It’s been a long time since I’ve written here. I’ve been troubled by many things I’d like to talk about, but the words haven’t come. Where should I start? ISIS? Trump? Guns?

I think I’ll begin with guns. I’d like to talk about the speech Jerry Falwell Jr. gave on December 4 to his students at Liberty University. But I’ll start with a different story.

Last year, I invited my friend and Christian dialogue partner Anthony Le Donne to visit my synagogue in Los Angeles for Shabbat. I hoped he’d be impressed by our Buddhist-inspired meditation service, or our Torah teaching, or the conversation with my Rabbi during lunch. I think Anthony enjoyed it all. But when it was over, and we were alone to talk, the first thing Anthony mentioned was the security guard posted in front of the synagogue. I remember his asking me if the guard carried a gun. I didn’t know the answer, and I still don’t.

It caught me by surprise, that the first thing Anthony wanted to discuss was security at synagogue. Was the presence of a security guard at a house of worship so unusual in his experience? Anthony replied that he couldn’t remember ever seeing such a thing at a church. And he asked me: how did I feel worshipping, knowing that there was security (perhaps, armed security) at the synagogue door? I remember not exactly answering his question. Truth is, his question bugged me a little bit. It was Shabbat, for heaven’s sake, and we were supposed to be engaged in an interfaith experience of worship. Why wasn’t he able to put our synagogue security out of mind … the way I typically do? Why was this a big deal for him?

Within two weeks of Anthony’s visit to my synagogue, a lone gunman murdered three people in a mass shooting at a Jewish community center and Jewish retirement community, both in Overland Park, Kansas. Anthony and I contacted each other, practically simultaneously, within an hour of the shooting. I don’t remember what we said to each other. But I remember thinking, “So this is why we have security at our synagogue.” Not only because the guards offer protection … but so we can pray without fear, or at least, pray with less fear. And I remember hearing Anthony’s original question to me in a different way, a way that was probably closer to the way he originally meant it: “Do the synagogue guards make you feel safe?”

This is part of how memory works: two events can join together in a way that prevents either event from being forgotten. For me, the memory of Overland Park is layered over that of Anthony’s visit to my synagogue. I remember after Anthony’s visit, after Overland Park, walking by the churches near my home, many with doors open and unguarded. Nothing prevents me from entering these churches and sitting down in a back pew to catch my breath and think whatever thoughts come to mind. I’ve been known to do just that. The problem with guards is that they pose an obstacle; they are there to keep people out. I bet few Christians walk by my synagogue and think about coming in to rest their legs and maybe say a prayer or two. Maybe Christians wouldn’t think they’d be welcome, paying even an unguarded synagogue a surprise visit. But I also wonder if unaffiliated Jews, Jews who think that maybe they’ll join a synagogue one day, walk by my synagogue, see the guard … and hesitate. I think it’s not easy, opening a door you’ve never opened before to enter an unfamiliar space. The presence of that guard, that maybe-armed guard, makes the move into unfamiliar territory just a little bit harder.

I brought this topic up to my Rabbi, shortly after Overland Park, and she said that our synagogue’s security is not as foreboding as that elsewhere in the Jewish world. She’s right about this. There are synagogues (including some close to me) that sometimes install water-filled traffic barriers around their buildings—to protect us, I suppose, from bomb-laden trucks and other similar vehicular threats. I described to my Rabbi the churches in my neighborhood with their open doors, and she responded with incredulity. Surely those churches don’t keep their doors unlocked and unguarded when children are present? She may be right about that, too. The Catholic Church near our house protects the school playground with a locked gate and intercom … but if they have security personnel on site, I’ve never seen them. And I can’t imagine that the locked gate would stand up for more than a few seconds against an assailant armed with automatic weapons, or even an assailant with a ladder.

I have to assume that the churches in my neighborhood feel a sense of confidence that we don’t feel in the Jewish world. There’s something called the National Church Shooting Database that recorded a total of 139 church shootings between 1980 and 2005. But most of those shootings had nothing to do with religion: they were domestic disputes that spilled over into church, or they were armed robberies or gang related. Only about 6% of these shootings were connected to religious bias or hatred. A second database records more incidents, including an increasing number of incidents since 2005, but reaches the same conclusion about the percentage of incidents caused by hatred of the church. Does this mean that churches are targeted more often, or less often, than synagogues? I don’t know. I’ve never seen comparative statistics.

But if we focus on churches in the African-American community, the picture changes. There’s a terrible history of violent attacks against black churches, particularly in the American south. This year’s mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was a grim reminder of this past. There are at least 94 cases of bombings, arson, shootings and other hate-related attacks against black churches since the 1950s.

Traditionally, black churches have adopted an open-door policy, where all are welcome to pray. This is how the white killer in Charleston was able to gain access to the Emanuel AME church—he entered, and no questions were asked. Since the Charleston shooting, many black churches have strengthened their security plans, but the idea of a locked door or an armed guard seems to rub many of these churches the wrong way. The church belongs to the Lord, said one pastor, who proclaimed that he had no authority to restrict access to his church. The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, proclaimed after the attack in Charleston that “We’re not going to sit back and take it anymore,” but Evans has rejected any security measure involving guns. Evans advocates a non-violent reaction to terrorism aimed at black churches. In doing so, Evans is not necessarily sacrificing good security in favor of good theology. Fact is, institutional anti-terror plans need not include an armed response.

