Of Guns & Christmas

Charleston. Milwaukee. Nashville. Sutherland Springs. Cairo.  Religious leaders of every tradition, all around the globe, are considering what was once unthinkable—an “active shooter” in their houses of worship. Religious violence is not new in this world, and no faith has been spared. As a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, I have been asking: How are followers of Jesus to respond now that the epidemic of gun violence has entered the Church? How can we bear witness to the Good News of Jesus in an age when so many encourage us to bear arms?

To deter potential assailants with guns, many Christians assert our rights and freedoms to carry weapons, even in spaces, which offer sanctuary. However, the reports of trainings offered by security consultants, and my own conversation with local police, leave me convinced that the more our parishioners are armed, the less safe our sacred spaces would become. At the same time, absent the same machinery of airport terminals, policies forbidding weapons will be very hard to enforce. So, we confront the human condition. Evil happens. As active shooter trainers have said, “Even Christians get cancer”-- a simple statement of deep theological truth. We live in a world of harm, danger, illness. Bad things happen to good people, even at Christmas. But Jesus shows a path for the troubled soul and society.

While there is a need for more public theology and prayer on the topic of guns in worship spaces, my faith leads me to the illogical, yet brilliantly hopeful, message of the first Christmas when the Almighty entered the world in utter weakness. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes perhaps the first Christmas carol of the Church. To paraphrase: Christ did not count equality with God as something to exploit for advantage, even self-defense, but instead chose to empty himself by becoming vulnerable, a defenseless human being--to suffer death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

The way of the Christ Child requires vulnerability. Yes, we can get cancer and we can get shot. Following Jesus, we care for the sick. And, we protect the vulnerable, sometimes by standing in the way of danger. Remember Jesus standing in front of a crowd of angry men ready to stone a woman to death, or insisting his disciples sheathe their swords, or taking the place of a bandit on the cross? These acts took guts--and faith.

There are many more conversations to be had, and more questions to ask and answer about guns in places of worship. What are our faith communities doing to prevent gun violence and address root causes of mental health, hatred, fear of the Other? I start with this: a life modeled on the suffering of God in Christ will always be at risk of dying. But, we stake our lives on a hope infinitely liberating and glorious. In an age fixated on security, a Christian life patterned on the paradox of God’s strength displayed in weakness could seem ridiculous. I choose to follow a self-emptying God, revered and celebrated in the arrival of a helpless and poor child in a feed-trough who eventually dies in humiliation to draw all humanity to a life of freedom and purpose. That belief will always contrast sharply to the fear and violence of any era.

That stark contrast, I believe, is that of light shining brightly in darkness. The good news of the great joy of Christmas is that light always wins. Always.

--The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld

Bishop of The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire



Holy Week Message, 2017

Holy Week, 2017

by The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt and a donkey--rather than on a war horse--is significant. His choosing to wash the feet of disciples whom he knows will betray, deny, and abandon him is significant. His choice not to call for a divine airstrike on the detachment of soldiers that came to arrest him in Gethsemane, but to surrender himself willingly and peacefully, ordering his fearful disciples to put down their arms, is significant. His choosing to be silent and not to engage in a jousting of rhetoric with Pontius Pilate, who has the power to crucify him, is significant. His choice to give himself up to death on one of the most agonizing, humiliating and degrading methods of execution devised by humankind is significant.

As Jesus entered the environment of Jerusalem on that last week, so we Christians are called to enter a deep contemplation of the agonizing elements of our world and our neighborhoods. Our Holy Week began with a searing reminder of how the world yearns for God’s salvation and healing and justice.  On Palm Sunday, as we assembled at our various churches to begin the reenactment the Jesus’s humble entry into Jerusalem, we heard of the two suicide bombings that killed or injured scores of our brothers and sisters in Cairo, Egypt.  This horrific news follows the pictures of the victims of the inexcusable chemical attack on civilians in Syria. Closer to home, we continue to hear of the limits of our work to free our neighbors from the scourge of opioid addiction, from gun violence, and the legal resistance to continue to provide hospitality to refugees, including those of the on-going civil war in Syria.

It occurred to me to say to a group of young people being confirmed on Palm Sunday that being a member of the Church does nothing to protect us from the sorrow, the pain, and the vulnerability of the world. In fact, following the Jesus movement means walking the way of the cross as the only means to a lasting life of purpose and true joy.  Any church that is solely concerned about its own self-protection and survival has begun its own funeral procession.

But, in Christ, we are alive.  Though government executive orders are already curtailing refugee resettlement and Episcopal Migration Ministries is forced to reduce its staff, I know that so many in our parishes are seeking ways to support efforts to bring relief to the suffering of those who live in fear. Several of our churches take seriously, as I do, the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Sanctuary movement,[1] even as we explore how to open our doors and communities as our Bible urges us to, sometimes at some risk of public and legal opposition. In my travels among the parish communities in the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, I see the Holiness of Holy Week, the Good News of Good Friday. These include our solidarity with those battling addiction of all kinds (please accept the invitation to observe the Recovery Sunday, on April 30th!); our work to mentor, tutor, feed and support youth and children who on the losing side of the Opportunity Gap; to sit with the dying and those in prison; to weep with and comfort the grieving; and to give God great thanks and praise for the chance that God is always giving us to reconcile with those with whom we have been in conflict.  You want to hear about an Easter miracle?  Let me tell you about the congregations all over New Hampshire, that have faithful people on every political side, but who would do anything to help their neighbor as a child of God, or their fellow parishioner in need simply because they are members of the Risen Body of Christ.

Our Church, with Christ, bursts out of tombs of fear, grief and cowardice when it sees how, despite the fracture we may be feeling in our hearts about the fallen state of the world, God is not done with us. God is still working God’s purposes out.  Even with people like us--fallen, broken, and gorgeously risen in Christ Jesus.

[1] The most recent policy statement of The Episcopal Church is found in Resolution 2015-D057:

"Resolved, That the 78th General Convention recommit to the spirit of the New Sanctuary Movement by supporting congregations so they can assist immigrant individuals, unaccompanied minors, families, and communities by being centers of information, services and accompaniment, and by supporting families facing separation in the absence of comprehensive, humane immigration reform."

The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire