People of faith around America, stunned by the slaughter of more than two dozen people at a tight-knit church in Texas, are struggling to find answers this week. Whether they live in the deep red Bible Belt or the deep blue Puget Sound region, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim, they seek words of consolation and protection — a measure of security to cling to in this unpredictable time.
These are dark days when mass shooters hold nothing sacred. Not even people gathered peacefully to worship on a Sunday morning. Not even the lives of 18-month-old babies.
Some might find an applicable prayer by turning to the Old Testament and reading the opening verses of Psalm 59: “Deliver me from those who do iniquity. And save me from men of bloodshed. For behold, they have set an ambush for my life. Fierce men launch an attack against me.”
By all rights, churches should be among the last places where fierce men of bloodshed would launch an attack. They are centers of solidarity and confluences of reconciliation; they are places where people set aside differences and join hearts to mourn other national tragedies.
In Tacoma, people held vigil in 2012 at Destiny City Church for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. They came together last year at Life Center church after a gunman’s rampage at a gay nightclub in Florida, and again after a series of deadly encounters between police officers and black men around the country.
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But the hope that houses of God are safe spaces was exposed as myth long ago, chipped away with every synagogue burned by Nazis under Adolf Hitler and every Shiite mosque attacked by Islamic State militants today. Any illusions of security in U.S. churches were blown up with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and shot up in the Charleston, South Carolina, church carnage in 2015.
In Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church has a glass sculpture in the entryway commemorating the nine people murdered at its sister church in Charleston two years ago. It’s a reminder that American houses of worship are vulnerable to attack in what Rev. Anthony Steele calls outbursts of domestic terrorism.
“When people stop going to church because they are terrified, then you have terrorism,” Steele told KING-5 this week.
Steele said he and other pastors are sharing notes and attending conferences to enhance safety measures. They can take reasonable precautions, as Allen AME does, such as asking visitors to sign in and drop off large bags before entering the sanctuary.
But heaven help us if we ever reach the point where metal detectors are installed at our church doors.
As a virtuous response to violence, people of faith in Tacoma and beyond must continue to press for social change, including gun control and mental health reform. And yes, religious leaders should care for their flocks by making them feel as safe as possible.
But the church, synagogues and mosques of America will have lost their way — and we dare say, their soul — if they put up barriers that reduce help to those who need it most: the stranger, the sick, the lost and lonely, the broken-hearted and bedeviled. In short, the outsider who might be desperate enough to resort to violence, but is more likely to be saved by grace.
“Truly I say to you,” Jesus is recorded saying in the Gospel of Matthew, “as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”
If you’re looking for a scriptural passage with answers, one on which to build a fearless 21st century church, you can’t do better than that.