Jonathan Malesic May 10, 2018
National Rifle Association member Jim Whelan, center, talks with protester David Lyles, right, outside the NRA Annual Meeting on May 4 in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)National Rifle Association member Jim Whelan, center, talks with protester David Lyles, right, outside the NRA Annual Meeting on May 4 in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

At noon on the Saturday of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas, the Rev. Holly Bandel sat under a pop-up tent on City Hall Plaza, a white stole over her patterned blouse, and prepared to lead a prayer for the victims of gun violence.

The N.R.A. drew an estimated 80,000 members to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in early May. For as long as the annual meeting was in session, so was the vigil on the nearby plaza, with numbers ranging from a few to a few dozen throughout the weekend.

Ms. Bandel, a United Methodist minister and member of Faith Forward Dallas, lit a tall white candle and placed it on the concrete in the middle of a circle of folding chairs. The candle would not stay lit in the breeze. Someone fired up a generator to power the sound system. About a dozen others, including clergy and community organizers, joined Ms. Bandel as she sat down, picked up a microphone and began the prayer.

“Blessed be God, the source of all being.”

Just then, the first few of about a hundred gun-rights demonstrators walked past the tent. Most were carrying rifles or holstered pistols. Some had both. One young man with his hair in a taut ponytail carried a long gun on his back and the Gonzales Flag—a star, a cannon and the words “Come and Take It”—on a pole in his hand.

The service continued: “Gracious and loving God, we ask that you liberate us from the sin of gun violence.” By the time Ms. Bandel handed out cut-paper hearts to the prayer circle, the gun-rights group had unfurled a 10-foot banner reproducing the Gonzales Flag, but with its 19th-century cannon replaced by an Model 82A1 .50-caliber rifle.

Our gun debate in the United States isn’t just political—it’s theological. In Dallas, it seemed that we are two nations divided by a common scripture.

“God is a God of peace, not a God of violence,” said D. Scott Cooper, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a member of Faith Forward who attended the vigil. But some attendees at the N.R.A. meeting saw a call for Christians to arm themselves. John Smithbaker is the C.E.O. of Fathers in the Field, a ministry that pairs fatherless boys with men who pledge to mentor them through outdoor activities, including hunting. He recalled Jesus telling his disciples, late in Luke’s gospel, to acquire swords. “Being meek does not mean being weak,” Mr. Smithbaker said.

Some attendees at the N.R.A. meeting saw a call for Christians to arm themselves: “Being meek does not mean being weak.”

On the day before Ms. Bandel led the prayer service, members of Faith Forward gathered under the tent protecting them from a light drizzle. “The one thing we all share together is belief in the power of prayer and preservation of life,” said Deanna Hollas, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Several members of Faith Forward mentioned that they had guns in their homes, but Mike Gregg, pastor of a Baptist church, said he is concerned with the kinds of weapons readily available to Americans. “Weapons that aren’t used for anything besides death,” he said.

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Linda Abramson Evans, who is Jewish, is a member of the Thanks-Giving Square Interfaith Council, the umbrella organization that includes Faith Forward. She said the group’s goal was not to protest the Second Amendment but to use prayer to motivate political action that will reduce gun violence and repair the world, according to the principle of tikkun olam. “We are not to stand by and do nothing,” she said.

Religious advocates of gun rights say they are also moved to action.

“Standing by and letting the innocent be harmed or abused is not standing up for righteousness,” said Mr. Smithbaker. He sees being ready to confront dangerous threats as an outgrowth of neighborly love, most fully expressed in the willingness to lay down one’s life for a friend.

The pastor of a Baptist church said he is concerned with the kinds of weapons readily available to Americans: “Weapons that aren’t used for anything besides death.”

Fathers in the Field hosted a prayer breakfast for 1,300 people on the Sunday morning of the convention. The keynote speaker was Col. Oliver North, who was announced as the N.R.A.’s new president the next day.

Before Mr. North spoke, former major-league baseball player Adam LaRoche stood at the podium, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Jesus loves me and my guns.” Mr. LaRoche spoke about the virtues of humility and devotion to family, but his Christology was unapologetically militant. He cited Jesus’ statement that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. “Jesus was, is, and always will be a badass,” he said.

After the prayer service early Saturday afternoon, Ms. Bandel reflected on the moment when the N.R.A. members walked past her tent. “Gosh! You could just feel the tension in the air,” she said. But she said Faith Forward members hoped they could dialogue with N.R.A. members. “We probably want some of the same things,” she said.

