COMMENTARY: On gun control, prayer and tolerance

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin, |
A police officer picks up a weapon from the scene of the investigation around the area of the SUV vehicle where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015. Authorities on Thursday were working to determine why Syed Rizwan Farook 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, who had a 6-moth old daughter together, opened fire at a holiday party of his co-workers in Southern California, killing 14 people and wounding at least 17 in an attack that appeared to have been planned. | REUTERS/Mike Blake

FORT WORTH (Texas) – That liberal pundits respond to human tragedies like the mass shooting in San Bernardino by wagging their fingers at God and the assemblage of cold steel parts used by the terrorists to kill is no surprise.

In fact, I expect people who have not grown up around firearms to respond to a mass shooting just as the New York Daily News did – by assuming that removing certain weapons (such as semi-automatic rifles) from the market will mitigate the number of casualties or even stop future killings. In other words, if society removes the tools, the "trade" will die.

For that reason, the Daily News has suggested that we stop offering thoughts and prayers for the victims of this most recent act of terror and get busy working on legislation to ban guns for good; never mind that those guns in the hands of the citizenry protect the tabloid's right to write what it wishes.

Americans have in the past attempted to ban numerous "instruments of sin," but have always found that such bans do not work where there is a market for an item. The devil's gain only increases as black markets develop, criminal organizations rise and killings, as a means of protecting territory, multiply.

Where a product is taboo, it is secretly desired and surreptitiously obtained; and on each failed initiative, the lesson is driven home again that it is not what is outside of a man that defiles him and fills his heart with rage, malice, envy, drunkenness and strife. It is his heart that makes him sin.

Think of the era of Prohibition, when Americans were not only introduced to illegal Canadian hooch and bathtub gin, but to gangsters with Chicago typewriters (tommy guns). Think of the Controlled Substance Act and the rapid increase of drug trafficking, the rise of South American cartels, and the indiscriminate turf war killings that plagued Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. Think of the numerous local efforts to curtail prostitution in certain areas of America's largest cities. The prostitution never stopped. Johns just followed the prostitutes to a new location to purchase sex.

But this time with guns? Oh, this time, by all that is holy, we'll get it right. Enough is enough. We're going to get those guns and stop this epidemic of violence. And why will we be successful?

Because this time, we're going to follow the advice of the Daily News. No more prayer. This is a time for action — a time to make a clarion call to our congressional representatives and senators, write a letter to the president and launch social media campaigns. Above all, we shouldn't forget to hashtag our Starbucks cups.

As I said previously, it surprises me little when a rag like the Daily News proposes that people can't rely on a God who can't —or won't? — fix the problem of guns in America. It does, however, surprise and frustrate me when people who are supposed to rightly divide the Word of Truth end up twisting it to agree with those who do not believe what that Word commands in the first place.

Such was the case when Jonathan Merritt and Laura Turner wrote in separate commentaries at Religion News Service of the "problem with prayer" following shootings like the one in California.

Turner wrote that the assurances of prayer don't belong in the public space because to voice sympathy, concern and prayers is all for show — like the man who beat his breast in public prayer, but was seen as less in the eyes of Jesus than the man who wept in the corner for mercy from God. You can pray, Turner writes, but just do it in private. If you want to be publicly supportive of the victims, The Daily News Turner writes, start lobbying for gun control.

Merritt is less specific, but he, too, warns that if you only pray and do not act – presumably in line with the effort to tighten gun laws and restrict ownership? – then your prayers for the families of the slain and those wounded are just "useless piety."

Naturally, both Merritt and Turner anticipate the objection of those who might claim they are saying prayer doesn't work or isn't needed.

To be clear, I don't believe that is what Merritt or Turner are saying either. What they are saying is, yes, you should pray, but you should take action to force congressional hands to just do something, anything about guns. Strike whilst the iron is hot, as they say. That is the Christian thing to do.

If that is the case, however, why was this position on Scripture and social action completely unattended in their writings with respect to same-sex marriage, the Planned Parenthood aborted fetal body parts controversy or even illegal immigration? Why are choice, understanding and tolerance so passionately advocated in these circumstance instead of adherence to existing law, the natural order, and national sovereignty?

It seems to me when we who are conservative Christians put biblical positions into play on these matters, we are characterized as unloving, intolerant, and a pox upon the church. Now, if we don't act, we will be unloving, intolerant, and a pox upon the church.

You see, Mr. Merritt and Ms. Turner, there are millions of Americans – even Christians – who are around firearms every day and have no thought of using them for anything other than personal protection, recreation or hunting (although I suspect many also have them for fear of their government). They go to work, provide for their families, and go to church, the mosque or the synagogue without harming a soul. Even kind-hearted atheists walk around with concealed weapons daily and never think of shooting a soul — er, a person.

They all see no inconsistency in being a peaceful, loving individual who cares about other people and who also likes to to dump a few 30-round mags from an M-4 carbine at the range.

It isn't these well who need a physician, Mr. Merritt and Ms. Turner. It is the sick.

If you want to focus your efforts there, then so be it. Get busy putting your fingers to the keyboard. Contact your elected representative and suggest ways he or she can keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill.

But please, stop telling people that the Christian thing to do is to act for tighter gun control. As has been demonstrated amply in American history, restrictions and bans do not work and they only leave the innocent more vulnerable. They only strengthen the hand of those who can and will misuse them.

While you're working up your next exercises in flawed logic, I'd like for you to consider the following:

First, the Bible tells you not to murder. It does not tell you restrict your neighbor's ownership of pistol, rifle, sword, butcher knife, hatchet, ax, sling blade, baseball bat or brick – all weapons that have been used to murder when evil plies its trade in the human heart. 

Second, please cease and desist your commentary on what is or isn't appropriate for other people to say or pray. There is nothing wrong with telling others that you are interceding before the throne of grace for them. That isn't even prayer. It is a conveyance of an intention to pray, the voicing of concern, an expression of our common humanity, and simple Christian decency.

I saw this first hand during the days following the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting in September 1999 when my co-worker Shawn Brown was killed. I was at the funeral, watching with tears as hundreds gathered around Kathy Jo Brown to express to her what you both deem useless affections. We didn't have Twitter then, but I bet people from all over would have used it to express concern. 

Third, Jesus was concerned with people believing self-righteousness was a ticket to heaven. He repeatedly expressed frustration with the sanctimonious who misinterpreted or misapplied God's word. There is a certain way God expects us as Christians to act. You are right that this involves caring for the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The church has been doing that for 2,000 years. Where she needed correction, such as on the matter of race, the Lord brought it to His bride – but always through the application of the Gospel and change from within.

Finally, decide whether you believe Christians should be politically active or not. If you want them to be politically active, don't oppose them when they advocate biblical positions on the matters described earlier. And never presume that they should agree with you, especially when you're aligning yourselves with the same position as those who have no interest in God or his kingdom, or personal liberty in this our physical realm of existence.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.