Friday, December 14, 2012, is yet another day which will “live in infamy” in the American psyche.
In the aftermath of the massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary perpetrated by a gunman with severe mental problems and easy access to quite a cache of powerful weapons, America is in a fierce debate over gun control, mental illness, and national security.
As we reflect on the disturbing realities of the human condition such events reveal, I’d like to suggest that rather than capitalizing on this as yet another “sign of the times”, this sobering time may present an opportunity for Adventists to review our stance on social issues. Adventism’s notoriously firm position on the separation of church and state on religious matters (less so on trademark issues!) has resulted in anemic efforts in social matters such as the prevention of gun-related violence and hate crime. We have become experts in responding to natural disasters but do little about preventing man-made tragedies such as the massacre of innocent children.
And I would not be surprised if the position on social issues we find in some quarters has to do with certain extreme views on eschatology such as the future collapse of the present world order leading to, among other things, the need for self-defense. Consider, for example, the longest running Adventist member of Congress, Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD). Before being voted out in the last election, Rep. Bartlett appeared in two documentaries (Urban Dangers, America’s Cities) discussing the impending collapse of energy resources in the world and how this could lead to a changed world order and a “Veithian” doomsday scenario. Last September, Bartlett was the keynote speaker at Sustainable Preparedness Expo, an Adventist survivalist organization redolent of an era when Adventist kids were terrorized by the idea of a worldwide persecution against Sabbath-keepers.
Interestingly, in his years in the Senate, Bartlett also happened to have an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association by voting “yes” or co-sponsoring the following measures:
- Voted "yes" on prohibiting product misuse lawsuits on gun manufacturers.
- Voted "yes" on prohibiting suing gun makers & sellers for gun misuse.
- Voted "yes" on decreasing gun-waiting period from 3 days to 1.
- No United Nations taxation on firearms.
- Require video recording of every firearm test by ATF.
- Individual right to self-defense at home.
- Ban gun registration & trigger lock law in Washington DC.
- Allow reloading spent military small arms ammunition.
On his website, Bartlett calls restrictions to gun access “both unconstitutional and illogical.” He also appears to subscribe to the bankrupt notion that it is “people who kill people, not guns”. He continues to say: “Although banning guns and restricting gun ownership by law abiding citizens makes a moving emotional argument, it is ineffective as a deterrent to crime” a position that he held in 1995 when attempting to repeal the ban on assault weapons. “There isn’t a shred of evidence that any of these laws have any effect on crime” he said.
And we need to look no further than Newtown, CT, for the deadly mixture of survivalism and guns. According to family members, Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Sandy Hook gunman, was a “prepper” who had a “survivalist mentality” and was loading up on food and guns for “when the economy collapses”.
But regardless of how brother Bartlett’s views on eschatology may impact his personal views on guns, the disconnect between his record on self-defense and that of Jesus could not be more jarring: “Put your sword back in its place . . . All who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
According to some observers, the right thing to do to prevent gun-related violence is to repeal the Second Amendment and implement legislation more relevant to the times we live in. According to analyst Peter Bergen, “Semiautomatic handguns and semiautomatic assault rifles that fire many rounds in a minute were not envisaged by the founders nor do they do much more to enhance self-defense than an ordinary pistol or rifle.” But whether repealing the Second Amendment is feasible or not in today’s America, as it stands, the country is faced with two alternatives:
- we either remove guns from the hands of civilians and let the state handle crime.
- or, as some legislators have suggested, we need even more guns, we need to arm the whole country, including nurses, doctors, pastors, and teachers to deter criminals.
A solution to this problem is admittedly not anywhere on the horizon, but unless something is done and quickly, there’s no guarantee that Sandy Hook will not be repeated elsewhere in the country.
America could probably learn something from Japan about the impact of the vicious cycle created by the proliferation of guns in society. That country’s stringent regulations on the access to guns results in extremely low gun-related violence; while the U.S. had 12,000 gun-related homicides in 2008, Japan had 11. No brainer.
In 1990, under Neal Wilson, the Adventist world church put out a statement on the proliferation of semiautomatic assault weapons:
Pursuits of peace and the preservation of life are to be the goals of Christians. Evil cannot be effectively met with evil, but must be overcome with good. Seventh-day Adventists, with other people of good will, wish to cooperate in using every legitimate means of reducing, and eliminating where possible, the root causes of crime. In addition, with public safety and the value of human life in mind, the sale of automatic or semi-automatic assault weapons should be strictly controlled. This would reduce the use of weapons by mentally disturbed people and criminals, especially those involved in drug and gang activities.
Last week, Ted Wilson offered condolences to the families of Sandy Hook’s victims. But these are goodwill acts as far as mere “statements” go. The sense of utter impotence for not having been able to prevent such horrendous tragedy can only be alleviated if we as a nation and in our local communities spring forward toward meaningful action. In doing so we honor the fallen.
The Adventist church should not only be the first to offer condolences to the families, but also the first to praise the efforts President Obama and some members of Congress are making to address gun-related violence in America. To paraphrase president Obama, “The hope for the soon coming of Jesus is not an excuse for social inaction.” The time has come for Adventists to become actively engaged in this issue in a way that is not tethered to evangelistic interests or Revelation seminars.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels) rethinks the idea of heaven as a fluffy, far-away land which Christians look forward to in the future with longing eyes and hearts while barely tolerating the present. By building on the ancient Jewish idea of tikkun olam, “repairing the world”, Wright argues that heaven starts today. The church he says often paints too ethereal a picture of heaven; it should be far more engaged in the world. Wright offers his own translation of John 3:16 by saying that God gave Jesus “so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age” which starts now. This is what we find in the manifesto for such a world, the Sermon of the Mount (Matt 5).
Adventism’s view of the world is undoubtedly fatalist: it will go from bad to worse and only a divine intervention, as in the violent days of Noah (Gen 6:11), will solve all of our problems. But let’s not neglect “the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith” (Mat 23:23) as we actively seek the present and the future re-establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
—André Reis has a B.A. in Theology from the Adventist University in São Paulo, Brazil, a Masters of Music from Longy School of Music and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at Avondale College.
 Recently, at the San Diego Adventist forum David Neff argued that tikkun olam should impact a Christian’s approach to ecology and the environment.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4968