One of the strongest values of a faith community is to be welcoming. We all want meaningful communal experiences at our places of worship. Unfortunately the value of security often clashes with being welcoming. Faith communities across the country are scared. They are scared to let violence through the doors of their homes, their places of worship and their schools. At congregations we respond to this fear by attempting to be more secure. But this is only an attempt. We lock our entrances, install security cameras, and hire guards. We sacrifice our value of welcoming for security. We do this because the amount of powerful firearms available to individuals with hatred in their heart is truly terrifying. We pray for our safety but we are tired of being afraid.
As people of faith we consider thoughts and prayers to be very important parts of our lives. We pray joyfully in gratitude, we pray solemnly in sorrow, and we pray for guidance about the actions we should take. Sadly, in the face of rampant gun violence, our national refrain of “thoughts and prayers” has excluded that essential aspect of taking action. This has left us in a tragic cycle of murder, grief, thoughts and prayers, and repeat. Through inaction, our country has chosen this as part of our shared rhythm — even as our children are slaughtered.
But for the first time in three decades, our leaders have been moved to action. The bipartisan gun safety bill the Senate passed is an important first step. It expands background check requirements of prospective gun buyers under the age of 21, establishes new penalties for those who illegally buy a gun for another person, and provides funding for expanded mental health and school safety programs. At the same time, it does not infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners, which is important to so many Alaskans. These are not extremist positions: They have overwhelming support from U.S. voters, and similar measures have been successful in other nations, including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Norway. If we choose not to enact similar ones here, we choose instead to perpetuate the pattern of our children hiding in fear under their desks at school, and our faith communities worshiping in holy spaces that function like besieged fortresses.
Laws like these are essential as we consider the safety of our faith communities. A life of faith is not just held internally in one’s own hearts and souls, and it is not expressed only in individual interactions. It is lived out in how we shape the society at large. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.” Our laws are an expression of our shared sense of community ethics. Our laws are our societal decisions about what we can morally tolerate. This is clearly not a Republican or Democrat issue, it is a moral issue; it’s not an issue of right and left, it’s an issue of right and wrong.
We thank Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other members of Congress for backing this commonsense bill to curb gun violence; for protecting our freedoms while also protecting our children. Because thoughts and prayers are wonderful. We believe that they are essential. But only — only — if they are coupled with works of justice and righteousness. With this new legislation, our thoughts and prayers are finally being followed up by action.
Reverend Matthew Schultz is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage.
Rabbi Abram Goodstein serves as rabbi for Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage.
Heather Robertson Barbour is a representative at the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage.
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