Orlando shooting: why Christians must not stay quiet

People attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club.Reuters

Most atrocities provoke a natural, instinctive response. Horror, outrage, sympathy for the victims and those that love them. Whether it's a school shooting in America or a factory collapse in Bangladesh, most of us travel that same journey each time, and Christians are often at the forefront of the practical response: praying, grieving, lending practical support.

When Gunman Omar S Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub on Saturday night and opened fire on those inside, he committed the worst attack on American soil since 9/11. 50 people died, scores more were injured. Yet for Christians, this didn't simply represent another opportunity to stand beside the broken; for many it created a moment of extreme internal conflict. Because this was a gay nightclub, and this was a direct assault not just on the victims, but on the entire LGBT community; on who those people were and what they represented.

In fact, it was more complicated even than that. Mateen was a Muslim, committing an act of mass murder in America against a climate of rising nationalism and religious intolerance, and some Christians have been at the forefront of promoting a Donald Trump-esque ideology of segregation and fear. And Mateen's weapon was of course, a gun, the sacred cow of American culture, exercised through that 'constitutional right to bear arms' that the rest of us hear so much about without ever sympathising. A Muslim, using a gun to kill 50 gay people. This awful, awful tragedy couldn't be more loaded with agonizingly uncomfortable meaning.

Just one night earlier, former Voice contestant and popular blogger Christina Grimmie was gunned down in a separate incident in the same US State. Christians responded swiftly and vocally, not least because Grimmie was a Christian. In the wake of Orlando, the responses were much more measured. Pastors tweeted that they were #praying for the families of victims. Many – including Donald Trump – used the massacre as an opportunity for political point scoring, issuing 'I told you so's' about the dangers contained in America's Muslim population. Few recognised the atrocity for what it was – a targeted attack on the LGBT community. 

Orlando should make us sick. Sick to our stomachs at the depravity of Mateen's actions, at the unspeakable pain that he will have caused for hundreds of parents, siblings, friends and partners. As with any other atrocity, we should be horrified; we should feel outrage; we should feel enormous sympathy.

But that's not all we should do. Because if we're really honest about some of our natural responses to Saturday night, then we can also take this opportunity to allow God to challenge and change us. And just as he might when there's a flood or a famine, we can ask him to use us to help those who suffer and bring change where it's needed. There are five elements to the response I believe the church – all of us – can and should make in the wake of Orlando.

Mourn - Paul writes in Romans 12:15 that we should "mourn with those who mourn" (anyone worried about my proof text exegesis can relax; this comes in the middle of vv14-21, which applies to the whole community, not just the church). He wants to see Christian love in action, because like Jesus he knows that this is how we truly love, and also how others will know that we're different. Practically that means putting aside any conflicted feelings we may have around people's sexuality or 'lifestyle choices', and simply allowing us to feel as God does; a sense of utter devastation at this tragic waste of life. Naturally our response becomes to offer compassion, support and understanding to those involved, and indeed to the entire LGBT community.

Pray - Talk is cheap, and so is that generally misleading Internet hashtag, #praying. Instead, Christians should do what Christians have done best for two thousand years; to invoke the help and intervention of the almighty. Pete Greig, the founder of 24-7 prayer, posted a simple list of prayer responses the day after the massacre, writing: "Would we ‪#‎PrayForOrlando more if the terror had taken place in a church this morning instead of a gay club? If so, we know very little in our heart of hearts of Christ's true mercy. Let's pray together: comfort for the grieving, strength for the medics, peace for the city." These are excellent, worthy prayers and a great starting point; I'd also add that we should pray for justice (even if we don't yet know what that looks like), for good legislative change to come as a result, and for the news story itself not to become hijacked by those who'd seek to misuse it for political ends (see next point). Most importantly though, we should simply pray God's peace and presence in Orlando, and not just think or talk about doing so.

Respect - We need to call this what it is: a targeted hate crime. We must not allow this story (as Sky News and The Sun already seem to have done in the UK) to become subverted into a story about terror, ISIS and general American safety. We should call out the harmful idea that this could have been any nightclub; it just happened to be a gay one. This was no coincidence, and suggesting that it was only increases the pain and sense of injustice that the LGBT community is feeling.

Welcome - For years campaigners within the church have been pointing to the number of gay Christian teenagers who've committed or attempted suicide because they were unable to reconcile their faith and their sexuality. That in itself hasn't been enough to help many churches become welcoming to and accepting of LGBT people, although of course, many are. There is no argument for churches actively rejecting any people on the basis of their sexuality or gender, and perhaps that is even clearer in the light of this attack upon those who don't fit the neat heterosexual male/female mould. Of course 'welcome' and 'acceptance' will look vastly different between different churches, but we need to get better at managing the tension between strong and respectfully held theological beliefs on certain behaviours, and unconditional love. And the love must come first.

Rethink. It's time to change the narrative on Gun Control. Christians – who still represent a huge and awesomely powerful political lobby in the US – simply have to take the lead on cutting back, and perhaps eventually stamping out personal gun ownership. Most of the arguments against that are wounded every time America suffers another of these regular gun massacres; the rest are simply pragmatic (the bad guys already have guns, so we must have them too), but Jesus was an idealist who called people to a better way of living. I do not underestimate how hard this is, or how entrenched this right and value feels for my American cousins. But incidents like this should act as a prompt to offer every area of our thinking to God and ask: is it possible that I could be wrong on this?

Christians haven't been silent in the hours following this atrocity, but we have been subdued. So perhaps it's worth reminding ourselves: we're supposed to be the light of the world. When evil strikes, as it does, and it will, we should be among the first responders every time, and not just when the victims fit our profile of those who are somehow most worthy of our grief. It's not enough simply to agree that the human loss is tragic; we must be part of creating a world where the kind of hatred and intolerance which motivated Omar S Mateen simply cannot prevail. For the church, this is the perfect moment to stop standing against the LGBT community, and start standing alongside them. Otherwise not only do we miss a huge opportunity to build bridges and demonstrate our saviour's love, but we risk getting caught on the wrong side of history.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders