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Pastors and Biblical Scholar Reflect on Gun Violence, Share How Church Can Respond

According to the Gun Violence Archive, an online archive of gun violence collected by an independent research group, there have been 54 mass shootings in 2023 in the United States. Gun control has become an extremely partisan issue in the US; democratic states like California and New York often respond to mass shootings with legislation that increases gun control, while Republican controlled states like Texas allow for anyone over the age of 21 to carry a handgun without a permit. 

Debates over gun control have even seeped their way into the church. Far-right Christian nationalists often equate the problem with sin, not guns, thus excusing a need for gun control. Other churches avoid the subject of gun control during their Sunday service, drawing a line between the world of politics and religion. However, many other Christian churches play a crucial role in reducing gun violence, partnering with groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund to lobby for gun reform.  

Kara Lyons-Pardue, professor of New Testament at Point Loma Nazarene University, shared how she feels when news breaks about a mass shooting, via an email interview with the Point. 

“My personal response to the frequent news of mass shootings in the U.S. is incredulity, anger and a sorrowful exhaustion,” Lyons-Pardue said. “I was a freshman in college myself when the Columbine high school shooting took place; the fact that subsequent generations of students and our broader communities continue to face these horrors is deeply grievous to me.”

Jon Middendorf, senior pastor of the Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene, was the Spring 2023 Renewal Week speaker at PLNU. Held every semester, Renewal Week is dedicated to creating spaces for PLNU students and faculty to Sabbath and spend time in scripture, and invites speakers from all over the nation to preach. 

Middendorf spent the week encouraging students to be worried less about getting their faith right, and to be more concerned with operating from a place of love of neighbor. He urged listeners to think about the ways in which they have been invited by God to promote healing and wholeness throughout creation. 

Middendorf said that anger and lament are regular parts of what he experiences in regards to gun violence. 

“Now, to tip my hand, I don’t think anybody needs these giant weapons because I believe that life is to be cherished and protected,” Middendorf said.

Middendorf shared that when he encounters violence in the form of mass shootings, he initially wants to weep with those who weep. Afterwards, he is motivated to mobilize people and organize ways that they can write better policy. He shared that engaging in the political world is something he sees as a crucial part of his faith. 

“So as soon as we believe that faith has to do with not just the soul, as soon as we can acknowledge that faith has to do with the body, and bodies, then immediately the gospel becomes political,” said Middendorf. “And if it is about bodies, then it’s about not harming bodies.”

Middendorf admits that his faith may be perceived by some students at PLNU as political because he sees the gospel as political, but not partisan. 

As lead pastor of Normal Heights United Methodist Church in San Diego, Brent Ross sees prayer as a helpful tool in working toward justice. 

“I would say that lots of our actions should be prayerful. The scriptures talk about how we should ‘pray without ceasing;’ that to me says that a lot of prayer should be extremely active,” Ross said. 

Ross said that internal and individual prayer is important, but it is not the only thing that he considers to be prayer. He argued that advocacy, peaceful protesting and lobbying for gun control could be labeled what he calls “prayerful action,” or prayer in action, even if we do not know what the outcome of that prayer might be.  

“That’s a prayerful action: to recognize that we cannot control the action and it is up to God. So you offer it prayerfully, which is really different from ‘I’m going to think something inside my heart or mind,’” Ross said. 

Lyons-Pardue values the practice of church communities gathering to lament gun violence.

“The Psalms, indeed especially those of lament, were shared cries for God’s intervention,” Lyons-Pardue said. “The practices of collective lament help take particular experiences of a sufferer and thrust them into the shared, communal experiences of a worshiping community.” 

Ross believes his job is to reflect the congregation he preaches to, so if someone in the congregation is angry about gun violence, his aim is to make space for that person. 

“I feel like when we [the pastors] name things that we’re angry about, particularly in a sermon where we offer that up on behalf of everyone, that’s often when I get the most direct responses of people thanking me afterwards,” Ross said.

Ross said that expressing the things we are angry about in church can feel most authentic, and can lead to action. 

Middendorf also emphasized the ways in which scripture makes room for anger.

“I think you can find plenty of scriptures where God is described as being angry and where Jesus looks to be very angry. Now what Jesus isn’t is vindictive or vengeful. So, in response to mass shootings, I think the proper response is anger. But it is not the kind of anger or revenge that causes me to go looking for my gun,” Middendorf said.

For those who want to engage in what Pastor Ross refers to as prayerful action, there are a number of ways to get involved. There are numerous non-profit organizations and advocacy groups accepting donations, including Everytown, March for Our Lives and Sandy Hook Promise. Individuals can also sign petitions on the March for Our Lives website, including one that lobbies for an assault weapons ban and another that demands universal background checks.  To learn more about the ways that you or your church community can get involved with advocacy, visit https://www.everytown.org/actions/

Written By: Reyna Huff