(I wrote this following the recent school shooting in Florida. It was published in the Longmont Times-call on February 25, 2018 under the title, “Addressing gun violence with a better understanding of freedom of religion.”)
In the aftermath of the latest school shooting, there will undoubtedly be lots of discussion about the second amendment, the one that has to do with our right to bear arms. But though finding reasonable ways to keep guns out the hands of those inclined to violence may be helpful, it doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem. Ultimately the root problem is not having too many guns or having easy access to them; it is our failure to help people like Nicholas Cruz to find more constructive ways to deal with their internal struggles.
I believe that our misunderstanding and subsequent misapplication of the first amendment contributes to this failure. This amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The original intent of this amendment was to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion while preserving the rights of citizens to express their own views about God freely – to have the freedom of religion. This amendment has been interpreted in recent decades however as an imperative to keep religion totally separate from government – to keep government free from religion – by removing all references to God, the Bible, and religion from our public venues.
I believe that our efforts to interpret and apply the first amendment in this fashion has done more harm than good. For one thing, it inadvertently communicates to those who may know little about God that He doesn’t exist, or if He does that He doesn’t care about our troubles, or that it doesn’t matter what we believe about Him. In an environment like this where expressions of faith are discouraged rather than applauded, people like Cruz who may be struggling with a myriad of internal conflicts are left with the notion that they have few alternatives for dealing with their inner turmoil other than to express their anger or frustration in destructive ways.
The Bible and its expression through the Christian faith has much to offer in this respect. It teaches that we are all broken people who pretty much can’t fix ourselves. It reminds us that God did something to remedy this and that when His Son Jesus was crucified, He provided a path to both personal and spiritual redemption. It promises that we can find true peace and joy by having a personal relationship with Jesus and that even in our darkest moments He will always love us and remain with us. It also communicates that there are significant consequences, some of them eternal, for those who refuse to acknowledge their need for Him or who give into their inclination towards violence or evil.
I don’t know if Cruz ever heard this message or if he did, how he responded to it. But if encouraging expressions of faith like this in our public places could have motivated him or others like him to consider making a different and better choice in dealing with their inner turmoil, wouldn’t it be worth it even if some may have been offended by hearing that message?
Maybe it’s time to change our understanding and application of the first amendment so that there are more opportunities for people to hear about the redemptive work of Jesus, even if it results in increased expressions of faith in our public spaces.