House Bill 1237, which is before the Arkansas legislature, would remove churches and other places of worship from the list of prohibited places for a person licensed to carry a concealed handgun. Congregations wishing to opt out would have to post a notice in plain sight.
Proponents of the bill point to cases in recent years where worshippers have been attacked or killed while on the grounds of a church or synagogue. Nonetheless, this act feels to me more like an attempt to expand the rights of gun owners than to protect those attending worship.
If the safety of those attending worship is the real issue, then uniformed security personnel — armed or not — would be a far greater deterrent to violence than the possibility that someone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon might actually have done so at any given service of worship.
Further, if there were to be an incident inside a place of worship, what would someone with a concealed weapon do? A confrontation between armed individuals could put bystanders at far greater risk.
For centuries places of worship have been considered “sanctuaries” from the world and its violence. In many places, a man fleeing for his life was allowed by law to take shelter inside certain churches until the matter could be sorted out. In case the church was locked there were often large rings on the doors that acted like “base” in freeze tag. Holding that ring offered the same protection as entering the church. The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket as he stood at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 was considered all the more heinous because it violated the sanctity of the sanctuary.
The historic significance of “sanctuary” notwithstanding, the church as a community of faith is not guaranteed greater protection from the world than any other entity. In fact Christians worship a God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, died a horrific death for the sake of the world.
For this reason Christians are called to live lives of greater vulnerability to the world, not greater safety from it. As long as anyone is at risk from gun violence — students, teachers, doctors, law enforcement officials, elected leaders, cultural or ethnic minorities — the church has a share in that risk and an obligation to demonstrate the resolve for love over violence.
I am not insensitive to the danger. But it concerns me that the bill under consideration would fundamentally alter one normative aspect of the relationship between churches and the state. Already those for whom it is legal to carry a firearm in plain sight may do so on church grounds. Now the state would create the assumption that legally possessed firearms may be carried onto any and all religious property at any time unless otherwise stated. That is not a decision the state should make. Churches should be assumed as off-limits to concealed weapons, not the other way around.
My prayer is that no congregation or religious body will ever have to experience violence. In the meantime I hope the state of Arkansas will not encroach on the fundamental nature of religious institutions as places of worship engaged in the search for wholeness and health. If nothing else, it should be assumed that our houses of worship stand as reminders of God's peaceable kingdom and as beacons of light and life, especially in such a storm-tossed world.
Rev. Jim Freeman is interim pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church of Pine Bluff.