From Abracadabra to Zombies
Not Dying to Get to Heaven: Guns in Churches
Jeanne Assam is a heroine by any standard. Others may try to belittle her for her past actions but she did something most of her critics probably couldn't do. A gunman shot into a congregation of the church she attends - New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado - and she confronted him and shot him several times before he took his own life. Moments earlier, the gunman had shot and killed Stephanie and Rachael Works, aged 18 and 16, in the church and badly injured their father. When the shooting stopped, it was discovered that the killer, Matthew Murray, had an assault rifle, two handguns, and a backpack stuffed with about 1000 rounds of ammunition as well as smoke grenades. There is no telling how many lives Assam saved by her action.
Was it just luck that there was a person attending a religious service who happened to be armed and trained to shoot people? No. Assam is part of the armed security force of her church. There are always armed security guards at this church, the one that Ted Haggard used to preach at. The church's undercover security force is made up of an undisclosed number of volunteers with military or law-enforcement backgrounds, who carry radios and concealed weapons when they attend services.* The day Assam shot Murray, the New Life Church security force was on heightened alert because two people had been killed and two wounded at their missionary training school, the 10,000-member Youth With a Mission. About 12 hours earlier Tiffany Johnson, 26, and Philip Crouse, 24—two staff members of the Youth With a Mission center in the Denver suburb of Arvada—had been gunned down by a young man who had been refused a bed for the night. Matthew Murray was the shooter in that attack. He had been home-schooled and brought up to be a devout Christian by loving and devout parents.* The disturbed man seems to have been delusional and was acting in a misguided attempt to get revenge for having been dismissed from the missionary training for "health reasons." News reports say he was hearing voices when nobody was around. How was he to know it wasn't the Lord?
In a news conference, Assam said she'd prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide her and that her hands never shook. "It seemed like it was me, the gunman, and God," she said.*
A former member of the New Life Church said that throughout the tenure of Haggard, founder of the church, there were bomb scares and animal blood splashed on the walls. "We had people undercover in the congregation who were armed. It was a big church at the time, it was Christian, and some people hate that stuff."*
Who knew? So much for churches as sanctuaries. Actually, I haven't thought of churches as sanctuaries since 1963. I lost a good part of my faith in American justice then, too. I may not remember where I was when I got the news that a bomb had killed four children at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, but I remember that images of children being blown up in a church stuck in my head for a long time. It seemed like everybody knew that Ku Klux Klan members were responsible, spurred on by Governor George Wallace who'd been quoted in news reports as saying that to stop integration in Alabama they needed a "few first-class funerals." The "alleged" bomber, Robert Chamblis, was arrested, tried for possession of dynamite, fined $100, and sent on his way. He lived free for fourteen years before he was tried for the murders. He was found guilty in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Some of my faith in our criminal justice system returned but it would be another fifteen years after Chamblis's death before two other Klansmen would be tried and found guilty of participating in the church bombing. A fourth conspirator died before he could be tried. Thomas Blanton Jr. was 62 in 2001 when he was sentenced to life in prison. When asked by the judge if he wanted to make a statement before heading off to his new home, Blanton replied, "I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day."*
Some churches have needed to worry about security long before our attention began to focus on lone discontents with mental problems.
Pastor Brady Boyd of New Life Church says the security force has been in place for "the past few years because of the stature of the church." The guards "are not mercenaries," he said. They're volunteers and all attend the church.* New Life Church isn’t alone. Woodmen Valley Chapel, First Presbyterian Church, and Focus on the Family all have security guards. The Anti-Defamation League has a security page on their website. It contains a link to Guidelines for Hiring a Security Contractor, which is taken from a longer work called "Protecting Your Jewish Institution: Security Strategies for Today’s Dangerous World".* Dallas-based Potter's House has nearly 20,000 members and a security director, Sean Smith. Potter's house began arming guards about eight years ago when Bishop T. D. Jakes started receiving death threats, says Smith.* There's not a mosque in Pakistan, Iraq, or many other places around the world that isn't worried about being bombed by their fellow Muslims. Surely, many of them have security forces in place, though if they do it doesn't seem to be doing much good. It seems there's news about another mosque bombing on a regular basis.
Having undercover armed guards inside a place of worship isn't a universal practice, however, because of feelings about weapons in a church and because of insurance liabilities.* Dale Annis, chief executive officer for Church Security Services, says that he's consulted with churches across the country and found that few want to have guns on site during services.* He's a retired police officer who found his niche about four years ago when, he says, he noticed an upsurge in violence against churches.
