What Do We Do With Sutherland Springs?

by Gary Mitchell and Brent Bever

Love your enemies, yes. However, when churches are physically attacked, what should our response be? What if the violence of Sutherland Springs, Texas comes to our door?

Sometimes it feels like this country is determined to find yet another difficult issue that divides us. Can we agree on anything? Do more guns in the hands of good citizens solve the problem?  How exactly should we “love our enemies” in a violent situation?  Should we use force to protect?

Several years ago, as part of a membership class, we were sitting around the living room with about 12 people who’d been part of a weekly Life Group. We had decided that these people would be wonderful additions to our church. And what better setting to conduct a membership class than in the same living room we’d been in for the past year, devoting ourselves to the Word of God. But then, in week three of the membership teaching, the subject of “peace” came up. Within a month we learned that not only would two couples not become members of our church, but three people would choose to leave the church altogether. One was a military man, with a 30-year career. The other was a firm believer in second amendment rights, and a holder of a “concealed carry” permit. They were gone, and they didn’t really want to talk about it. Sadly, this wasn’t some isolated incident in one membership class.

I (Gary) remember having real difficulty with this issue myself. I too had been in the military. I would ask, “Who is going to stop the ‘Hitlers’ of the world? And what in the world is wrong with forcefully protecting my wife and family from an intruder?”

And then November 5, 2017 brought us the shootings at Sutherland Springs. Twenty-six dead. Surely there could have been a better result if only. . .

We have at our core a value of “peace.” We say we “value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.” What then should be our response? And by the way, please give your answer to the families in Sutherland Springs.

I wasn’t there when Jesus told Peter to put his sword away. And I don’t know why Jesus didn’t have a concealed weapon. He did, after all, know they were coming to take him to the cross. Wouldn’t it have been better for a few soldiers to die for their country that day? What was Jesus thinking?

Well, he responded to the situation by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).

In Matthew we get more information, when Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matt.5:38-47)

In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“

And in Luke 6:27, he says, “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Paul writes:

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:17-21).

Yes, yes, we say. But who is then going to punish these evil people? And how do we solve the problem of evil regimes, like Hitler’s? What should believers do about that?

The answer to that, I believe, is also in Romans. Right after it says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” just a hundred words later, Paul tells us that there are to be governing authorities, established by God, to bring punishment to the wrongdoer:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:1-4).

Does that seem acceptable to you?  Peace and reconciliation for us, loving our neighbors and our enemies, and trusting the governing authorities to bring punishment to the wrongdoer? Can I trust in that when my family or my church family are being threatened? Can I confront an armed intruder with just that?  The Word of God?

We believe that yes, we can. And we must. People need to be reminded that there is another, better reality at work—God.

When the tragedy happened in Sutherland Springs, we set out to write a new church policy, recognizing that it may seem weak and foolish to some.

What do we do? We know we want to be intelligent about it. We want to be smart. And we want to follow Jesus’ teachings, no matter where that leads us. Even if obedience leads us to death.

So, at our church we will employ nonviolent strategies.

  • We will be vigilant, knowing that about 85 percent of the time, the perpetrator tells one person. Sixty-six percent of the time the perpetrator tells two people.
  • We will report suspicious behaviors.
  • We will use security cameras.
  • We will lock doors, close blinds, turn out lights.
  • We will call 911.
  • We will make ourselves difficult targets.
  • We will run.
  • We will use any objects as distraction devices—chairs, books, objects thrown from the balcony.
  • We will spread out.
  • We will cause confusion for the intruder.
  • We will evacuate.

We recognize that our state allows its citizens to have, and conceal, weapons. Although we are allowed to post signs on the church property prohibiting the use of firearms, we do not post such signs. We will allow everyone to follow their own consciences with regard to carrying and using weapons. And we will be there to help them deal with the aftermath of those decisions. As followers of Jesus Christ, we will stick to our values. We are a church that pursues peace. We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict, for the offender and victim alike.

We will follow Jesus. We value whole- hearted obedience to Christ Jesus through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

We belong to the community of faith. We value integrity in relationships and mutual accountability in an atmosphere of grace, love, and acceptance. No matter what. We will let the chips fall where they may.

We will not be defined otherwise by a violent event. And we will embrace the victims and perpetrators alike, recognizing that in the Cross, Jesus did the same thing for us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Gary Mitchell is board chair and director of administration and Brett Bever is the pastor at New Vision Brethren in Christ Church, Pewaukee, WI. This article is reprinted from the Winter 2018 edition of Shalom!