Two well-crafted documentaries from 2015, The Armor of Light and 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets explore the same story from different angles: the murder of teenager Jordan Davis in Florida. Jordan was gunned down in a gas station parking lot by Michael Dunn, who was annoyed by the black teenagers’ “thug music” and cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws in his defense. The controversial law allows people to defend themselves with deadly violence if they perceive their life or safety is threatened. Davis and his three friends were unarmed as Dunn fired ten times into their vehicle at a local gas station, then fled the scene, went back to his hotel, and ordered a pizza.
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets is a detailed look at the trial proceedings for Dunn, focused mainly on the perspective of Davis’s parents and friends. The film does its best to tell the story as it happened, while also having a one-side position; Dunn’s side of the story is only told through recordings of phone conversations or the actual trial footage, while Davis’s parents are given multiple interviews. Davis’s mother, Lucy McBath, is also a central character in The Armor of Light. That documentary is focused on reverend Rob Schenck, a pro-life advocate who begins to rethink the American evangelical community’s infatuation with guns. While 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets gives the detailed story of her son’s trial and addresses the issue of systemic racism and racial bias, The Armor of Light shows more of McBath’s story beyond the trial, especially her advocacy work towards reforming gun-control and self-defense legislation.
I grew up with guns all around me. The large gun rack sat prominently outside of my parents’ bedroom, an assortment of a dozen rifles and shotguns from various eras. My father has a military background; he was essentially born and raised in the Air Force. He is a collector, and guns are central in his collecting habits. He owns Japanese and German pistols from WWII, rifles from the Korean war, and various other exotic or interesting firearms. I recall going to gun shows with him as a child. I remember browsing through the enormous black-covered encyclopedia on our bookshelf, the tome with the title “GUNS” in bold red font. I memorized the various manufacturers and types, the caliber of bullets and size of magazines. I received an old Red Ryder BB gun from my grandfather–my dad’s dad, also a military man–and did target practice with my dad and his pellet gun in our back yard. I probably still have that BB gun somewhere.
In adolescence, I fired my father’s handguns and rifles. I took a slow breath, lining up the sights just so, my whole body at-once relaxed and tense in preparation for the recoil. I’m a good shot, a natural. While he never said it, I imagine my dad was proud of my interest and my sharpshooter talents. He taught me basic rules for how to handle a gun. Don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Wear hearing protection. Slowly squeeze the trigger; don’t jerk it. The most important rule: Never point the gun barrel at anyone. Even if you know it’s not loaded, even if the safety is on, not even as a joke. Never point a gun at a human being. The reasoning behind the rule is obvious: aiming a gun at someone put their life in jeopardy.
Jordan Davis’s story calls to mind similar recent tragedies where teenagers have been the victims of gun violence. In 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, Trayvon Martin’s father contacts Davis’s father, welcoming him to the club of parents whose teenage children have been killed. These stories, along with the plethora of mass shootings at schools, colleges, malls, parking lots, movie theaters, and just about any other location imaginable–these should force us to ask a question: Is it possible to be pro-gun and follow in the ways of Jesus Christ? I don’t have The Answer to this question, but I do know I need to have a wise and thoughtful answer for myself, my children, and the people I shepherd as a pastor.
Recently, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the largest Christian university in America, made this statement in a speech to college students: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” After the applause died down, he followed with an encouragement to students to take a free course offered by the university to get their concealed-carry permit. Since then, the school has changed their policy about concealed-carry, allowing students to have guns with them in dorm rooms.
In The Armor of Light, there are a few scenes at the NRA national convention. One of the keynote speakers is Franklin Graham, who offers up a prayer to God about retaining gun rights, to the impassioned amens of the crowd. Graham recently agreed with Donald Trump about banning all Muslim immigration into the United States, including the Syrian refugees fleeing the violence of ISIS in the Middle East.
Lest it’s unclear, here’s my position: I don’t believe either of these evangelical leaders’ stance or posture aligns with the ways and ethic of Jesus, nor is it evangelical in spirit or tone. I believe Jesus calls us to be peace-makers, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to be people of grace and peace, and to cast out fear with an ethic and economy of love and justice. I find this ethic requires far more strength, humility, and creativity when addressing violence, self-defense, and the dignity of all human life, including the Muslim refugee or black teenager.
It’s taken me a few weeks to write this essay because I recognize than any opinion about guns voiced in America on the Internet will likely be perceived as controversial or divisive, especially when coming from an evangelical pastor. I’m unsure why saying, “I think killing people with guns is a tragedy” would be contentious or questionable. Nor am I saying I have clear answers about any of this. I do know the above documentaries raise some interesting questions and could begin a conversation we need to address within the American church community about the frightening links between evangelical culture, gun culture, and systemic racism.
I think of my dad’s rule: never point a gun at anyone. I wonder what Mr. Falwell’s dad taught him about guns and using violence against human beings. I wonder what Mr. Graham’s dad would pray regarding guns in America or about refugee children seeking sanctuary from violence. I wonder about dead teenagers and refugees, about “Stand Your Ground” laws and immigration bans, about Second Amendment rights, about a culture where The Hunger Games or Mad Max series feels terribly prescient, and about my own children’s view on guns and loving their neighbor as themselves. I wonder what justice will be practiced by the emerging generation. I wonder what Jesus would conceal and carry. I wonder where many evangelicals are placing their trust and security–in the God who saves and redeems, or in their own ability to squeeze (not jerk) the trigger.