Orlando holds many memories for me, both having spent the first 18 years of my life growing up on Florida’s beaches and being raised in a family of Disney annual pass-holders. The news we woke up to last Sunday–that 49 men and women, mostly LGBT, had been murdered–adds a new and haunting entry to our collective memories of Orlando.
In the wake of such horrors, I am always struck by the contrast of simultaneously witnessing humanity at its worst and at its best. I am moved by the countless acts of courage and love and humility, amazed by the examples of folks becoming more fully who they are created to be by serving those around them while the chaos still ensues. I am grateful that the majority of responses from persons around the country were full of love and sadness and grief and care. All of these things are true, and as we mourn I also express gratitude for such beauty.
But I am also struck by another reality that is always at play but perhaps most obvious and overt in conversations that take place in the aftermath of tragedy: we have lost our imaginations, and we must get them back. In the city of Orlando, a man named Walt Disney literally stood over swampy, undesirable land and saw before him a theme park that would inspire creativity and innovation for decades to come (and anyone who has been to Disney World, particularly at Christmas, knows the magic it holds). Yet many years after Disney’s doors were opened in Orlando, an act of violence and terror was committed in the same city, and within hours of the final gunshot ringing out, we began debating gun policies in the same old tired ways we always have, without any imagination.
I am convinced that as Christians, one of our gravest missteps is to allow whatever sociopolitical systems are at hand to shape the ways we think about everything. Let me say this from the beginning (lest one be tempted to think I write with a hidden agenda): I am a strong advocate for stricter gun laws. I make no attempts to hide this. But I am absolutely convinced that there is significantly more at play when we talk about violence and gun rights and the 2nd Amendment than two entrenched sides that advocate either for fewer or more restrictions on gun ownership. If we as Christians know only how to engage such deeply important content through existing categories of pro/anti, Republican/Democrat, conservative/progressive, then we have allowed our minds and hearts to be co-opted–no matter what our position on guns.
This is true of any hot-button issue: LGBT civil rights, abortion, climate change, etc. For any of these, we can clearly draw the boundary lines of American political ideologies and name the two opposing positions, and we generally can identify which of these towards which we gravitate. But whether we vote “pro-choice” or “pro-life” in regards to abortion, we have merely scratched the surface. We simply have worked within the predetermined sociopolitical complex we’ve been given and in which we have been told, “These are your options.” So we pick one and become ever more embattled and polarized in the process. If we are followers of Christ, we can do better. We MUST do better.
When Jesus delivered what we now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), he did not simply articulate a list of ethical imperatives to which the church must adhere (though there are ethical implications to the sermon’s content). I am convinced that Jesus’ primary purpose in his ministry was to stir up our imaginations, to invite us to see that another world is possible and indeed already is in our midst, that the kingdom of God is among us and we can live into this new reality. When he tells his Jewish audience to carry a soldier’s load for a second mile when forced to carry it one, he is inviting them to rethink everything about the scenario with which they were all too familiar. In the first century, the law allowed Roman soldiers to force one to carry their gear for up to one mile. As oppressed Jews in occupied territory, this was a humiliating and degrading act. But then Jesus comes along and tells them to see through different eyes, to glimpse the scenario not as one in which they are coerced to labor for their oppressors but where they can willingly choose to serve their enemy, thus upending and subverting the systems that once governed their oppression and instead contributing to one of love and service. When Jesus speaks of a new way to think about anger and retribution and violence, he is not advocating a particular voting option (“You have heard it said vote ____, but I say vote ____”); he is literally stirring up within his listeners’ minds a vision for what life in the kingdom of God is like, a kingdom wherein violence is overcome by love, where anger at others is swallowed up in humility, where “enemies” become neighbors. This is the world we have been invited into. This is the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry. This is the truest of true realities that guides the ways we think and live and navigate everything, including gun laws.
I am not advocating for a withdrawal of engagement with political realities. Indeed, all of theology is political and impacts human flourishing. But what I am suggesting is that no matter what legislation exists, no matter who is in office, no matter what votes are cast, human political structures (of any stripe: democratic, socialist, etc.) simply never will achieve the vision that Christ compels us to have for creation. I desperately want fewer weapons in this world and believe greater restrictions on gun ownership are essential, but no matter how Congress enacts gun reform, I care significantly more about the prophetic vision spoken of in Isaiah 2 about the kingdom of God wherein folks will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more.”
This vision can never be confined to arguments over gun reform. This vision demands that we engage our imaginations to consider what a world without violence and destruction would be like, that we loosen ourselves from the grip of however reality (even in its best forms!) has been defined by the sociopolitical systems in which we find ourselves, and that we throw all of our energy into living as if this world, this kingdom is here in its fullness (as it will one day be). Moreover, this vision calls me to repentance, to acknowledge each and every decision I make that says “yes” to a world that falls so very short of the kingdom. And so I must acknowledge the ways that my anger and hostility, my selfishness and attempts at self-preservation perpetuate the very kind of violence that one day will cease to be but that today continues to ravage all of creation–no matter my position on gun reform.
If we believe Americans have the right to own guns for self-protection, what would it look like to cast off our fear and trust that God’s kingdom of peace and non-violence is actually truer than our desire for self-preservation? If we believe Americans’ access to guns should be restricted to one degree or another, what would it look like to unhinge our imaginations from however “progress” currently is defined and consider the even more beautiful truth that the coming kingdom is marked by true peace (and peace not defined by a sociopolitical structure but by the very nature of God)?
As we mourn the deaths of so many in the city of Orlando, may we as ones who follow Christ refuse to narrow our willingness and ability to perceive reality in the categories that have been laid before us. May we allow Christ to invigorate our imaginations to see that indeed another world is possible, that indeed the kingdom is coming, that indeed we have been empowered to live into it as the truest of all realities.
One day, mass shootings will be swallowed up in God’s kingdom of peace, non-violence, and justice. Can you imagine?