As a Christian, I think its vital that we are honest about the way religion can often uphold and underpin injustice.
Whilst its good to be inspired by the great faith-inspired social movements – like the battles against the slave trade, the civil rights movement or the fight against apartheid in South Africa – we cannot forget that Christianity has been deployed on both sides of these battles. As well as being a key driver for change it has also the upholder of the status quo.
Sure, leaders such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu inspired movements for social change through their faith. But many others used Christian theology to defend slavery and to provide a spiritual justification for racism and discrimination.
Hands full of blood
And of course this is shown in the Bible too. A major theme in the Hebrew prophets is the hypocrisy of being outwardly religious whilst perpetuating violence and injustice. The prophet Isaiah directly attacks pious devotion which is detached from the struggle for justice:
‘When you lift up your hands in prayer I will not look. Though you offer many prayers I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.’ (1:15)
And this is what we are seeing in modern-day America. There is no shortage of outward Christian commitment in the US. Virtually all candidates to be President have to claim an allegiance to Christ.
As is widely reported, 81% of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. As a Presidential candidate he professed his Christian faith, declared the Bible to be his favourite book and also went to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and vowed never to restrict the right to bear arms.
When you consider the havoc that Trump’s action and behaviour is causing and could cause, you could easily make the case that Evangelical Christianity is currently the most dangerous movement on the planet.
The church and guns
Two years ago I wrote a post about my friend who went to a church service in Mississippi and heard the Pastor stand up and talk about a competition they were running to see who could invite the most new people along to the church in one month.
And what was the prize for the winner? An AR-15 assault rifle – plus a 100 rounds of ammo for good measure. My friend could not believe it as he watched the Pastor hold the gun up and enthusiastically announce ‘This is a killing machine’:
There was a good ending to the story because my friend’s concerns led to a genuine dialogue which resulted in the church graciously withdrawing the prize. Instead, my friend, who is a carpenter, offered to donate a coffee table he had made which was awarded instead of the gun.
He was inspired by the passages in Isaiah about ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ (2:4) and rather than just condemning the church wanted to help find a more creative and redemptive way forward.
The terrible events of Las Vegas this week will see predictable re-runs of the arguments between proponents and opponents of gun control. We will also see plenty of hashtags and trite appeals to #prayforlasvegas. I believe God is wearied by these prayers, especially from people who are so opposed to taking any steps which will produce real change.
Many people are saying that after Sandy Hook, where 20 children were killed by a gunman, that there is no longer any hope for meaningful gun reform. Perhaps they are right.
A mass movement for change?
But could we dream about what would happen if gun-owning Christians, led and inspired by church leaders, decided to make the first step, lay down their guns as part of a mass movement and hand them in. It could be a ‘Gun Jubilee’ inspired by the cancellation of debts instructed in Deuteronomy 15.
It may sound naive but I think history tells us the only hope for radical change lies in some form of coordinated, faith-inspired, mass movement. Faith may be easily misdirected or corrupted but it is also the only force which can provide the sufficient bandwidth of public vision and spiritual energy to create change. At its best, authentic Christianity is personal, practical, public and political.
On December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on the bus and sparked a critical phase in the civil rights movement. Who will be prepared to make a costly stand on this issue?