Gerald Cantrell was among a few gun-rights advocates who approached the tent. He wore the leather vest for the Sons of Thunder, a Christian motorcycle club named after the apostles James and John. The patch on his back read “No Fear of Death.”

“I heard y’all praying, and my heart went out to you,” Mr. Cantrell said. He calls himself a “sheepdog,” or a trained defender of the innocent against harm.

“When these are beat into ploughshares,” Mr. Cantrell said, gesturing to the Glock 17 tucked in a holster under his belt, “I will shout with joy.” He was apparently referring to the Second Coming of Christ, when, he said, there will be “no more tears, no more violence, and no more weaponry.”

Until then, Mr. Cantrell said, he is ready to meet evil with force if necessary. Like Mr. Smithbaker, he cited Jesus’ teaching on self-sacrificial love. Because God has promised salvation to believers, he said, “Christians should be the bravest men.”

But Mr. Cooper, the Unitarian Universalist minister, sees no biblical injunction to armed bravery. To his eyes, it is a false version of Christianity that idolizes weapons and feeds on fear. Mr. Cooper also argued that arming more citizens does more harm than good. “The chances of you protecting your family and being able to thwart evil are statistically much less than those of an innocent person being hurt,” he said.

Two hours after the gun-rights demonstrators walked past the tent, the Rev. Erin Wyma, a United Church of Christ minister, asked, “Anyone want to pray?” The generator fired up again, and she read the names of gun-violence victims in Texas. “Jonathan Vackar, Joshua Wood....” Candles, flowers and teddy bears sat in front of a posterboard memorial, which the wind kept threatening to blow away. “Karissa Flores, Jose Salazar….”

A hundred feet away, a young man wearing a black suit and tie, with a black cowboy hat and boots, started speaking through a bullhorn, rallying gun-rights advocates to demonstrate against a gun-control assembly in a downtown park. When he left, many of the people carrying their rifles and flags followed him.

The plaza grew quieter. Ms. Wyma’s voice carried over the lingering conversations. “Joe Andy Cardenas, Harriet Deison, Terry Taylor….” And on, and on.

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Ian Cooper
3 years ago

“God is a God of peace, not a God of violence,” said D. Scott Cooper, a Unitarian Universalist minister...

Are you serious? Tell that to the millions your god supposedly killed in a global flood. Tell it to the firstborn of Egypt. Tell it to Lot's wife. Tell it to Job's family. Tell it to Jephthah's daughter. Tell it to the Amalekites and those who dwelt in the land of Canaan before God ordered the Israelites to put them to the sword, to kill every living thing and to take the virgin women and girls as sex slaves. I mean, don't you Christians even read your Bible? The idea that the Judeo-Christian god is a god of peace is so wildly off-base, it's laughable.

James Haraldson
3 years ago

There is nothing non-peaceful in God's order in God's own time ultimately about death. Come back when you grow up.

Christopher Lochner
3 years ago

I'm always amused when the prayer is to spare us from gun violence. It's almost like someone in the back should ask , " What about knives, car bombs, mass muder through suicide (airplane method), baseball bats, domestic violence?" And the answer, " Long as it's not guns and my preacher-glory is magnified them I'm good with it, ummm, where are the cameras???" I wonder what the souls who were killed by other means and who were left off of the name list think? Oh, right, not part of the agenda, they're irrelevant.

Rosemari Zagarri Prof
3 years ago

In truth, the prayer is for peace and a relief from all forms of violence. But just as protesters at an abortion clinic pray for an end to abortion--not, say for an end to euthanasia--protesters at an NRA rally pray for an end to gun violence.

Christopher Lochner
3 years ago

You're correct. And sorry to pull out the "when I was young" meme but we used to hitchhike to school and...nobody felt unsafe while backpacking. Now, some backpackers carry guns, not because they are enamored of firearms, but due to the perception of a general breakdown in American society and the rise of rampant violence. Is not road rage a relatively recent development? Were our cities always this violent? Old timers tell of disputes settled by a broken nose while now one has to get even and kill. Guns make it easier to increase the numbers in any one and horrible action but the "culture of death" in many and varied forms still exists. A soul killed by a gun vs. a knife cares neither one way nor another. The question is: Why all of the murderous rage??? The sin is deep and complex I fear.

