Gun violence in our country has reached epidemic proportions with no end in sight. While on the one hand we have seen one mass shooting after another -- including mass shootings of little children like at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the response has not been to work to have less guns and less violence, but to encourage people to have more guns. As the NRA advertises, "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." So we have people with guns at schools, at movie theaters, at Bible studies.
Think about that for a minute. We do not have people who are trained at all in how to deal with hostile and dangerous situations. We have a person who is afraid, who has had that fear repeatedly fostered by groups like the NRA, Fox News, and others, and who is now walking the halls of your kindergarten packing heat. We also have laws like "stand your ground" that say that if that person feels "threatened" they can kill.
Take an untrained person, motivated by fear, and give them a gun. That is a recipe for disaster. The driving force here is fear. That's why people are so adamant about gun rights, and discussions can get so emotionally heated. They want to protect their own safety and the safety of those they love, and when someone suggests we take away their means of protection, they feel vulnerable and threatened, and react with anger. It's a response to a perceived threat that is ironically called being "triggered" and means that our body literally physiological shuts down the social part of our brain (the cerebral cortex) and engages the fear-center (the amygdala).
So the question becomes, how can we help people to look at the issue of guns and violence without shutting down the rational and social parts of their brains and simply becoming angry and reactive? I've heard some pastors take the hard line of saying that Jesus forbids the use of violence, and so the answer to "How will I stay safe?" becomes "You won't. You will die like the martyrs did. Jesus commands it. Take up your cross." While that is indeed an argument that one can make with the New Testament on their side, you can see why this would make a person feel threatened and trigger a reactive amygdala fear response.
Let's not kid ourselves, the core message of the gospel is not pro-gun, and in fact Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is a systematic refutation of that way of thinking. This is one of the take-away points from the 2015 documentary Armor of Light, which follows one conservative evangelical pastor's attempt to speak to his fellow evangelicals about the conflict between guns and the gospel. You can watch it on Amazon for just a buck. It's a great conversation starter, and it's a conversation we desperately need to have.
What I would like to do is give some theological context to that conversation, demonstrating that a belief in guns cannot co-exist with belief in Christ. They represent two opposing and incompatible visions of life, and we need to be clear on that. What I hope further to show is that the way of Jesus is indeed good news. It is not pie in the sky idealism, but a realistic way, addressing the fears we have, and our deepest desires for abundant life. It's a gospel message that many white evangelicals in this country have never heard.
Jesus' message of the kingdom of God represents an alternate societal vision, in contrast to the societal vision embraced by the religious culture at the time of Jesus, and found in the parts of the Old Testament, which promoted tribalism and responded to those on the outside with condemnation and acts of violence committed in the name of God. When Christians claim the Bible supports their endorsement and use of violence, they draw on those parts of the Old Testament that Jesus specifically confronts and rejects. So let's take a closer look at Jesus' message of the kingdom and how it speaks to the issue of guns, and more broadly to the larger issue of self-preservation and fear.
The big picture of Jesus' message of "die to yourself" is one of overcoming fear. The biggest fear we have is the fear of death. Fear is often behind why we do hurtful things. We are afraid we won't have enough for ourselves, so we are unsocial. We are afraid of being hurt, so we carry a gun. The gospel tells us that we need to care for others, that we need to learn to think socially, and that when we do, that our needs will also be taken care of. "Don't worry about food or shelter" Jesus says, "but seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well."
This is not about denying the self or denying your family or tribe or race. It's about widening the circle of who you consider to be "in" to include everyone. It says that it's not just about my family, but also about your family. It's not just about my race, but about yours, too. Jesus points us to caring especially for those who are neglected in society, the poor, the unclean, the condemned. He calls out racial prejudice with the story of the Good Samaritan. He calls out religious superiority with the story of the good centurion.
Today in America our "Samaritan" would be a Muslim, or more broadly anyone with brown skin who is seen as threatening and labeled as a terrorist if they are Muslim, or as a criminal if they are black. In other words, the people we feel threatened by, the ones who we feel we need to use a gun against, the ones we want to lock up in jail or keep out with a wall are the very ones Jesus says we need to love. The are the ones whose lives we value "the least" as Jesus says.
In other words, the reason Jesus would say "black lives matter" is because he recognized that society (including religious society like his and ours) disregards the value of the lives of those they see as "other" and "least." If we want to break out of that, caring for all lives, the way we get there is by caring especially for those who are treated as "the least" valuable by us.