Smaller churches might want to arm themselves but they can't afford to train a security force, make sure gun permits are current, and keep up with the insurance premiums, according to Annis. His company helps churches adapt security plans. He believes that any church the size of New Life needs to have armed security on site. Pastor Brady thinks even the smaller churches should be armed. "If you're over 2,000 in membership, you're crazy not to have armed security," he said. "When you get to that size, you really have no idea who is walking through your doors."*
Not all ministers agree. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, which has about 20,000 people attend services, has a security force but they're not armed. Warren's chief of staff, David Chrzan, said that putting guns in the hands of an on-site security staff would seem to be a last resort in trying to protect the congregation. "Where do you go from there - two armed guards, three armed guards? At that point," he said, "you're just adding artillery."*
The Amish would not only agree but add that the shootings are part of God's plan and the proper response is not with guns but with forgiveness and prayers. Like Assam, the Amish claim to feel God's presence guiding them, but not to have a steady hand while firing at a killer. As one young Amish woman put it after Charles Carl Roberts IV killed five young girls at a one-room Amish schoolhouse: "We think it's all in God's hand. If this wouldn't have happened, something still would have happened … because their time was up. God's hand was in control."* A grandfather of one of the murdered girls said of Roberts: "We must not think evil of this man."*
Relatives of Tiffany Johnson and Phillip Crouse, Matthew Murray's first victims, met with Murray's parents, Ron and Loretta Murray to pray and weep together.* According to Matthew's uncle Philip Abeyta, a pastor of a Denver church, the parents of the victims expressed love and forgiveness to the parents of the killer. "The entire Murray family is overwhelmed by this act of Christian love and forgiveness," said Abeyta. "Matthew's parents, Ron and Loretta, are humbled beyond words and deeply grateful to the families of God's children, Tiffany Johnson and Phillip Crouse, for taking this extraordinary step to begin the process of healing and reconciliation. What an incredible example of the power of God's love."* This is the same God, I presume, who guided Assam's hand but who let Matthew Murray's hand do whatever it wanted.
Pastor Brad Strait of South Fellowship Church in Littleton, Colorado, doesn't have armed guards at his church, but understands why some churches do.
"We live in an era where we're more afraid," Strait said. "There are people who come in to the mall or a school or a church with the sole purpose of hurting other people, and that's happening at a much more frequent rate than before. That makes us nervous."
Is it happening at a much more frequent rate? I don't know. Who keeps statistics on this sort of thing?* There's a lot more media coverage these days and a lot more churches. Is it really true that there's a lot more violence against churches (or malls or schools) or does it just seem that way? In a nationwide survey of churches about violence done a few years ago, only 29% of a nationwide sample of 175 churches responded. "Churches had no plan of action if a violent act did occur; nor did they expect such an act, even at youth events."*
I really didn't need another reason for not going to church, but concern that I might be accidentally shot by the lady sitting next to me would raise some serious questions for my comfort level. I thought these folks couldn't wait to get to the next world. You'd think they'd welcome an assault on their congregation. They could go on Oprah for a session with John Edward or James Van Praagh. Sylvia Browne could pass on all kinds of juicy gossip about Murray and his victims on the Montel Williams show. The spirits could provide support for Gary Schwartz and his self-described "laughable and unworthy” speculations that spirits might be called as witnesses in murder trials and that the spirits of victims might not get along with the spirits of their killers in the afterlife (p. 243-244 of The Afterlife Experiments).
Why aren't believers in the afterlife rejoicing at these recent crimes on young people who have devoted their lives to serving God? What could be more glorious than dying in God's house while praying? Jeanne Assam seems to have found the answer to that question.
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that for every Jeanne Assam there are thousands of innocent victims like Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Tiffany Johnson, Philip Crouse, Stephanie Works, and Rachael Works. If we don't feel that law enforcement, the courts, or our political leaders are providing us with security against the likes of Matthew Murray, Charles Roberts, or Robert Chamblis, isn't it inevitable that more and more of us will feel the need to provide our own security at church, at work, at home, in our cars, and on our streets? We could be surrounded by potential heroes.
Why doesn't this thought comfort me? Maybe it's because even though I've meditated on this long and hard I can't for the life of me decide what kind of gun the Prince of Peace would buy.
Robert T. Carroll
December 14, 2007