If you want to know more about guns in churches, synagogues and other like institutions, it would be worth your while to read advice from the experts. Take a look here, and here, and here, and here. If your house of worship is serious about protecting its congregants from terrorism, then its efforts will look like this: threat assessments. Security awareness training. Risk identification. Coordination with local law enforcement.  Most of these security steps are not sexy: locking broom closets, or inventorying buildings for every nook and cranny where a bomb might be hidden. And, of course, there’s the step that started my conversation with Anthony: hiring someone with “SECURITY” written on the back of his or her jacket.

Let’s look at one anti-terrorism planning guide for North American Jewish schools. This guide contains a 14 page checklist for a school emergency preparedness audit. I encourage you to browse through this document. It is hardly a liberal document. It is not concerned with keeping doors open, or welcoming strangers, or promoting the value of nonviolence. It is concerned with protecting the lives of students, teachers, and others present at the school. Search through the document, and see if you can find a recommendation that schools use guns as a means of protection. You’ll find a statement that schools consider the need for “a qualified armed security guard.” The guide also asks schools to consider whether they should “have a relationship with a private security company” and/or “trained community members” in the event that “armed security is needed immediately” and “police are unavailable.” But there’s no blanket recommendation that anyone be armed.

I’m no expert on anti-terrorism. But when it comes to ordinary folk, the most important steps appear to focus on planning and prevention. When prevention fails, expert advice is universal: if faced with a live terrorist, the best thing ordinary people can do is flee the scene. If you want to help others, help them to flee with you, and once you’re out, try to keep others out. And call 911. If you can’t run, then hide. Secure your hiding place. If neither running nor hiding is an option, only then, be prepared to fight.  This isn’t my advice; it’s the advice of the FBI. And an ex-Navy SEAL. Run, hide, fight (in that order) is the universally-accepted rule in these cases.

This brings us, finally, to the topic I mentioned at the very beginning: the December 4 speech given by Jerry Falwell Jr. to his students at Liberty University. For those who don’t know, Liberty University is the largest Christian university in the United States, if we include its online enrollment. Mr. Falwell is Liberty’s President, and his take on anti-terrorism is a little … er, different than the ones we’ve surveyed so far.

You may have read about Mr. Falwell’s comments. He made them in reaction to President Obama’s push for stronger gun controls, which in turn is in reaction to the mass shootings in San Bernardino, and Colorado Springs, and Roseburg, and so many other places. Falwell was incredulous that Obama would advocate gun control as a means to discourage mass shootings. He indicated that the tragedy in San Bernardino might have been averted if the victims had been armed. He indicated that he was at that moment carrying a gun of some type in his back pocket. Then he uttered the remark that received the most attention: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed.” He finished by encouraging his students to get permits to carry concealed weapons, by taking the “free course” offered at Liberty. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

If you haven’t watched a video of Falwell’s speech, please do:

The video reveals what a written transcript does not. For example, Falwell laughed twice after revealing that he was carrying a gun. It’s funny stuff, evidently, for Falwell and much of his audience. Falwell’s audience frequently interrupted him with enthusiastic and delighted applause. The entire scene was filled with a kind of … well, the word that springs to mind is joy. Everyone was having a great time, talking about guns on campus and ending “those Muslims.”

Oh, about that phrase of Falwell’s, “those Muslims.” Falwell later explained that he was referring to “Islamic terrorists,” and still later he claimed he intended to refer only to the two killers in the San Bernardino mass killing. His explanation provides me with no comfort. Anytime I see a Gentile refer to “those Jews,” my shoulders tense and I hold my breath, anticipating the anti-Semitism that’s likely to follow. I’d be a hypocrite to hear “those Muslims” in a way that’s different from how I hear “those Jews.”

But a full and proper condemnation of Falwell’s Islamophobia will have to wait for another day. (For certain, many Christians—including those at other Christian universities—have condemned Falwell’s comments in strongest terms.) Remember … this post is about guns. But I don’t want to talk about guns in general (at least, not in this post). I don’t own guns or like guns, but I’m no expert on gun control or concealed carry. What I DO want to talk about is the topic of guns in church and synagogue.

