Violent crime and political extremism have become an unfortunate part of the American experience. The heartache endured by countless families and communities is enough to dull one’s senses—or, alternatively, to consume one with rage. And the more the American Right and Left bicker with one another about who is to blame for the malaise which afflicts rural and urban centers alike, the more rage seems to be the appropriate reaction.
While it is true the church is just as imperiled as most of the other institutions which are supposed to form American civic life, I am still convinced we can—and must—play a vital role in helping our culture become one which values human life. Indeed, we must do so, for if we fail, the maladies of our present (e.g., abortion) will be joined by more avenues for denying human dignity (e.g., active euthanasia).
What We Are Not Talking About
Before we can engage the task of cultivating a culture which values life, we need to point out what we are not talking about. We are not talking about the elimination of capital punishment. When God instituted this penalty in Genesis 9:1-7 (see my sermon on this text), it was as a direct response to the violence which had corrupted creation before the flood. It was not a relic of a covenant made with a specific ethnic group. It was a central feature of the covenant God made with humanity.
One might rightly wonder whether it was wise to put this responsibility into human hands. History is replete with examples of potentates who used capital punishment for all manners of evil. Even when that has not been the case, it is now abundantly clear that humans lack the impartiality and the wisdom to do justice well. But the text of Genesis indicates God did this precisely because (and not in spite of) the fact that we bear His image. Whether we like it or not, part of being human means addressing forcefully the violence that we perpetrate against one another. And if we are not going to use capital punishment—and use it without bias against ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised peoples—then we had better come up with an acceptable substitute.
Likewise, valuing life does not necessarily mean warring against “gun culture.” As far as I know, my father has never supported a gun control measure in his life, and he taught me to shoot from the time I was very small. But he also taught me gun safety. He took everything he learned from his father, and especially from the Air Force, and poured it into me. Where did his lessons begin? They began with a profound appreciation for the value of all life and a deep respect for the power of a gun.
For my father, a gun is a tool, not a toy. And my wife had the same experience with her father. We feel very blessed that our dads cared enough to teach us about firearms, and especially to insist that we always handle them with respect for the gun, respect for those around us, and respect for ourselves.
There is, however, an unhealthy “gun culture” the church needs to confront. Some aspects of America’s fascination with guns border on idolatry, and they seem to flow out of the delusion that we can manipulate every circumstance of our lives for our benefit. Even among people who worship the crucified Messiah, there seems to be a belief that we can respond to the forces of violence with violence and somehow come out unscathed by the darkness for whom violence is essential to its nature (cf. John 8:44). There seems to be a denial, bordering on the pathological, of the reality that we all must die in order to live with Christ—and that is true even in my own heart.
What We Are Talking About
If we aren’t talking about banning capital punishment or taking away people’s guns, what are we talking about? What does it mean to be a culture which values life, and how do we get there?
Frankly, I haven’t figured all of that out yet. But I think it begins with the note that Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder strike over and over again in their book Rare Leadership. They repeatedly insist we must learn to value people above problems—and not just in our lives as leaders. In order to follow Jesus, we must care more about the person than we do about the problems he or she causes for us.
That may sound trite, but it is a radical claim in our current context. Whether it be the unborn or the aged, society (especially in Canada and parts of Western Europe) often evaluates a person’s worth by the effort it will take to provide them with a wholesome life. If a child isn’t wanted, some will argue, it should be aborted rather than being left as a ward of the state. If an older person faces crippling pain or deteriorating health, perhaps, it is argued, they should simply off themselves and save the rest of us the aggravation of dealing with them.
But these aren’t simply the reactions of a society wrestling with complex moral, legal, and economic issues. There are calculations which drive much of the violence we see in our streets and our homes. We live in a world full of narcissists, people who care only about what benefits them at the moment. And they will end another person’s life, and potentially destroy their own, to get what they want.
It also seems to me that we in the church must rediscover Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). As many commentators have noted, America’s political combatants have become skilled at the rhetoric of ideological warfare. They have figured out just how to dehumanize their opponents in the eyes of whoever they construe to be their in-group. That rhetoric permeates nearly every quarter of our society, from the lowest and most violent street gangs to the supposedly most revered political institutions.
We, as Christians, have too often participated in this unhealthy civic phenomenon. Honestly, it is hard not to do. After all, we live in a society that is more pluralistic, in terms of the almost visceral values that motivate human social behavior, than any other in human history. We genuinely disagree with one another about nearly every important question humans have discussed. And it is difficult to see how our society can endure under such circumstances.
Nevertheless, we must remember that Jesus did not kill his enemies. He could have done so, and he will do so one day. But, when he lived among us, he did so as one who served his enemies. That doesn’t just mean giving water to the LGBTQ activists that protest our church. It means treating people as serious interlocutors, even when they do not deserve such treatment. Loving our enemies does not mean being naïve; not everyone is an honest actor. But it does mean treating them as people—something, I confess, I have not always done.
I still have much to learn and don’t know where this journey will lead. But it is a journey we all must take if we are going to be the body of Christ in this angry, lonely, and violent generation.