Did you listen to Donald Trump’s speech to the NRA in Atlanta on Friday? It was the first time since Reagan that a president addressed this powerful lobby group, and Trump was in his element, firing up the crowd’s fear of immigrants and contrasting his own strongman tactics with the Obama administration’s failure, in the right’s imagination, to support police or veterans. And, yes, he reminded the crowd that he won in November, to the surprise of the media, and, just 100 days into the worst first 100 we’ve seen in modern history, he spoke about his plan to run in 2020.
So, there was a lot to unpack, but it doesn’t take much nuanced thinking to do it: more bluster, more opportunistic promises (Trump’s inconsistencies on gun control has garnered him derision among many gun rights advocates–but not enough to make him lose their vote.), more racism, and, always, always, always, the fearmongering. Though the Obama administration did virtually nothing–even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings of a room of kindergartners–to address gun control, Trump said that an “eight year assault on gun rights was ending and that the government would no longer be “coming after” law-abiding gun owners. Sure, that never happened, but whatever. The point is that Americans need to be afraid! “These are horrible times for certain, obvious reasons,” Trump told the crowd, who were able to fill in those “obvious reasons” themselves (immigrants, black people).
In some ways, I feel quite sorry for Trump supporters, who must be the most afraid people in America. For the Christians among them, this is an even more pitiful state, for they’ve chosen to exchange the confidence their faith promises for fear. That’s an act of disobedience, and the consequence is a life of constant suspicion, susceptibility to savior figures, a surrender of joy, and a failure to be spiritually prepared for suffering.
For Mennonites and other people of faiths that reject violence, one particular moment in Trump’s NRA speech reminds us that our religion is a currency, not a real consideration, in how politicians treat us. Trump promised to protect the “sacred right of self-defense for all of our citizens.”
Above, a close up of “the Crusader,” a tactical rifle with Psalm 144:1 (“Blessed by the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle”) etched on one side; on the other is the Knights Templar Long Cross, a symbol of the Crusaders during their attempt to take the Holy Land from Muslim control. The gun was specifically designed with “Christian values” in mind, according to the Florida manufacturer.
For Mennonites, the “sacred right of self-defense” is an oxymoron. We might disagree about whether we ought to engage in self-defense at all and if, so, in under which circumstances and in which ways. We might disagree about whether guns can be used for that purpose and whether a gun itself invites such violence. We can argue about whether the Constitution gives us an individual right to handgun ownership or if it reserves the use of weapons for well-regulated militias.
But what we can’t disagree on, I think, is the idea that our right to kill another person, for any reason, is a “sacred right.” We have no models of “sacred self-defense” in the teaching of Jesus, and we have the most important model–of Jesus’ death–that counters this. Unlike most white Americans, early Christians had reason to be afraid, for their lives were in constant danger. And, yet, still, they are told over and over not to live in fear but in joy. Our “sacred right” isn’t an uninformed optimism that we will always be safe; it’s that we will always be loved–and that we experience that love more fully (and share it more generously) when we surrender our fear.