Specifically, when I consider Falwell’s speech, a number of points jump out at me:

  • A Christian university offers a “free course” so its students can get a license to carry a concealed firearm? Why are guns so important to the folks at Liberty that they offer a course on concealed carry free of charge? If a Christian college offers free courses on carrying guns, but charges money for courses on the Gospels and the letters of Paul, what does this say about the school’s priorities and mission?
  • If Falwell thinks that concealed carry is good for a Christian university, does he recommend that all religious students carry guns? For the life of me, I cannot imagine Hebrew Union College training future Rabbis how to carry guns. And if an American Islamic college encouraged future Muslim leaders to arm themselves? I can’t even begin to fathom what the reaction would be.
  • I can’t find any religious content in Falwell’s speech (or at least, the portion of the speech that reached the mass media). Shouldn’t scripture have at least received a mention here? In an interview after his speech, Falwell mentioned how Jesus chased money changers out of the Temple with a whip. But I don’t think this citation says much for Falwell’s ability to read scripture. Even if we consider this story to be historically accurate (and many scholars do not), there’s no indication that Jesus’ whip represented deadly force. Moreover, Jesus did not conceal this whip and carry it into the Temple. John’s Gospel indicates that Jesus created the whip on the Temple grounds, from “small cords.”
  • I can’t help but think of the contrast between Falwell’s enthusiastic recommendation of concealed carry, and the opposition to guns expressed by African-American church leaders like Rev. Anthony Evans. For certain, black churches have faced a threat of violence unlike anything Falwell faces at Liberty. If Evans can move forward without guns, why not Falwell?
  • If Falwell meant to describe how to act in the face of a terrorist attack, then his advice is terrible. We’ve already seen the advice given by experts: running and hiding are the best options. “Run, Hide, Fight”  is precisely the advice given by Falwell’s own experts at Liberty. Falwell should have told his students to use force only as a last resort—for their own safety—even if he thinks that Christians can and should carry concealed firearms.
  • Why did Falwell laugh? Even if Falwell believes that Christians should carry guns for self-protection … why does this make him so happy? Why do so many of his students whoop and holler at the mention of concealed carry? Shouldn’t we instead regret the intrusion of firearms into our sacred spaces, even if we think such intrusion is necessary?

I have to conclude that Falwell’s back-pocket gun, and Liberty’s offering of a free class on concealed carry, is about something other than anti-terrorism. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out what this is about. So, good readers, I’m asking for your help. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

When you make your comments, please avoid bashing Mr. Falwell if you can. (At least, don’t bash him any worse than I just did). I’m not interested in rehashing the war between liberals and conservatives. I’m just interested in understanding where we’re all coming from. Also, let’s not get into a competition over which religion has the better view of guns. I’m sure that some Jews also carry concealed weapons into synagogue.

Liberty calls its students “champions for Christ.” It strikes me that a “champion” is not the same thing as a “disciple.” Jesus said that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” It strikes me that a “champion” is not the same thing as a “servant.” Do some Christians advocate gun ownership, because it goes along with being a “champion”? Do they understand service and discipleship in a way I’m not understanding?

What am I missing?

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    This is one of your best, from the reading of Jesus as carrying a non-concealed weapon into the Temple, to your question about offering courses for free on how to get a concealed weapon license and charging money for courses on the Gospels. Then there’s the comparison of Reverend Evans’ attitude towards guns with that of Reverend Falwell. Talk about your Christmas cornucopia. Thanks.

  • Marie Hartung

    I do wonder why if the experts say that we learn to run first (which does seem like sound like good advice – I like the get-the-f***-out plan) why not offer free courses on sprinting and long distance running? How about doing drills for how quickly and effectively people can hide somewhere, like the CA earthquake drills of our youth (we were timed to see how fast we got under desks). The reason, as you point out, isn’t that this has anything to do with ACTUALLY protecting people from terrorists and living another day and instead has more to do with furthering the gun agenda as a political movement and iconic representation (I submit abortion/right to choose is a similar issue that has less to do about saving babies and more about a representative agenda). Guns define who we are and are not in this country now more than ever. And as you also point out, provides a false sense of security. Reality is, any terrorist who wants to come and shoot up your synagogue or any religious house of worship WILL, with or without an armed guard present (who, is making $11/hr and likely has minimal training), and the occupants during such an event have a higher chance of being paralyzed (“but there was a GUARD with a GUN, we thought HE was going to save us. It never occurred to us to get the f*** out!). It’s just another way to dumb down our instincts and blur our ability to make good choices when a gun is wedged between us and the outside world.

    • Well … let’s give our security guards their due. On average, they’re paid a little better than you suggest. As for training, these requirements are set on the State level. In California as an example, armed guards are required to undergo 14 hours of training, go through a series of background checks, be periodically recertified, and so forth. If we want better-trained security personnel, we have the political ability to make it so. In the meantime, I think we understand that hiring a security guard is no guarantee of safety, but if what we’re looking for is a comprehensive plan to protect a church or similar institution, the presence of an armed guard might be a part of that plan.

      But as you’ve understood, I didn’t set out to write a blog post on how to plan for an attack against a house of worship! Instead, I looked at the question of institutional security to make it clear that Mr. Falwell must have had something else in mind when he recommended concealed carry. And you’re right about guns and the American definition. I may not see myself in terms of guns, but as an American, this is part of how I’m seen from the outside. I guess that gun-ownership and gun-carrying is part of how some American Christians define themselves, but I’m still wondering if guns speak only to the American self-definition, or if they cross over to a certain kind of Christian self-definition.

      And again to clarify, I don’t mean to pick only on Christians. Falwell is an easy target. You don’t have to be a Christian to have a religious feeling about firearms.