In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man ends up in hell for his sins (neglecting the poor) and wants to warn his brothers so they might avoid his fate. Abraham tells him his brothers have the words of Moses and the Prophets – that is warning enough. But the rich man says, “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
To Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
I was reminded of this in light of the most recent school shooting, as people express the hope that this will bring about meaningful change to our gun laws. I don’t think we will have meaningful change, until we have an honest reckoning of our history as a nation.
What Jesus is saying in the parable is that, when we don’t have a correct understanding of our past, it will keep us from understanding what is happening in the present. The rich man’s brothers have not learned what they should have from Moses and the Prophets, so they will not accept the truth, even from one risen from the dead. As long as Americans believe the myth that we are a basically peaceful and just people, a majority of us will accept gun violence as an anomaly that cannot be prevented.
The reality is, the United States of America is a nation steeped in violence. We violently separated from Great Britain; we violently evicted Native Americans from their land; we violently enslaved Africans; we violently settled the issue of slavery (or states rights, depending on your perspective); we oppressed every wave of immigrants that came here from countries that we weren’t familiar with; we have been perpetually at war since our founding. We have been involved in a war of some sort for 93 percent of our years since our founding.
If we weren’t a violent people, why would we make one of our first priorities in our constitution addressing the issue of arming ourselves?
The reality is that we, as a nation, have almost always seen violence as the answer to our problems, which makes violence the norm, and instead of making us feel peaceful, it makes us more fearful. And the only way we see to defeat our fears is more violence, because we are afraid if we choose a less violent path, someone else will use violence against us.
I’m not saying all this so that we might feel guilty about being Americans. I’m saying this because until we acknowledge how violence has shaped us, we cannot see how fear is now warping us.
So, how do we break the pattern? Well, of course, the answer is Jesus Christ.
First, if you don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, you at least have the model of someone who responded to the violence of his society with nonviolence, and though he died, he started a movement that, when it adhered to his ideals, brought about change.
Second if you do believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ (as I most definitely do), then you have the freedom from fear, so you can respond to violence in the only way that defeats it.
And that is with death: our death. We must allow our desire to respond to violence with violence to die, because that only brings more death. We must allow our fear that someone might take advantage of us tomorrow to die, because that only permits more death to happen today.
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are on very thin ice when you defend the unfettered right to own guns in the face of all the lives that are damaged by gun violence in our society. When Peter saw the answer to the violence Jesus was about to face as taking up arms, Jesus told him to put away the sword. Violence does not end violence: it only births more violence. And violence never occurs without causing injustice. When Jesus declined to respond to the violence against himself with violence, he established the path, the narrow path, he wanted his followers to take: the nonviolent one.
For the sake of America, Christians need to put not America first, but Jesus Christ first, even as that makes us “un-American.”
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not here for ourselves, or for our nation, but we are here for the oppressed who like Lazarus hunger at our gate for justice and mercy.