Baptism

Article excerpt

THERE'S AN old story from church history about a Roman emperor who ordered his legions to be baptized as Christian en masse. Down into the waters they went--except for their right hands, their sword hands, which they held out of the water. I've heard that story many times, and it's attributed to one emperor or another, but it's always been used to make the point that each of us tends to reserve something in our lives that we do not give over to the Lordship of Christ.

The story came up again in a conversation I had in a restaurant with a fellow who was just sitting down as I was leaving. We got to talking about church security in the aftermath of the shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in South Texas, and about how different churches in town were responding. Some churches were arming their ushers, he said, but most of the ones he knew were content in knowing that many people in the congregation were armed on Sunday mornings.

I brought up the baptism story. He responded with an interpretation I've never heard before. "Maybe that means we can carry guns and be faithful Christians at the same time," he said. I knew he was a Baptist who was serious about his faith and who believed in full immersion baptism. Something from my Southern Baptist past bubbled up in my memory, and I said, "You know the old saying, 'Jesus is Lord of all or he's not Lord at all.'"

He responded, "I know, I know. But what are we going to do? We have to protect ourselves."

That's the question churches all over the country have been asking after Sutherland Springs. What are we going to do? We were asking that question also after the shootings at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, and I remember asking it after the Nickel Mines shooting back in 2006. Our own congregation was asking it as we gathered following Sutherland Springs for a conversation on church safety. We purposely chose to speak about safety rather than security as a way to try to tone down the conversation swirling about us, which is inundated with images of guns and guards in black uniforms. All that seems to be missing from those visions of security are sandbag emplacements at the front door and helicopters sweeping the perimeter of the church property.

Congregations are being offered security training for ushers and others. Some security firms offer free handgun training for clergy so pastors can be licensed to carry--on Sunday mornings, in the pulpit. There seems to be little understanding that carrying guns in church is, at the very least, an exception to Christian practice. Now it seems to be considered conforming to Christian teaching. Hands held up from the waters of baptism holding a gun are more and more considered orthodox.

When our congregation gathered, I gave a few introductory comments but for the most part simply moderated the discussion. People needed to talk. They needed to express their fears. Some were worried that our longtime countercultural witness was putting us too much in the spotlight and perhaps bringing us to the attention of some crazy person. Several people talked about how having children and grandchildren in the church changed their comfort level about who we are and what we do; while they were willing to put themselves at risk, they weren't willing to put the children at risk. Even so, they were emphatic that being the church, the body of Christ, did not include guns. …

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