After the Desecration of the Holy Places

Author: Rob Schenck

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the author of the book, "Costly Grace".

It’s deeply painful to rehearse again: multiple murders inside a house of worship. The most recent slaughter was at a Jewish synagogue, but only days before there was an unsuccessful attempt on an African American church. These sacred places join an ever-increasing number of Christian, Islamic, Sikh, and Mormon sanctuaries that have been violated by deadly gunfire in the last six years. At one time in America, such holy places were considered off-limits for killing, but not anymore.

This lamentable reality has been known by religious communities in other countries for millennia. One of the reasons so many refugees come to the United States is because it has long had a reputation for being consummately safe for adherents of any faith. That is no longer true. The bright line that once kept even the most wicked people outside the sanctuary doors has been breached too often to think that such a boundary will be respected again anytime soon.

Bloodstained sanctuaries present religious leaders with a seeming dilemma—leave their flocks vulnerable to deadly violence, or, employ lethal force to stave off such attacks. I’m convinced there are better options than these two. One of the elements that sets off holy places from common places is their association with the virtues of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, hope, and the human and divine bonds of love. Introducing deadly weapons into these spaces would mean nullifying these qualities and replacing them with the anxiety, intimidation, tension, and suspicion that normally attend the potential use of lethal force.

Religious communities dedicated to the preservation of life have a myriad of creative ways to contain and repel would-be attackers. Comprehensive camera surveillance paired with a non-violent rapid response team controlling one-way entry points, door locks, evacuation orders and management, barriers, reverse sanctuary configurations, patrol cars in the parking lots and uniformed police officers walking building perimeters are just the start. The idea of gunfights over the heads of congregants at prayer just can’t be the only creative solution to this problem.

Most religious bodies, by their very nature, point members to the transcendent—a dimension over and above the normal. The unique power of religion is found in its source, beyond the limits of the natural world and human ingenuity. We are a very creative species to begin with, but a connection to the divine makes us limitless. As Christians read it in our sacred book, “Nothing is impossible with God.” If we believe that concept as a principle of faith, then we are certainly not limited to a twelfth-century brutal machine that blows holes in human bodies and leaves both the perpetrators of violence and, often, their intended victims dead. Surely, those who believe in the supernatural, can do better—and we must—now.