I was guided into my office where I was greeted by an FBI agent and a Sergeant from the city police department. “Aaron, you should sit down for this.”
I sheepishly sat down, hands trembling, palms sweating, I held my breath. “The threats are credible,” they told me with a mixture of seriousness and compassion. “We’re here to protect you and the congregation.”
Just a week before, my house had been broken into while we were away–later described as an intimidation tactic. Members of our congregation had received numerous threats, and orders of protection were issued for the church, my home, and the homes of a couple of our elders. A whirlwind of events occurring just after his felony gun charge was somehow dismissed and he was released from custody. The “he” in this story wasn’t just some random stranger, we all knew him, respected him, trusted him, loved him. He wasn’t some crazy random stranger.
I sat in silence as my mind wandered into the abyss of numb nothingness.
“Aaron,” the FBI agent said to recapture my attention. He leaned in and looked me square in the eyes with more confidence and seriousness than I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes, “I want you to know that you’re safe. If he comes into the building and he doesn’t stand down…” he paused to laser focus his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”
My eyes grew big as the gravity of his statement rang long and hung heavy in the air:
“I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. The tension in the room grew unbelievably thick and painfully uncomfortable. Everything blurred and it felt like the room was spinning. My mouth dropped as if to say something, anything, but I was at a complete loss. There were no words, no sounds, no breath, only shock.
With a wink and a head nod he blurted out, “Now go get ’em preacher!”
Go get ’em?
“Go get ’em?!”
I guess this was an attempt to cut through the tension, to bring about some sort of levity, maybe some normalcy to the Sunday experience. The officers stood up to walk out of my office, we shook hands, and I stood there staring at the door… the same door that only a few weeks before served as my only protection when he came into the building and threatened me. I wanted to curl up into a ball in the corner. I wanted to cry. I was desperate for some sort of emotional response, but nothing came. The overwhelming stress and life altering fear of these previous weeks had robbed me of every last emotion possible. I was empty.
I took seven long steps to the top of the stage that morning, and with each step I felt more and more vulnerable, more and more exposed. I never realized just how high the stage was until that moment, my feet well above the tops of everyone’s head. I tried to make myself as small as possible, my only protection being the thin flimsy metal music stand and three pieces of paper containing my notes. ‘Surely this will shield me,’ I reassured (lied to) myself.
I scanned the three exits in the back of the auditorium wondering from which one he was more likely to emerge. “Hopefully the middle one,” I thought as I saw the FBI agent standing there faithfully and confidently on guard. I gathered as much confidence and courage that I could muster, looked at the nearly 400 faces staring back at me, inhaled deeply, and began.
Aaron, get your gun!
“You know, if you had a gun up there with you in the pulpit, things would have been different,” pastors and Christians have scolded me. “If your congregation had been armed,” they said, “he never would have thought of showing up in this ‘gun-free zone!'” “It is your responsibility to protect your flock, how could you not have armed yourself to take him down? How could you not tell your congregation to arm themselves? How could you have led them like sheep to the slaughter?” each statement overflowing with chastisement, rebuke, and reprimand as they penetrated my heart deeper and deeper.
I absorbed these criticisms, I allowed them to shred my heart and pick apart my soul; I was overcome with guilt. “These people trust me to shepherd them, to protect them, to care for them… why didn’t I have a gun?” I wrestled long and hard with these thoughts and allowed guilt to be my guide.
It is no secret that I do not like guns nor am I a fan of the current gun culture in America. However, that wasn’t always the case. As I stood on that stage 10 years ago, I took great comfort in having an FBI agent standing guard with a gun at his hip. While I was fearful of his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head,” they were, in some strange way, comforting. Five years before with a group of Quakers (read pacifists) in the mountains of California I learned how to shoot a gun (ironic, I know). I learned the ways of the shotgun and the ways of a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. I was actually a pretty good shot (probably from years and countless hours of Duck Hunt!) I was comfortable with guns. However, as I worked through the words of Jesus, the Old Testament narratives, the Psalms–even the imprecatory Psalms, searching for answers, allowing Scripture to form my understanding, more and more my perspective on guns changed. I changed.
While all of these criticisms that were levied against me were well-meaning, asking me to consider my own self-preservation and the protection of others under my care, ultimately these pragmatic ideas missed the mark by failing to take into account what these types of actions do to our soul.
The soul, according to Dallas Willard is that which encompasses and organizes the whole person, it is the entirety of the self (the heart–or will, the mind, the body), forming one person functioning in a flow of life. Often times we like to think of the soul as a mere component of our being, an element, an aspect of who we are. But the soul is who we are.* So when someone talks of soul formation, they are speaking not of some purely mystical experience that affects one aspect of who you are but rather of a holistic experience that affects every aspect of your being—which is a way of saying your soul affects everything and everything affects your soul.
As a pastor my role is fairly clear, to guide people into a transformative relationship with Jesus. This is soul work. It is much deeper than a simple introduction to Jesus but rather the careful and intentional transformation of your soul (your entire being) into the image and likeness of Jesus. Theologically speaking this is called Theosis, or a union with Jesus (God)**.