Behind that otherizing is fear. We are afraid of the person who looks scary to us. That's where the idea of enemy love comes in. An "enemy" here is someone that you perceive as a threat. This is not
something only conservatives do. Liberals do it, too. Liberals like me
see conservatives with guns as threatening and scary, just as
conservatives see liberals like me as scary. The typical reaction is to
label the other, calling them a terrorist or a criminal (if you are conservative) or labeling them as racist or homophobic (if you are a
liberal). Either way we see ourselves as the "good guys" and them as the
"bad guys" who need to be stopped.
When you see someone in that
category of "enemy" you feel justified in silencing them, harming them
in order to protect yourself. You need to dehumanize the other to kill them. So they are labeled as a "terrorist" or a "criminal" and then it's okay. The gospel is about recognizing the humanity and value in everyone, not because we are innocent or "good guys" but rather the gospel is that even though we are sinners, God showed his love for us. The gospel is about seeing that the sinner -- which includes you -- is valued and loved by God.
It's relatively easy to care for those we see as meek, poor, helpless, begging for mercy, repentant. But what about those who we see as a threat? Do we know how to love someone like that? Do we know how to reconcile? Do we know how to make peace when there is real conflict? Or do we instead build walls, fire people, and even fire a gun? "Do not return evil with evil" both Peter and Paul write. The Hebrew there (which is the context they would be thinking in) is "do not repay anyone harm for harm." That seems to be the only way we know how to respond though. We either passively do nothing, or we return violence with violence, evil for evil. It's the American way. But it is decidedly not the way of Jesus.
What is missing completely from this is any application of love of enemies. It
is at the same time the most ground-breaking and revolutionary of all
of the teachings of Jesus, and also the least taught -- let alone
practiced -- by Christians (whether they are liberal or conservative). Perhaps that's because we think that love of enemies means "be a victim," and pronouncements by pastors like
the one above to "be like the martyrs" tend to perpetuate this
misunderstanding. Similarly, lots of Christian pacifists take the stance
that Jesus simply gives us a prohibition against the use of violence. I
don't disagree, however I must insist that this cannot be all. Just as a
Christian vision of sexual ethics cannot only be about not having sex, a
Christian vision of love of enemies also cannot be only about not
committing acts of violence. Love of enemies is not just a prohibition, a
command saying what you cannot do. More importantly love of enemies presents an alternative means to resolving conflict without violence. In other words, it is not about doing nothing, but about doing something different.
Love of enemies is about recognizing the value and humanity of the one who you have dehumanized by seeing them as an enemy, and asking what you can do to end that hostility and work towards reconciliation. Whether it's the polarizing and hateful rhetoric of political discourse, or the fear-based stockpiling of guns, reconciliation is something we Americans seem to be utterly incapable of.
Love of enemies is connected to the widening of the in-circles discussed above. We widen the circle to care not just about my family, but also yours, and all families. We widen the circle to care about all races, all lives. We widen the circle to care about not only those in our nation, but all people. That is something that Jesus teaches over and over in the Gospels, and it is the exact opposite of the idea of building a wall around us, and encouraging Christians to bring guns to church with them so they can kill bad guys. Again, there is really nothing "Christian" about being pro-gun if Christian has anything to do with the teaching of Jesus and his vision of adopting God's values "on earth as it is in heaven."
So why is it that it is so hard for people -- especially white American evangelicals -- to trust the way of Jesus more than they trust their guns? A big part of it is diet, that is, what we feed on. While pastors remained silent on the issue of guns, groups like the NRA and Fox News stepped into the gap, inundating people with a 24-hour message stirring up fear and anger. This "other-gospel" of fear and anger has come to be associated with white evangelical Christianity, but it is about as Christian as a strip club. The fact that those same white evangelicals endorse a presidential candidate who encourages acts of violence from his supporters, and who owns strip clubs, is not lost on me. White evangelicals have abandoned the way of Jesus, and substituted it with the way of violence, driven by fear. That may be hard to hear, but it is the truth. I say this as a white American evangelical myself. I say it out of love, calling on my fellow evangelical brothers and sisters to repent of their unbelief, and return to Jesus.
In the end it is a matter of faith versus fear. Fear keeps people away from the way of Jesus. Fear of losing the good things in our life, fear of death. We need to understand that Jesus is not about taking away good things from us. He came, he says, to give us life, abundant life. He continually is telling people not to worry, not to fear. But what he does want us to do is to learn to think socially, to learn to love, to learn to widen the circles we make to include those on the outside. He wants us to become messengers of reconciliation. That is what preaching the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is all about.
