Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. —2 Timothy 4:2-4
There were others who wandered the countryside, performing “miracles,” proclaiming new ideas about God, collecting disciples, and even baptizing others. Within this context, the author of 2 Timothy offers a critical warning to Christ-followers. Competing ideas abound when it comes to who or what demands our loyalty as Christians. We must weigh carefully whether the ideas grounding our faith actually reflect the truth of the gospel—that God wants for us life and life abundant.
When it comes to the facts surrounding domestic violence (or intimate partner violence), the challenge presented in the fourth chapter of 2 Timothy remains as relevant today as it was more than 2000 years ago. In the U.S., “abundant life” competes regularly with the false prophets of violence. The terrifying rate at which women are dying at the hands of their intimate partners intersects with an entrenched American gun culture that has sold believers on the idea that more guns means more safety. In reality, women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other high-income countries.
Over the course of October, or Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an average of five women per day—155 total—will be killed with guns. Intimate partners will comprise the majority of their killers, and too many who embrace death over life will come from Christian congregations.
The recent shooting in Oregon marks the 294th mass shooting in 2015 alone, a terrifying number in its own right and a reminder of just how far America has enmired itself in the consequences of its gun culture. More than half of all mass shootings also include the death of an intimate partner and family member.
Nearly four-in-ten Americans report living in a house with guns. Among Christians, white mainline Protestants (54 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (58 percent) make up the highest share of gun–owning households, far exceeding gun ownership among Catholics, black Protestants, and other denominations and traditions. That means more than half of all gun owners are affiliated with two of the largest Christian traditions in the United States.
Having a gun in the home dramatically increases the likelihood of gun deaths, especially among women experiencing intimate partner violence. If abusers have access to a firearm, a domestic violence incident is 500 times more likely to end with the woman being shot and killed. And 38 percent of those homicides will be accompanied by the shooting death of others including children, other family members, or bystanders.
At the same time, statistics show that more than one-third of women murdered in the U.S. are killed by a male intimate partner. Domestic violence numbers hold steady across religious lines—even though 74 percent of faith leaders reportedly “underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced in their congregations.” Two out of three pastors report discussing domestic or intimate partner violence only once or less in any given year. What’s more, one survey of almost 6,000 pastors showed that more than 50 percent of those surveyed would advise that women learn to submit to abuse and tolerate violence rather than leave their spouse or seek divorce.
The statistics demonstrate that women in many of our congregations are especially vulnerable to gun violence at the hands of an intimate partner. As abuse escalates in households with gun access, the “Christian” admonition to remain with a partner can become a literal command of faithfulness unto death.
This type of theological perspective is especially alarming when a pastor also holds dangerously misinformed beliefs about gun ownership. About 8 in 10 conservative pastors believe that gun ownership protects people from being the victim of a crime. Only 7 percent of conservative pastors believe it is necessary to control gun ownership, compared to 49 percent of American adults. Two-thirds of all intimate partner homicides involve a gun, but less than one in five conservative pastors believe that gun ownership puts people’s safety at risk.
Political messaging—heavily funded by the gun lobby—also continues to privilege a false “gospel” of unfettered gun access in the name of “liberty.” This vision of liberty sits in opposition to a true Christian commitment to freedom in abundant life, nonviolence, and care for the vulnerable. Unfortunately some churches have bought in to this myth, seeking to attract members by literally giving guns away to worshipers. When the National Rifle Association starts writing not just our public policy, but our theology as well, we put the lives of women and families at grave risk.
Still, a strong majority of Americans report a strong preference for the types of stricter gun regulations that could help keep women safe. These include controlling gun ownership in commonsense ways—keeping guns out of the hands of convicted abusers and stalkers, making sure records for abusers are current in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, requiring a background check for all gun sales, and requiring abusers to surrender any firearms.
Even so, many Christians continue to question the need for stronger gun laws. While black Protestants (71 percent) and Catholics (59 percent) represent the highest levels of support for stricter gun control laws among Christians, white mainline Protestants are split on the need for stricter gun laws (47 percent favor, 51 percent oppose)—with higher resistance to tighter restrictions when they themselves are gun owners. And staggeringly, 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants solidly oppose stricter gun laws. Among white Evangelicals who “say the term ‘pro-life’ describes them very well,” 64 percent actually oppose stricter gun laws that can help keep more women alive.
Christians need to do a better job when it comes to preventing violence and abuse in our congregations and communities. From our pulpits and in our pews, we must talk about the relationship between domestic violence and guns. And we must hold lawmakers who claim to be pro-faith, pro-life, or pro-family to account.
For so long as guns—and not God—ground the theology of American Christians, it is overwhelmingly women and children who pay the price.