Soul work is not about actions or behavior modification, those are the fruits of soul work, of the transformative work that is done in the very depths of your being that affect the flow or output of your life. Often times we simply want to look at our actions, at the question “What would Jesus do?”–which can be a valuable exercise–yet we miss the deeper work that is necessary in becoming like Jesus. This requires that we first understand who Jesus is–which is a long-term process birthed out of relationship–because we cannot become like Jesus without first understanding who he is: otherwise, we are simply putting on a veneer of actions and behaviors that are incongruent with our being (Matthew 23).
So, who is Jesus?
Answering this question is something that you have to investigate/discover/experience for yourself, Scripture speaks of Jesus as God, as the source of all life (Colossians 1). I love how Jesus contrasts himself in John 10: “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they may have life!” Jesus, the source of life, the giver of life, the bread of life, stands in opposition to death, in opposition to destruction.
Each one of us has the capacity within us to do great good or great evil, to give life or to take life. And as I wrestled with the questions before me, I understood that ultimately this is a heart issue at play. However, the tired old adage: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” falls short. We have the tools at our disposal to take life, to destroy life, and the question is should we who are being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus employ those tools?
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul says that everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. And maybe that’s why Jesus allowed some of his disciples to walk around with weapons, it was permissible. But the moment Peter deployed his weapon, using it in self-defense and in the defense of Jesus, he was rebuked for his actions. Jesus was stern with Peter for using a weapon and then he healed the man’s ear. It’s interesting to note here that in all of the recorded history of the Apostles, not one of them used a weapon in self-defense when they were later captured and killed, many with their families. They never used a weapon to defend themselves or their families. Tertullian remarked, “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every [Christian]…. The Lord has abolished the sword.” This episode of Peter’s rebuke changed everything in regards to armed Christians. It goes on that the employ of weaponry or weapons of war in the early church for any reason was forbidden. St. Athanasius would say nearly a century later as a forgone conclusion, “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.” This was the weapon of the church: Prayer. All through a transformative encounter with Jesus.
Understanding Jesus changes you, it changes your perspective, your outlook, your understanding. And if Jesus is life, and if we are to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus, the question then becomes: Can a gun do that? If I am supposed to be transformed into the image of Jesus, if I am supposed to be like Jesus, can I do that through the barrel of a gun? Does a gun bring life?
The purpose of a gun
The purpose of a gun is plain: to kill, injure, or destroy. While we might want to say that guns are there to protect and save life, the reality is that the only way a gun protects and saves is through killing, injuring, or destroying life in the other (or through the threat of killing, injury, or destruction). In fact, in using a gun for self-protection/preservation you are trained and encouraged, “Shoot to kill!” In this, the purpose of a gun stands opposed to the very being of Jesus. And ultimately, regardless of the situation, a gun in my hands makes me less like Jesus.
I did not have a gun.
I finished my message. It was all a blur. As I walked off the stage my hands were still trembling and sweating from the fear.
He never walked through those doors. He never showed up.
The most frequent command, or as N. T. Wright puts it, “the most surprising command” in all of Scripture is this: “Fear not!” I experienced fear that morning. I experienced fear that week. I experienced a deep seeded fear throughout that season. You see, fear is a belief; it is a belief based upon the anticipation of evil. A belief that evil will strike at any moment. Yet we are commanded: Don’t anticipate evil, don’t expect evil to happen.
And I know we so quickly want to say, “But, wait! Hold on now, evil is all around us. It’s encircling us, it’s right there on our doorstep just waiting to pounce!” I know some of us have had direct experiences with evil, many in ways not all that dissimilar from mine: we’ve been threatened, terrorized, some of you have been beaten, abused, mugged, and I know it has changed us. We have tasted fear up close and we never want to go back there again. We want to take control. We want something tangible in our hands that can give us a sense of safety, of security.
But in doing so, by carrying a gun, are we not living in anticipation that it’s going to happen again?
Are we not living in anticipation of evil?
Are we not being prepared for evil to strike?
Because if you’re not expecting or anticipating evil, then why have a gun?
“Fear not!” is not just a command, but it’s a dream that I believe God has for our lives. He doesn’t want us to have to live that way. You don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to live in fear, in anticipation that evil will strike at any moment. We can walk away from fear—which is becoming increasingly harder to do as our current American society and culture entrenches itself deeper and deeper into fear.
Dallas Willard once remarked, “As we mature in Christ, it is actually possible to outgrow fear.” A different reality is possible when we drop our weapons of fear and instead turn into the God of peace and love and life. It is my hope and prayer that the I will continue to outgrow fear, and that my Christian brothers and sisters will do the same.
“Come, my children, listen closely;
I will teach you the ways of worshipping the LORD….
Turn from evil and do good;
embrace peace–don’t let it get away!”
Psalm 34.11, 14
* In fact, I might argue that if we are going to accept Willard’s understanding of the soul we need to drop the definitive article in front of soul and stop referring to it as “the” soul. By doing so we are making soul something other, something separate, extracting it from the self, changing its nature to something elemental, when in fact “soul” is you’re entire being.
** Michael Gorman has written a fantastic book around Theosis that I’d highly recommend.