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Faith leaders question how to address gun violence in churches
The PBS special, "Armed in America: Faith & Guns," brought together six evangelical Christians with varying views on gun control. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
The Rev. Rob Schenck believes all life is sacred. He built his ministry and his reputation around anti-abortion activism, preaching from picket lines in front of abortion clinics.

Over the past few years, his opinion on abortion hasn't changed, but his sense of calling has shifted. He refocused his ministry on gun violence after a 2013 fatal shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, which is near his home.

"I hadn't felt like it was (an evangelical) issue until I knelt in prayer outside the Navy Yard," he says in the documentary, "The Armor of Light."

The Rev. Schenck now urges other evangelical pastors and all faith leaders to address gun violence from the pulpit, although he acknowledges that it's natural to try to avoid the politicized issue. He's lost more than $100,000 in donations to his organization, Faith and Action, since speaking up about guns.

"When pastors ignore (gun violence), it creates a vacuum and other voices fill that vacuum," he said. "Saying and doing nothing is not right or good."

The Rev. Schenck recently participated in a panel discussion titled "Armed in America: Faith & Guns," which aired on PBS on May 10. It brought together six evangelical leaders with varying views on gun control, who were asked to describe the appropriate Christian response to gun violence and explain how faith influences their relationship with guns.

Religious communities often struggle to discuss gun violence because of disagreements over how the Bible informs the gun debate, religion scholars said. Factors like political affiliation and geographic region strongly affect people's views of guns, making it hard to come to a consensus at a denominational or even community level.

But PBS' panel illustrated that it's possible to bring people who disagree about guns together for a fruitful conversation, especially when they share a love of God and concern for protecting human life, said Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who participated in the "Armed in America" special. Faith communities can bring local experiences to bear on a national issue, adding nuance to a debate that's too often presented as black-and-white.

"I don't think that the current binary categories that we have around gun issues are going to advance the debate or solve any problems anytime soon," she said.

Avoiding the subject

The relationship between God and guns has been in the news recently in response to violent episodes like the fatal shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June.

Mississippi lawmakers passed House Bill 786 in April, allowing houses of worship to designate armed guards who could bring bring firearms to church services. Additionally, students at Liberty University, an evangelical school in Virginia, will be allowed to carry guns in residence halls starting in the fall, after Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. said the measure would boost campus safety.

But no matter how many headlines link faith and firearms, many religious leaders continue to struggle to speak about guns, because it's hard to argue that there's one correct way for Christians to respond to gun violence, said Ellen Painter Dollar, an Episcopalian and Christian commentator.

"There's not a clear, uniform biblical view on violence and self-defense," she said.

The PBS panel illustrated that even evangelicals who claim the "pro-life" label can't agree on how belief in the sanctity of life should inform gun laws.

For some Christians, gun ownership goes hand-in-hand with protecting the innocent.

"I'm not a pacifist, although I certainly tend toward nonviolence. But I think that it is a Christian and human calling to defend innocent life. In the case of self-defense, (guns) protect innocent life," Prior said.

Other believers argue that Jesus wants Christians to turn the other cheek.

"Jesus didn't carry a gun, he carried a cross," said Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian activist, during the PBS panel.

The divide between these two camps can seem insurmountable, even when people on both sides of the gun control debate long for a solution to gun violence, Dollar added.

"Liberal and conservative Christians agree on some fundamental level that Christians should care about poor people. There's a basic understanding. But with guns, it seems like the two sides are coming at this from such completely different perspectives," she said.

Gun research

Only 38 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor passing stricter gun control laws, compared to 67 percent of Catholics, 57 percent of white mainline Protestants and 60 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey taken after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The poll also found that 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants live in a household where at least one person owns a gun. One-in-three Catholics (31 percent) could say the same.

Findings like the PRRI poll inform conversations about the link between religion and views on guns, but they can be misleading, said David Yamane, a sociologist of religion at Wake Forest University. Many evangelicals are politically conservative and live in the south, factors that likely influence their views on gun control more than their faith.

"Anytime we talk about religion generally, we misunderstand the situation. There's a lot of nuance created by differences in religious beliefs, traditions and practices," he said.

Yamane is working with General Social Survey data to learn more about how faith affects people's stance on guns.

In a forthcoming study, he reports that theological conservatives who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, report being born again through their relationship with Christ and evangelize to others are more likely than other believers to own guns, noting that it could be because they often view outsiders and the government as threatening.

Yamane also found that a high level of involvement in a faith community, characterized by spending time at church beyond attending a worship service, decreases the likelihood that someone will own a gun. It might be because people with strong ties to a religious group have more trust in institutions and in their community.

More research needs to be done in this area, but Yamane said his work has taught him to question prevailing stereotypes related to faith and guns.

"It's true that certain types of people who have certain types of religious beliefs are more likely to own guns," he said. "But other equally religious, equally faithful people with different sets of religious beliefs and practices are less likely to own guns and engage in gun culture."

A path forward

"The Armor of Light" shows the Rev. Schenck addressing gun violence in meetings with evangelical leaders, at conferences and in study groups at local churches. He asks general questions about the relationship between Christianity and guns, but conversations quickly turn into heated debates about gun control and the Second Amendment.

"For me, it's not a question of the politics, but the theology," the Rev. Schenck says. However, the politics are hard to avoid.

"Armed in America: Faith & Guns" panelists agreed that religious communities need to engage the issue of gun violence in spite of challenges, noting that they're in a good position to bring people with diverse opinions together.

"I'm very optimistic about this show setting an example," Prior said in an interview this week.

The path forward from political gridlock begins in small gatherings where people move beyond sorting people into pro-gun and anti-gun camps, she added.

"The gun conversation is one we need to have on a national scale. But we also have to have it in local communities, because every community is different," Prior said. "There's no one-size-fits-all solution."

Yamane, who runs a blog on gun culture in addition to conducting research about it, said his experiences at gun conferences and in his classrooms have helped him be hopeful about the role religious groups can play in the national gun debate.

"I think that faith communities might provide an ideal place to talk about (gun) issues," he said. "There's a basic level of respect that can happen when you're in an ecumenical setting."
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