The words of the hymn were still echoing in my mind after the service on All Saints Sunday when I learned about the terrible massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It was the day Christians celebrate the eternal life of their departed loved ones in Jesus, a day in which we are meant to remember and feel close to those who have gone before us, because in Christ we are united.
But then 27 people lost their lives. A day of celebrating eternal life became a day of mourning.
In the midst of such tragic and senseless violence, faith in eternal life in Christ does not erase the heartbreak or frustration or devastation or rage. Celebrating all the saints who from their labors rest does not translate to relief from the loss of those taken without warning, before their time. I cannot imagine that level of pain, multiplied by every life taken and every wound inflicted, but I know that Jesus enters into our suffering and walks with us in the midst of it rather than pulls us out of it.
So when I say that we can draw strength and comfort and nourishment from the everlasting life in Christ that we celebrate on All Saints Day, in no way do I intend to discount of the suffering of the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, or even to say that Jesus alleviates the grief. Jesus immersed himself into the full range of human emotion, so much so that he wept just moments before raising Lazarus from the dead. Faith in the eternal life of Christ does not dull pain but instead opens our hearts to one-another in co-suffering, or compassion.
But beyond the pain and grief, there is a deeper comfort in Christ, a hope that transcends feeling. It is faith that love is stronger than death. It is trust that there is a power that exceeds the bullet, and that power is love so strong that it bears all of our violence and swallows it in mercy. Faith in eternal life in Christ is faith that love that reconciles and unites us is more potent and vibrant than any force that excludes, expels or divides us. Love is so powerful that it bridges the divide of death, so that in the human embodiment of Love, we are eternally bound to one another.
Our affirmation on All Saints Day is that all are welcomed into the abundant life that was given to us when Jesus became incarnate, suffered our violence unto death, and rose in glory. His life rendered the worst of human violence impotent. Thus, while hatred, fear, cruelty and brutality pull the human family asunder, in Love Incarnate the culmination of our destructive behaviors – death – is reduced to nothing.
Faith that Love that gives life is stronger than weapons that extinguish it is the reason I believe churches should remain gun-free zones. I say this with no animosity, and indeed no sentiment less than love, to those who think otherwise. Those who are calling for armed guards or parishioners in churches are sincere in their belief that this could be necessary for the protection of vulnerable lives. But to me, reliance on the gun is denial of the power of the cross.
On the cross, Jesus was executed as a dangerous criminal. He embraced the very people his own society cast aside and violated purity codes that kept people divided. He shut down the Temple in a prophetic act of anti-sacrifice, disrupting the systems of exploitation that enriched some and kept others in poverty. In short, he “challenged a political system of violence and death,” as my colleague Adam Ericksen put it. It’s not simply that he interpreted his Jewish faith differently from the authorities that crucified him. Jesus’s life culminated in an entirely new way of being human first inaugurated by the calling of Abram to be a blessing to all the nations. In Jesus, creation was “finished” because he perfected the image of God by showing us how to find ourselves not over and against one another, but in service to all.
Jesus’s embrace of all was considered a threat to the Powers that Be. But it ultimately exposed the fact that God stands not with our violence, but with our victims. Yet God answers all of the pain we inflict upon each other, and therefore all of the pain we inflict upon God, with forgiveness. That is the power that turns hearts, transforms lives, and reconciles enemies. That is the power that the church must affirm is stronger than violence. That is the power to which we must turn.
The Love that conquers death affirms that we will be reconciled to our enemies in Christ. Because Christ has forgiven us for the misguided violence that put him – God in flesh – to death, we are to receive forgiveness and forgive each other in the new life that begins not when we die but when we reject violent ways of living. That does not mean that all divisions have been mended, and it does not mean we must live as if injustices have been healed when there is still so much work to do. But it does mean that we must affirm the humanity of everyone. It means we must believe in the redemption of everyone. The willingness to take a life with a gun denies this redemption.
The new life in which we have our faith is found in the renunciation of violence. It is found in love that overpowers violence, love that overwhelms and washes violence away.
I do understand that some will feel safer in a church where parishioners are armed. But I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t bear witness to the power of Love being infinitely stronger than the power of violence. This is the hope of the life that never fades away, the life that extinguishes division and death. It is the life to which Love has called us, which we must live out in daily acts of mercy and reconciliation. Rejecting the gun is the least we can do. There is no room in this Life for instruments of death.