March 24, 2018

Stranger or neighbor?

Photo by Sean Pollack

I was surrounded by guns. Only in this case, they were equipped with safety locks and were displayed on rows and rows of tables at a gun show.

Following the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs mass shootings in late 2017, the peace and justice committee at Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va., wanted to learn more about the guns involved in the shootings, and (hopefully) more about people’s attitudes toward guns in general. So we decided to visit a gun show.

Overhearing a conversation between a gun dealer and a young woman who was purchasing a holster for her new gun, I listened as the dealer explained how different holsters allowed for quick access based on the various styles of clothes the woman might be wearing.

This conversation made me wonder: Had this woman—or someone she knew—been a victim of violence? Why did she feel the need for a concealed weapon? Does she fear a particular person, an unsafe neighborhood, or an unknown stranger? Could she pull the trigger and kill someone?

The tragic and too-frequent reports of mass shootings in schools, churches, and workplaces generate both fear and the all-too-predictable chorus of tired arguments.

The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
We need to ban guns.
We need better mental health laws.
We need God back in our schools.

Sentiments like these are a frustrating combination of anger, hurt, partial truth, and an unhelpful attempt at a one-size-fits-all solution. After a few days the anger recedes . . . until the next shooting happens, and the cycle repeats.

Is there no other way out of this impasse?

Brethren have long sought to shape our attitudes and actions around scripture, not popular sentiment. Is carrying a gun for personal protection and the potential defense of others consistent with maintaining a distinctly Christian identity? In an age where even some Brethren pastors have begun carrying guns for personal protection, how might our faith shape us on this matter?

A generous view of the other

Because so much of the discussion of gun violence involves the fear of being hurt or killed by an unknown stranger, one approach to answering this question is to consider how the Bible teaches us to view the other—that person who is unknown to us, or is not part of our family, tribe, or group.

The Old Testament books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are helpful to us here. This section of the Bible is notoriously difficult—arcane laws, strange customs, and pages of tabernacle dimensions complicate our reading and relegate it to an oft-skimmed section. But when we step back and consider the forest and not just the trees, interesting patterns emerge.

One is an attitude of openness and grace toward the vulnerable members of the community, including the alien and the stranger: the poor are allowed to glean in the field, slaves and servants get a day off on the sabbath, laws are not to be biased against the outsider. The book of Ruth shows how this approach to the other can work.

The basis of this openness comes from the people’s own experience as aliens and strangers in Egypt. For perhaps the first time in human history, a god had chosen the side of the weak and vulnerable, bringing these people out of slavery into freedom. But as the people began to settle down, build homes, families, and acquire wealth, they might be tempted to forget their past. So God reminds them: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” Be gracious toward the other.

This is a challenging command, especially considering the people’s circumstances when given these instructions. They are still in the wilderness, living at or near subsistence level. Under these circumstances, strangers pose a very real risk. They’re potential competitors for limited resources. They may seek to do harm and take what we have by force. Self-preservation is the natural inclination. There is no compelling reason to be gracious and welcoming to strangers.

And yet the overall admonition remains—even when there are compelling reasons to fear the other, God’s people are to make room for them, as God once made room for us.

Might turning strangers into friends be one solution to reducing violence?

Faithful hospitality or idolatrous fear?

We should not be naïve; violence does occur. The strangers of our day do sometimes burst into our homes, schools, churches, and workplaces to cause harm. Trusting our own ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones with a gun might seem prudent, even tempting. If the “other” thinks we have a gun, we might be safer.

But this is ultimately a “tiger by the tail” argument. We hope that more guns will make us safer, but can we ever be sure? Numerous studies show that, overall, more people having more guns leads to more violence, not less. Abusers use guns to intimidate their partners. People shoot at their difficult neighbors rather than trying harder to talk about their disagreements. Sometimes children play with a gun they find in the home and accidentally shoot their friends.

It is difficult to believe we will really be safer if we must first evaluate the other as a potential threat instead of a potential friend. And if we do go down this road, there may be no returning.

Thankfully, our faith gives us different options. We can follow the example of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and be generous toward the other. In the New Testament, this takes the form of hospitality. In a world that is increasingly filled with xenophobia (stranger fear), Christians are to practice philoxenia (stranger love). In being open to a relationship with the stranger, Jesus-followers willingly accept some of the potential risk the stranger might represent, in the belief that in our openness we might find a friend.

If our first response to the stranger is love instead of fear, a whole host of possibilities emerge. We can invite neighbors to a picnic in our back yard, be a friend to the student who seems to have no friends, confront the bullies in our schools and workplaces, speak up for the vulnerable, put down our phones and strike up a conversation with the people around us, partner with a congregation across town that is different from ours to learn what life is like in their neighborhood.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be salt and light. Our communities are likely not as violent as we might suspect, yet are not without risk. How might Brethren influence the communities surrounding our homes and church buildings if we armed ourselves with hospitality, sought to turn strangers into friends, and demonstrated a trust in God that overcomes fear with hopefulness and grace? What changes need to happen in our hearts? In the face of changing attitudes toward guns and the “other,” these are some of the questions the peace and justice group in my congregation seeks to answer.

Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.