Around two o’clock in the morning on Sunday, June 12, a man opened fire with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle on patrons of Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed. Another fifty-three were wounded, many seriously. Police killed the shooter.
Three things that a lot of American Christians tend to get worked up about came together in that horrifying event: gays, Muslims, and guns. I’d like to say a few things from my perspective as a Christian American, who happens to be straight, about how my brothers and sisters and I should respond to the Orlando tragedy.
The gunman’s goal was to kill gay people. There have been reports that he scouted Pulse in the days before the massacre and that he scouted Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) during the annual Gay Days event that was held just a few days before the shooting. There have also been reports that he visited the club many times over the past three years. It appears he hated homosexuals. We may find out that he hated something in himself.
When we say that the shooter killed gay people, we should acknowledge that the key word in that phrase is “people,” not “gay.” Forty-nine people died. They have names. They have families and friends. They had lives. They loved and were loved. They are missed. They are grieved.
Still, the fact remains that they were targeted because they were members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Some of us target LGBT folks, too. We target them with our contempt, our ignorance, our misunderstanding, our slurs, and our hate. We target them with our legislation. And we need to stop. We need to stop now. There has been too much negativity toward the LGBT community in America in recent days, and too many people use their supposed “Christian” principles as justification for it. We should foster a culture of loving acceptance and lay down our judgmental prejudices. Christians ought to be in the forefront of treating LGBT people as what they are, namely, human beings created and loved by God. Unfortunately, many of us have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward doing the right and just thing toward gay people, not to mention lots of other marginalized people.
It’s also a fact that they were killed by a Muslim. He was a Muslim who was born in New York. He was a Muslim who was an American citizen. He was not an immigrant. There are all kinds of Muslims, just as there are all kinds of Christians. Some are of the nominal variety and some are of the sincere variety. Some just check the box while others feel it in their soul. Some are radicalized militants while most are peace-loving practitioners. In Islam, as in Christianity, the hate-filled radicals get the press.
It’s wrong to paint an entire group of people with the same brush, especially when we use it to mark them as evil. A “Muslim” like the Orlando shooter does not represent all Muslims any more than “Christian” preachers who say they wish even more gays had been killed represent all Christians. I know this: I don’t want anyone to group me with those “Christian” preachers or with “Christian” hate groups (now there’s an oxymoron, if ever there was one). If that’s Christianity, you can have it; I don’t want it.
Fortunately, it’s not. And what murderers like the Orlando shooter and terrorists like ISIS practice isn’t the Islam that most Muslims practice, either. There are over three million Muslims living in the United States. If they were all hateful, you’d know it. But they aren’t, and we need to stop thinking and saying they are.
It’s also a fact that the Orlando murderer used a gun to kill those forty-nine people. I have a gun. It’s a sixteen gauge double barreled shotgun that’s older than I am. I inherited it from my father, which is the beginning and end of what it means to me. I kept it put away for almost four decades. Now I keep it handy because we live in the woods and I hear there are rattlesnakes. It’s not been fired in over forty years. It’ll suit me if it’s never fired again. So I admit that I don’t get the love affair many people have with guns.
I’d like to express just two concerns about guns. First, I think we are developing a problematic mindset in this country in that we are counting on the wrong things for security. We’re too afraid, and fear gets in the way of rational thinking and acting. An over-reliance on guns—or on any kind of force—keeps us from addressing those matters that can really make for peace, namely, a solid education for all, broadly based economic prosperity, and community solidarity based in shared values, including the celebration of human diversity.
Second, I think that our politicians are failing us on gun policy (as well as on any number of other matters). Both sides have dug in. Each side takes positions that the other finds untenable, and neither side will budge. But governing is about working together for the common good. It’s about compromise. Some folks need to stop thinking that any limitation on gun rights is bad. There’s no such thing as an unlimited right. Others need to stop thinking that all we need is increased gun control (and I say that as one who believes that nobody outside the military and law enforcement needs access to a military-style weapon and that there should be universal background checks on all gun purchases). We need leaders who will do the hard work of moving along, bit by bit, day by day, year by year, steadily trying to find solutions to the problem of violence in this country, instead of just yelling “No” across the aisle at each other.
I’m a Christian. I believe that my Savior, who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” who taught us to pray for our enemies, and who voluntarily gave up his life, compels me to think like I think, to say what I say, and to do what I do. I believe that too many Christians are too judgmental, too narrow-minded, too willing to ignore how Jesus lived, and too unaware of the kind of life he calls us to lead. We are too quick to make up our minds about other folks and to close our minds to honest self-appraisal. I want us to become better at being who we are as Christians.
I’m an American. I love this country. I want us to live up to our ideals as well as we possibly can. I believe we have problems that we need to face up to, and that most of those problems are internal: we are too materialistic, too fearful, and not self-reflective and self-critical enough. I want us to become better at being who we are as Americans. I want us to become more willing to accept our individual and collective responsibility for what happens in our nation.
We all have a long way to go. Maybe the legacy of the Orlando tragedy will be that it helped us move in the right direction.
I pray that will be the case.