After yet another high school massacre, surely the gun debate in American is no longer about the Right to Bear Arms. Yes, it's enshrined in historic law, but so are a lot of things, and surely a Teenager's Right Not To Be Shot Dead supersedes it. The real issue is that America is absolutely jam-packed full of guns, and a lot of them are in the hands of very unpleasant people. Most American gun supporters are clinging to their weapons because everyone else is doing so too.
So what do we do? Is this really just an eternal stalemate, of which we're destined to be reminded every six to eight months when another gunman wanders into a school and takes a few more young lives? Or are there actually practical responses that can begin to change the story, and unlock this seemingly unsolvable puzzle? And no, arming every school teacher isn't one of them.
If there's one group of people in America big enough and (hopefully) envisioned enough to make a major, national-level change in politics and culture, then it's the Christian community. They almost indisputably swung the last election; the pressure they apply on Washington is felt heavily. They are organised, they are led, and they're supposed to be motivated by a man who called the world to peace. At the moment though, the church in the USA seems paralysed by a mix of uncertainty and fear on the issue. Unsure how to actually help, most Christians resort to platitudes and prayers, to the point that 'thoughts and prayers' has become a synonymous phrase for inaction. Isn't that awful: that prayer now symbolises non-intervention?
There are lot of things that could be done to address the gun problem that are out of our hands. Hollywood producers could enter into a broad agreement to stop glamourising gun violence; businesses could follow Delta Airlines' lead and publicly disassociate from the NRA. These are things we can hope, and yes, pray for. But there really are some steps that Christians could take which would begin to change the narrative, and then the direction of the problem. Here are just a few:
1. Peaceful protest
Marches can be a bit hit and miss. There are so many, for such a wide variety of reasons, that often the media chooses not even to report when 10,000 people or more have gathered. So while peaceful protest is important and valuable, it needs to be more innovative these days. One possibility could be a major strike among the teachers or even students who are placed in the firing line by the proliferation of guns. If this were led by the huge Christian minority in both groups, it could be enough to tip into a wholesale walkout. A couple of weeks of empty schools would be enough to get Washington talking – and perhaps legislating.
2. Co-ordinated action from leaders
Evangelical leaders are among the most influential men (and very occasionally women) in America. Pat Robertson, who hosts the 700 Club TV programme, was perhaps President Trump's most important supporter in 2016. So what if leaders across the spectrum, from Robertson, to Rick Warren, to televangelists like Benny Hinn and charismatic superstars like Steven Furtick, all began to speak out publicly in their pulpits and media platforms about the need to end the gun madness? What if they suggested that surrendering your arms was a mark of true discipleship – or even a qualifier for church membership? The leaders of American churches have the power to dramatically influence gun ownership, at least within the massive Christian community.
3. Take mental health seriously
The links between mental health and gun violence are well-documented; people don't generally go out and shoot other people if they're of sound mind. By far the biggest contributor of all to America's extraordinary gun death tally is firearm suicide, and almost all of the spree killers in recent history have suffered from mental health problems. America, with all its healthcare issues, does not always care for the mentally ill, and especially those who can't afford private healthcare. So in that context the church has a vital role to play; in many communities it is the only source of help, hope and recovery available to those with mental health problems.
Again, this is something that can be addressed from the pulpit – destigmatising mental illness and rallying congregations to help those struggling with it – and in the rank and file of church membership. Christians could begin to bear some of the burden, shrugged off by the Government, of those in their communities who are unable to process the difficulties of their lives. And to be absolutely clear, I'm talking about a greater investment in counselling here, not a bigger ministry team to 'pray the demons away'. We need to get better right across the church in how we talk about and respond to mental health concerns.
4. Change the pro-life narrative
The vast majority of American evangelicals would describe themselves as 'pro-life', but what does that really mean in practice? That they're anti-abortion but in favour of the death penalty? That they'd lobby to defund Planned Parenthood but feel indifferent about a boat full of child refugees sinking off the coast of Libya? If we're going to be pro-life, then we need to be consistent, and that certainly extends to defending the rights of children not to be shot as they sit in school. Given the frequency of the massacres which take their lives, high school students should be as emblematic of the pro-life movement as the human embryo.
5. Christians go first in surrendering arms
An impossible problem demands a prophetic response. If perhaps the key issue now is that no one wants to give up their right to bear arms first, then surely Christians should apply the biblical principle of submission and lay down their weapons before anyone else. To do so might just start a chain reaction and as a side-effect it would demonstrate the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.
6. Trump's evangelical advisers should... advise him
Much has been made recently of Donald Trump's inner circle of evangelical Christian advisers including Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr, and most powerfully of all, Vice President Mike Pence. If these people really do have influence with the president, and aren't simply meant as a visual clue to evangelicals that Trump is 'their man', then they could use that influence to apply pressure on this issue. It was recently revealed that Pence says Jesus has told him to say things. Perhaps at some point soon, Jesus will suggest that he's not a massive fan of the Second Amendment.
7. And after all that... thoughts and prayers
Finally, we should of course pray. Prayer is the mechanism through which God does choose to act in the world, but he also often uses our hands and feet as the answer to the problems we see and pray about. So once we're practically doing our best to respond to one of the most complex social problems ever to face the United States, we should of course pray that God would intervene.
Enough children and young people are buried in graveyards and memorials across America. The politicians and the general population of the US have a massive problem and they don't know how to address it.
Come on, brothers and sisters. It's time for the church to rise up and save America.