Tim Donovan
2 years 12 months ago

Well said. While I commend the efforts of Fathers in the Field, men who mentor fatherless boys through outdoor activities, including hunting, I believe that while Jesus was true God and true man who exercised great power, that as the Prince of Peace, that He preferred using His teachings to boldly proclaim the way of peace. I agree that people kill others not only with guns but by other means. However, I believe that far more people are killed by gun violence than by people killing other people by knives or cars. I do support the right to own a handgun and use it for legitimate self-defense. However, I recall reading some time ago in the Washington Post (I apologize for not recalling the date) that when a person has a gun in his or her house, that if it isn't safely locked up, that minors (including not only adolescents but children) many times get a hold of the gun and either accidentally shoot and injure or kill somebody, or deliberately use a gun to cause violence due to bigotry or fear of those who are "different," or in some cases because of mental illness. Perhaps I'm fortunate that I 'be never felt the need for a gun, although I live in a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as near a city where most of the murders occur each year in our county. I feel strongly about the need for stringent gun control. When my Dad died, I discovered a handgun in his bank safety deposit box. I immediately turned the gun into my local police department. I agree that it was appropriate for the people to pray for peace and a reduction in gun violence. I might add in conclusion, that while I oppose the deliberate killing of people by capital punishment, I have when peacefully protesting abortion have never publicly expressed my views, but have both held them in my heart, as well as discussed my beliefs with others and written letters to newspapers.

James Haraldson
3 years ago

How do I know that all of the “religious” haters of gun people were not talking about actual causes of wonton gun violence: fatherless families; an abortion culture; a divorce culture; moral nihilism, especially when promoted by religious liberals; religious practices that refuse to mention the word sin anymore; the stupidity of I’m OK, You’re OK pop psychology; the endless carping that it’s government’s job to fix all our problems; a depraved entertainment culture; a lying news media; and the refusal to monitor the indoctrination of young people to accept false ideas that don’t distinguish between autonomous self-respect and moral license in school guidance curriculums.

Ellen B
3 years ago

You left one out... guns.

Christopher Lochner
3 years ago

BTW Breaking headline from the Washington Post: ""Two teens made a suicde pact. But first they wanted to 'see how it feels to kill' ". Obviously, disaffected and alienated youth are a huge problem. Witness the rise of violent gangs. The problem runs deep and simple platitudes will neither fix nor construct a meaningful directive towards solution. People may hate the NRA but I really haven't heard of too many murderous NRA members. In Baltimore, an attempt to impose severe penalties on criminals using handguns didn't pass as local delegates believed it would adversely affect their constituents. You can't make this stuff up!!! I wish it WAS an "Onion" piece.

Curt Brackenrich
3 years ago

I'm surprised to see this site push so many articles that are clearly slanted in one direction politically. I came here as a Lutheran looking for a Catholic view on the way we interact with God and the state of religion in modern America. Instead I find more articles than I'm comfy with bashing Trump, conservatives, and now gun owners.

No, it's not as blatant or "in your face" as HuffPo or The Atlantic, but the slant is just as obvious, and sadly the minds are just as closed as authors from those left-leaning political sites. I'm disappointed, I came here for something very different than earthly politics, that can be found anywhere. I think you're doing a disservice to your readers and missing a chance to touch somebody by pushing this viewpoint.

Mike Theman
3 years ago

Hi, this is a Jesuit site, which technically means "Catholic." but it's a sect whose beliefs are not only far left but in many ways are anti-Catholic, seeking to make Catholicism more like Protestantism. IF you want a traditional Catholic perspective, maybe try National Catholic Register or even Church Militant.

David Blyth
3 years ago

Firearms are simply resources which may be used for good or evil just as knives, bats, etc.
The key concern is the values of the people.
Owners of firearms and other resources can be a force for good, practise sport, etc.
Unfortunately emotion confuses many.
This article has not offered any guidance or solutions.

Stanley Kopacz
3 years ago

You're comparing bats, knives, etc. to a semi-automatic rifle? We therefore could save a lot of taxpayer's money by sending our troops into battle with bats and knives.

Dolores Pap
3 years ago

Great article, Jonathan! I am really hopeful that with the help of our young people who seem so concerned with gun violence in society and are willing to go out and demonstrate for a safer future for all of us, that we can get a handle on the proliferation of guns, esp those horrendous AR-15 killing machines.

Ellen B
3 years ago

"Jesus then said, "Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword."

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