Like the rest of the nation, we were shocked by the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last week.

 Earlier this year we became aware of a new book, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. We thought, following a number of mass shootings in recent years, especially those this summer at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that this was a topic that deserved attention. So we asked our friend Rick Barger, who had been a pastor at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado, at the time of the Columbine High School shootings, to reflect on the book and write a review for Congregations magazine.

 And then, last Friday, came the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first graders. What had been an important topic for discussion became a pressing one. A passionate national debate on the role of guns in society is underway, and we wanted to share this reflection as a theological resource for our readers.


America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé by Jim Atwood

Review by Rick Barger

 I wish I had written Jim Atwood’s book. It not only powerfully places America’s deathly covenant with arms and violence within a sinister theological framework of idolatry, it also is a wake-up call for the church to give voice and lend action to a national obsession that is literally killing us. Atwood is thorough, well-researched, and compelling. He earned the right to write this book. His impassioned presentation leaves no holds barred.

 April 20, 1999, changed my life. I was on the scene within minutes after the shootings broke out at Columbine High School. I spent the day as a victim’s assistant, was the first face that many students and faculty members saw after being evacuated from the building, and was certainly traumatized myself by the senseless carnage and terror of the event. From that day and into the weeks that followed, I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and pain. As the lead pastor of what was described as a “ground zero” congregation, “Columbine,” as the event would be known, became a part of who I was. 

 Whether speaking with the media in the aftermath of the event, preaching at specially called worship services, or being called upon to speak in places like Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Blacksburg, I shared a very thoughtful message I had honed entitled, “Lessons from Columbine: A Theological Perspective.” My voice in the aftermath was to address the stubborn questions that surfaced immediately, such as, “How could God let this happen?” I would also speak to the difficulties communities had in finding healing after such an event. In response to the God question, I would use Luther’s theology of the cross and reframe the question into proclaiming the very presence of God in the tragedy. “God took a bullet and died in the halls of Columbine.” I would point to the empty tomb and the power of God to raise up the dead and communities who grieve. When asked about guns, I would give an answer that was not as thoughtful. “I call for a national meltdown of all weapons.” I even tweeted that mantra in the hours after the recent massacre in the theater in Aurora. Never did I get at the heart of the matter as Jim Atwood has. Again, I wish I had written Atwood’s book. 

Continue reading Rick Barger’s book review 

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