The part where widening that circle becomes hard is where we perceive those outside the circle to be an enemy, a threat. The point is not to ignore danger as if it did not exist. The point is learning how we can reconcile with someone, how we can overcome hostility. The way we do that is not through escalation, buying more guns, or building bigger walls. The way we do that is by learning how to be ambassadors of reconciliation, how to be peacemakers. Currently the direction we are moving in is the opposite, shutting
out the refugee in need, the racial divide ever growing, becoming more
and more reactive, fearful, hostile, and violent. We need to learn the way of peace, the way of reconciliation. Doing that is not some optional side thing, it is at the very heart of the gospel, at the very heart of what the kingdom of God is about.
The fact is, white conservative evangelical's association of God and guns going together has virtually nothing to do with Christianity. It has to do with something that runs deeper. It has to do with the fear of death, with our human survival instinct, which is an incredibly powerful drive. The gospel speaks to that fear. We need to learn how to preach that gospel message. We need to learn how to place our trust in the way of Jesus, and not in a gun.
Last time I spoke about using the tools of ethics and psychology as a means to better read Scripture, and the topic of "head versus heart" came up in the discussion following. This is a really important topic which I felt deserved a discussion of its own. It is particularly important because the idea of head and heart is ultimately about having our theories connected to reality and experience.
Let me begin by defining some terms. When I speak of the "heart" I am referring to our experiences, and how these affect our feelings, that is how we perceive and experience reality. When I speak of the "head" I am referring to how we cognitively understand those feelings and experiences, including the idea of language. If we have the cognitive alone -- disconnected from our experience of life, it remains merely theoretical, detached from lived experience. So the heart (our experience of life) is important, perhaps we could say it is primary. We however also need the cognitive to make sense of our feelings and experiences. Heck, the fact that you are reading this and thinking about whether you agree with me means you are engaging in the cognitive. At its most basic level it is about making sense, and giving a framework to our experiences and emotions. This does not need to be some deep philosophical exercise. It is something all of us do constantly. For example, a five-year old might think, "I'm feeling something, I think it feels good, it's caused by this other person, who I call 'mom', and this thing is a hug, and it makes me feel safe and loved. I love hugs from my mom." All of that is about understanding, conceptualizing about the meaning of our experiences. In short, both head (our understanding) and heart (our feelings and experiences) are essential for us. They impact theology, but they also of course impact way more, they impact how we all experience life.
With that brief intro, let's consider a comment made by Kent on my previous blog post (which was the impetus for this conversation). He begins by saying this,
"Living a life of being loved by God and loving others is not hard. From my perspective, we are changed (born again/born from above/become a new creation -- whichever biblical description one wants to use) when we experience the love of God in our hearts (right brain) through intuitional revelation."
First of all, there is far more in Kent's comment that agree with than there are things I disagree with. So let me begin where I agree. It is certainly true that we humans are formed through loving relationships. Ideally, as a child we are formed by the love of our parents, and out of that we grow to be loving, responsible, thoughtful, mature people. There is of course a parallel with God's love, and we find that idea expressed in the declaration that "God first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19), which is the context out of which we respond by loving others. As Paul puts it, "all that matters is faith expressing itself in love" (Gal 5:6). Again, just as we are formed by the love of our earthly parents, the idea is that God, our heavenly abba, loves us, and that love forms us, resulting in our loving others as a result. Our trust/faith in our experience of a loving relationship God expresses itself in our, in turn showing the same kind of love to others that we have known -- in short, trust expresses itself in acts of love.
Yet, often experience... let alone (shudder) feelings and emotions... has been spoken of in very dismissive ways by theologians, who tend to be very "head" focused and mistrustful of emotions and experience. That's a real shame because emotions and experience are vital to being human. Moreover, a theology that is disconnected from experience and feeling is disconnected from life, disconnected from relationship (including relationship with God), and disconnected from love. There is a biblical term used to describe that sort of head-only theology: dead. So when theology dismisses experience and feelings and the heart, that means it is very broken.
Experience: Changing your Heart
As noted above, our experiences shape and form us. They make us into who we are. The good news is that this is not only something that happens in childhood. Experiencing love can also change us as adults in positive ways, just as experiencing trauma as adults can change us in negative ways.
Where that connects to theology is that if we think that people are changed merely through information, we are misunderstanding something really basic about how we humans work. People are changed -- including changing our minds -- by what we experience. Change my heart, and that will surely change my mind. So if as pastors we want to change someone for the better, if we want to change the way we treat each other, a crucial part of how we get to that change is by positive experiences re-shaping us.
Let me give an example. One particular school of marriage therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), stresses the importance of couples experiencing positive emotions as the central means to healing relationships and rebuilding connections in a marriage. Let's say that there is a couple where the guy is kind of a brute. He barges in and takes over when she is parenting. As the therapist digs into this however, it comes out that the guy is actually pretty insecure, but feels like he needs to be "strong" to hold things together. This is not something that the therapist tells him, but something he uncovers about himself. In other words, EFT helps him to get to a vulnerable part of himself, beneath the protective wall of his outward "strong" behavior.
In turn, as his wife experiences him having these vulnerable feelings, opening up, seeing a side of him that she has never seen before, she herself experiences feelings of empathy and understanding towards him. Experiencing this together as a couple brings them together. So it's about helping couples to break out of old patterns of conflict, by getting them to vulnerable places beneath that outward conflict (their fears, their insecurities, their wounds), in order to build empathy and connection.
The means to this is not primarily about understanding something cognitively, but much more about experiencing it together, and how that positive experience of being understood, as you were vulnerable, leads to deep connection.
The point of all this is that practitioners, who are working directly with people, people who need help with their relationships, with love, are finding that experience plays a crucial part of that work. It is through elicits positive emotional experiences -- not simply by cognitive understanding, but primarily through experiencing vulnerable feelings together -- that empathy and connection is built, the couple is re-connected, and the marriage is healed. Imagine what would happen if pastors learned how to elicit positive emotional experiences in people and how that could affect spiritual formation.
Experience is vital. Love is vital. But I have to disagree with Kent's claim that it is "not hard". Love is good, but it is certainly not easy. If love were easy, marriage therapists would be out of a job! Love is hard, and does not come to all of us intuitively. Couples often need to learn how to communicate, how to relate to one another in ways that bring them together, instead of ways that put them in conflict. A part of that is that most of us do not only have positive experiences as a kids, but also come with some emotional "baggage" that we bring with us into our intimate relationships. That is, we have learned some messed up ways to relate to others, and so we need to learn how to love well. The closer you are to someone, the deeper the intimacy, the harder that becomes.
Re-framing: Changing your mind
All this is not to say that there is no place for the head, for the cognitive. Indeed the cognitive is crucial because without it we'd have no way to make sense of our feelings and experiences. In fact, the way we understand and frame something actually changes the feelings we have about it, changes how we experience it. For example, as a kid I broke my wrist playing soccer, and because this happened in the context of sports, I thought it was cool. When some kids picked on me in school and pushed me against a locker, that was really upsetting to me. The physical pain involved was trivial compared to breaking my wrist, but the emotional experience of being bullied was really upsetting, while breaking a bone felt cool. How we frame our experiences, the narrative we place them in, changes how we actually experience them emotionally.
Theology is all about how we frame things. How do we make sense of who we are as humans? How do we make sense of suffering in our world? The way we frame those kinds of things makes all the difference. Do we frame human misfortune as a sign that God is angry and punishing us? Or do we frame suffering in the context of a God who shares our suffering with us? That framing changes how you experience your life, and that's why negative images of God can be so damaging and debilitating to people. It's not just a detached theory because it impacts our lived experience, in this case in a bad way.
Just as we can have both positive and negative experiences (the heart), we can also have understandings of life (the head) which can help and heal us, and we can equally have understandings that hinder and harm us. So the way we make sense of and frame our experiences matters tremendously, and even shapes how we experience life. That's why the cognitive matters, why theology matters, because badly framed theology can block us from experiencing God's love, and good theology can allow us to experience a life filled with meaning and love.
When all is said and done, we don't need to choose between head and heart, between thinking and feeling, between the experiential and the cognitive. Rather, we need to understand how they both work together. In a nutshell, the head interprets the heart, that is, our understanding frames our experiences. The way this works is not linear (first one and then the other), but more of a circular relationship where both influence each other.
So instead of disparaging one or the other as bad (head focused people saying that emotions are "weak" and "unreliable," or heart-focused people saying that the cognitive is "cold" and "detached"), we need to be able to embrace both of these aspects of ourselves, recognizing that they are both good and vital parts of what it means to be fully human. What we think and what we feel are not in fact separate, but intertwined, each influencing the other. They are not rivals, but partners -- two lovers in a dance.