R. Clifford Jones

Without question, there is a certain irony to what took place at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, and at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a couple of years ago. In both instances, barbaric acts of violence invaded church buildings to which innocent people had gone to worship and study God’s word.

There was a time when a sanctuary was a safe haven, a place of refuge from the setbacks and struggles of life. Churches were viewed as oases of hope and blessings in deserts of despair and sin, as places where one was sure to encounter God in worship and praise. Church buildings were sacred places and spaces.

The indiscriminate massacre of people gathered to study the Bible at Emanuel AME Church and for worship at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church calls into question the historic and traditional view of church buildings as safe havens. Moreover, the fact that the Texas gunman, who slaughtered 26 and wounded over 20, was embroiled in a domestic dispute that may have been the motive for the carnage does not eradicate the danger that now seems to hang ominously over houses of worship. That sanctuaries are places of safety to which people may flee in times of trouble is a proposition that is easily challenged these days.

How should we relate to the indisputable fact that when people gather in a church building these days a gunman may open fire on them for no apparent reason?   Has the time arrived for metal detectors in church buildings? Should congregants be allowed to come to church armed? Should pastors pack a Bible in one pocket and a firearm in the next?

Some gun advocates have noted that the Texas gunman was allegedly shot by an alert neighbor, who recognized what was happening, grabbed his rifle, and began shooting at the assailant. When the gunman sped off, the neighbor hailed a motorist and, together, they pursued the fleeing, wounded gunman, who ostensibly took his life after running off the road in an adjoining county. President Donald Trump believes that more people would have died had it not been for the quick action of the neighbor, who was exercising his 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

Wasting no time to exploit an opportunity, the Michigan Senate, a few days after the massacre in Sutherland Springs, passed legislation to allow guns on school premises and in churches. Not surprisingly, Sutherland Springs has fueled the debate about gun control.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that guns and other weapons contribute to violence.   Guns are intended to harm, if not kill. In rebuking Peter who tried to defend Him with his sword, Jesus stated that those who use violent weapons should expect to die by violent means (Matt. 26:52). Admittedly, many in the general population argue that it is people who kill, not guns. These opponents of gun control contend that those who desire to purchase firearms should be better screened so that guns are kept out of the hands of those who should never have access to them, such as the mentally impaired and criminals.

The murder of innocent churchgoers in Texas and South Carolina also brings into sharp focus an issue that has perplexed cynics as well as believers for years.   Why does God allow evil?   Why is there evil in our world? Almost half of those killed in Sutherland Springs were children, the most vulnerable and helpless demographic of our population. Why didn’t God protect those children? Why didn’t God blow out the tire of the gunman before he got to the church, as a latecomer who escaped the massacre believed happened to her? Why did God allow this heinous, monstrous act that wiped out eight people from one family to occur?

Theologians have a word that captures the struggle for answers as to why a benevolent, almighty God allows people to suffer—theodicy. Yet the search for answers to the problem of pain is beyond the purview of this short reflection.   Suffice it to say that God is no masochist who lacks the power or will to control what happens in our world. Also, we must not forget that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are God’s ways our ways (Isa. 55:8-9).

Even as we search about in the supernatural darkness for answers and meaning to the tragic events in Texas and South Carolina, there are some practical steps that churches may, and should, take to increase the safety of church buildings. Following are just a few:

Have a plan. It may seem like a no-brainer, but having a well-thought-out plan of action will assuage the worry and concern of worshippers and help in the event of an incident.

Communicate your plan, making sure that it is understood and accepted.

Get to know law enforcement personnel in your community. Be sure to receive input and buy-in from them regarding your plan of action.

Acquaint worshippers with the layout of your church building. Be particular in pointing out the exits and safe zones.

Ushers and hosts should be trained to be on the lookout for unfamiliar worshippers behaving strangely.

If possible, have people patrol the outside of your building when service is in session.

Check with your insurer to ascertain what will and will not be covered.

Finally, live joyfully and without fear (Phil. 4:4-7). The possibility of violence invading your sanctuary should not steal your joy, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). In the end, Christians are people who know this world is not their home and long for life in a restored world in which evil will be no more (Rev. 21:4-5, 8, 27).

R. Clifford Jones