The most inflammatory voices are always the loudest; this is a fact of our contemporary media landscape. Threaten to picket at the funeral of innocent children killed in cold blood and you’ll make national headlines. Suggest that these killings were the result of expelling God from the public school system, and you’ll get people’s attention.
These actual responses to the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — the first by the fully misguided Westboro Baptist Church gang and the second by former Arkansas governor turned inflammatory talking head Mike Huckabee — have, by their outrageous nature, become the loudest Christian responses to the tragedy. There are others of course, voices offering comfort amidst the violence, affirming humanity’s need for a savior, and reminding us of the darkness embedded in our own faith tradition, but they are lost in the clamorous din.
But there’s another voice, softer even than the others, crying out in response to the murder of innocents. It is a voice that reaches back far into church history, has its roots in the life and teachings of Jesus, and finds its ultimate exemplar in his death. That is, the Christian pacifist response.
Pacifism, particularly in the Christian context, is not synonymous with inaction — quite the opposite. Christian pacifism finds its mission in Jesus’ teaching that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And of course, the incredible stories emerging from the Newtown tragedy, the few rays of light amidst the overwhelming darkness, are those of the teachers who did just this — laid down their lives for their students.
And yet, some, including many Christians, claim that if the teachers were armed, they would have been able to prevent the evil that befell them. This claim is a disservice to the sacrifice that the teachers actually made, the sacrifice explained and then exemplified by Jesus. The Christian pacifist response is not a popular one, few voices commend it, but in practice, it is the one that worked. Lives were saved because others sacrificed.
But beyond the ultimate sacrifice of the moment, what does a Christian pacifist response look like going forward? What role can it play in preventing further tragedies?
Obviously, sacrificing one’s life to save another is a worst case scenario. It is the action taken when all else fails, when the world that Christians hope to create — a peaceful Kingdom of God on earth — fails to materialize as it so often does. But that doesn’t mean that we stop working to create that world. Here we look to examples of what Jesus suggests the Kingdom will be like. The Sermon on the Mount gives us an idea of what we should be striving for: a world that offers hope to the poor, food to the hungry, joy for those who weep. It is a world in which we do not repay evil with evil, in which those who are without clothes are clothed, mercy reigns over judgment, and enemies are loved and prayed for. In the peaceable kingdom, we treat others as we would like to be treated.
These are lofty goals of course, and the most pragmatic among us — even the most pragmatic Christians — often look for ways around these hard commands. But the Christian pacifist acknowledges that without an effort to put the world into this order, the only option is the last one, to lay down one’s life for another, as we saw in Newtown. In many ways it was a failure to bring about the peaceable kingdom that accounted for the murderous actions of a broken person. Perhaps, had he been loved and provided for, shown mercy instead of judgment, had he had been offered hope, this tragedy could have been prevented.
Count me among those crying out for stricter gun laws and more comprehensive care for the mentally unstable — to the extent that we can model Kingdom values in our laws, I pray we do — but I also know that this can only take us so far. The Kingdom of God can’t be legislated onto earth. What will take us the rest of the way are the efforts of individuals to bring about peace on earth. If rather than pointing fingers of blame or wishing for God’s judgment, those of us who are Christians attempted to live as if the kingdom to come was here already, I believe we could prevent future tragedies.
The voice of the Christian pacifist is a quiet one, a patient one. Rather than make grand pronouncements, it sets itself to the work at hand. It speaks love, mercy, and hope, and, when all else fails, it makes the ultimate sacrifice — the kind of sacrifice that the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary school made last Friday, the same sacrifice that Jesus made on another dark Friday, two millennia ago.
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