One week ago, my stomach rolled. I had turned on the television, too slow on the trigger to change the breakfast news station to lighter lunchtime fare. All too familiar faces appeared, interviewing familiar experts who provided analysis of an all too familiar event: another school shooting. A minute passed without any identification of the school. It was clearly in the south and for some reason it looked like Texas. Another five minutes and still no word. I became anxious—for the first time—for our two school-teaching daughters.
The first recorded mass school shooting in what would become the United States occurred in 1764 near Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Then, from 1765-1965 this threat was dead and buried. Gun related deaths took place, but they were almost all isolated events: an angry parent or student confronting a teacher, an accident, or a student fight. For two hundred years this “zombie” reached out from the grave only three times: Liberty, Mississippi (1891), Newburgh, New York (1891), and South Pasadena Junior High, California (1940). Otherwise, schools were safe zones, places of refuge away from any potential violence.
This zombie first began to claw its way out of the grave on university campuses. In 1966, a student at the University of Texas did the unthinkable, randomly shooting and killing seventeen while wounding thirty-one. A few years later in 1970, authorities opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War and the U.S. presence in Cambodia at Kent State and Jackson State; six died and twenty-one were injured. Public schools, however, with rare exceptionsremained safe—for a few more years. Then, this creature came out of the grave to reap a rich harvest: a complete list of attacks in schools from 1965 to 1999 would require 2-3 blog posts. A partial list of the worst incidents stretches across the country: Olean High School (NY), Greenville (SC), West Paducah (KY), Detroit, Pearl (MI), Craighead County (AK), Oklahoma City (OK), Amarillo (TX), Cokeville (WY), San Diego (CA), Los Angeles (CA), Stockton (CA), Olivehurst (CA), and Springfield (OR).This undead creature did not first appear at Columbine High School in 1999 (Littleton, CO). It had already been on the prowl, taking victims for twenty-five years.
Columbine shook us because of the way in which it was planned and the large number of victims. Since then, for the same reasons we remember Santana High School (Santee, CA, 2001), Red Lake Senior High School (MN, 2005), Sandy Hook Elementary (Newton CN, 2012), Rancho Tehama Reserve Elementary School (CA, 2017), Marshal County High School (KY, 2018), Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, FL, 2018), and now—Sante Fe High School (TX, 2018).Worse, we know that we can’t destroy or put this awful creature back in the grave where it belongs. It’s only a matter of time…
I don’t come today with solutions. The problem is far too complex for me, and a single blog post. Instead, I want to speak about how we—in the midst of our passionate convictions and arguments about killing this zombie—how we seem to forget the Gospel. So, I just want to confront our conversations about this creature with the challenge of the Gospel.
Social media is alive with heated arguments that take two different wide paths to killing this zombie. On one side, some appeal to others (e.g., congress, the NRA, or gun owners) to accept responsibility for letting this creature out of its grave and to accept responsibility for putting it back into its grave through stricter gun laws and greater gun safety. The other side agrees about the need for greater gun safety (e.g., background checks, guns safes). However, they also respond to the first group by asserting their constitutional right to own and shoot whatever firearm they want. I am painting with broad brushstrokes, but these seem to be the two primary colors (positions) on the subject of putting this undead thing back into its grave.
So, what does the Gospel have to say about our positions and assertions? Let me suggest two interrelated points of interaction for all of us as we think about and talk about this zombie.
- “You should give up or sacrifice ___________ (fill in the blank).” In my final blog about same-sex intimacy and the OT, I stole a thought from Ellen Davis: “whenever I find myself in the position of asking other Christians to make a sacrifice for which I am ineligible… then I should feel the inherent vulnerability of my position, because my ‘proclamation’ of the gospel is costing others more than it costs me” [emphasis mine]. It is easy to require others to give up something that I don’t have (e.g., their guns or certain types of guns): to make them sacrifice what costs me nothing. Jesus criticized teachers of the law who acted in similar ways by demanding much, but doing nothing to help: “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” This does not necessarily disqualify the claim or requirement (e.g., I don’t smoke, but if you do I still think it’s best if you give it up). The gospel, however, calls us to do more than assert what others should do or give up. It calls us to serve rather than being served, to humble ourselves rather than humbling others. Or in the words of Paul, “Don’t be selfish… Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”
- “It’s my constitutional right” is equally problematic. An emphasis on “my rights” ignores the most fundamental teaching of both halves of Scripture. The Gospel calls us to give up our rights in favor of a higher love for my neighbor and their needs. Here, I cannot express the idea any better than Roger Mohrlang: “Paul nowhere tells believers that they should defend their rights. On the contrary, he emphasizes that believers must always be willing to give up their rights for the sake of others… Paul, like Jesus, sees loving others as one of the most important principles in life (1 Cor. 13:1-13; Matt. 5:43-44; 22:37-39; Rom 13:8-10; Gal. 5:6). Real Christian love is always sacrificial (1 Cor. 13:4-7) like Christ’s own love. Believers ought never to focus on what is best for themselves, but on what is best for others (1 Cor. 10:32-33).” As a Christian my first response should not be, “It is my right.” But rather, how may I practice love for another and help the most vulnerable among us? How may I imitate Jesus, who “gave up his divine privileges” for our sake in order to take the position of a servant?
The Gospel certainly has more to contribute to the ways in which we talk about solutions for the zombie stalking our schools. We could all use a dose of humility, kindness, gentleness, and self-control in our speech and actions. And maybe, just maybe, the practice of spiritual disciplines with Gospel-centered lives will help us put this creature back where it belongs.
In chronological order: Olean High School (NY, 1974), Oklahoma City (OK, 1975), San Diego (1979), Los Angeles (CA, 1984), Cokeville (WY, 1986), Greenville (SC, 1988), Stockton (CA, 1989), Olivehurst (CA, 1989), Amarillo (TX, 1992), Detroit (MI, 1992), Pearl (MI, 1997), West Paducah (KY, 1997), Craighead County (AK, 1998), and Springfield (OR, 1998). See “List of School Shootings in the United States” on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the_United_States
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.