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When Rabbi Hillel Norry walks though the valley of the shadow of death, he carries something more than a rod and a staff to comfort him.
He tucks a large-caliber handgun in his waistband and keeps a watchful eye on his synagogue.
A black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Norry says he armed himself years ago after a man who had left anti-Semitic messages on his phone appeared at a synagogue he once led and threatened to harm him.
A lanky man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Norry says he is a man of peace – he’s a vegetarian who believes in “ethical eating.” But he also says it’s ethical for clergy and parishioners to be armed. He cites the Bible’s description of religious leaders as “shepherds” as proof.
“If we’re the shepherds, the first job of the shepherd is to protect the flock from the wolf,” says Norry, a visiting rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Gulfport, Mississippi. “Why does a shepherd carry a stick? So he can whack the wolf.”
Some theological questions are abstract, but after an attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania left 11 people dead, here’s one that is urgent and raw:
What does the Bible say about arming clergy and people in the pews?
The slayings in Squirrel Hill, the heart of a Jewish community in Pittsburgh, is being called the worst attack on Jews in US history. It was also an assault on something else: the way communities of faith have operated for centuries.
Houses of worship are often called sanctuaries, a refuge from the world. Indeed, the scriptural reading in synagogues around the world Saturday focused on Abraham welcoming strangers, who turned out to be angels.
But Saturday’s shooting was just the latest in a series of mass shootings in houses of worship where the stranger turned out to be armed. A white supremacist killed nine people at a shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. And a gunman killed 26 worshippers at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017.
“I hate that this keeps happening,” says the Rev. Brady Boyd, senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which also became the site of a shooting in 2007. A gunman killed two church members and injured three others just as Sunday service ended.
Boyd cites a saying from Jesus in Matthew 10: 16 to justify why he now has armed security at his church: Jesus said his followers should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
“Because people have been shot and killed on my campus, this is not theory to me,” says Boyd. “I know what can happen if we’re not prepared.”
Part of the preparation is scriptural. Just as people debate the Second Amendment in society, they debate bringing guns to worship in the religious world.
Here’s how they use the Bible to justify their positions:
The Rev. Tim McDonald III says he’s heard clergy cite the Bible to justify arming clergy and congregants.
“That’s absurd,” he says. “When you put that in a house of faith it goes against the tenets of our faith, that our trust is in God and not guns.”
McDonald and others who don’t believe pastors or congregants should be armed cite many of the same scriptures:
Jesus rebukes a disciple who brandishes a sword to defend him, telling him in Matthew 26: 52, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:4 that Christians should use weapons that “are not the weapons of the world.”
Jesus did not use violence to protect himself, as the writer says in 1 Peter 2: 23:
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
There are plenty of disagreements about what Jesus and his apostles did or said, some say, but not when it came to the use of violence. They were nonviolent to the bitter end.
“The apostles endure imprisonment, beatings, torture and martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, and never once lifted a finger to defend themselves through violent means,” wrote G. Shane Morris, in an essay on whether Christians should carry guns in church.
You can’t find a scripture that justifies armed clergy, says McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“I want them to show me; I guarantee you it’s out of context,” McDonald says. “What did Jesus say, ‘Those who live by the sword will also perish by the sword.’ You’ve got to read the whole scripture, not the part that you want to use to support your position.”
McDonald says, however, that he sees no conflict with hiring armed and trained security in church. He says he has moved from a position of “no guns” to church security because of the recent attacks in houses of worship.
But he won’t carry a gun in the pulpit.
“A gun for me is based on fear – you’re expecting the worst,” McDonald says. “That goes against everything I believe. I expect the best. I’m not going to live in fear. Our trust is in God, not in guns.”
Boyd, from Colorado Springs, says he respects pastors who believe they should be armed, but he won’t carry a gun in the pulpit either.
It’s not that he has anything against guns. He says he grew up in the Deep South where he was surrounded by guns. But the notion of an untrained pastor drawing down on a gunman from the pulpit as people flee a crowded sanctuary is unnerving.
“I am not for arming pastors,” he says. “We can actually do more harm than good. The last thing I want to do is to turn it into a Wild West shootout.”
Nor does he want people in his congregation to bring guns to church. Even with his church’s history, he has a message for ordinary parishioners who bring guns to church.
“We tell them to put it back in their cars,” he says.
Norry, the rabbi, has no theological problem with congregants who are trained in self-defense bringing guns to worship.
What, for example, would happen if a gunman first took out a security guard in a house of worship? Guards would be the first target of a gunman, he says. He wants a backup in his congregation because “police cannot prevent bad things; they respond to bad things.”
“If there had been four or five armed people in that synagogue, I don’t know what would have happened,” he says of the congregation in Pittsburgh. “I tell you what, it would have changed the dynamic.”
Those like Norry who say the Bible justifies clergy and congregants bringing guns to worship cite similar passages:
As opposition to him mounted, Jesus told his disciples in Luke: 22: 36-38, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”
David, one of the heroes of the Old Testament, says in Psalms 144:1, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”
Nehemiah 4: 14 says, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
And Genesis 14: 14 is one of Norry’s favorites. It tells a story of Abraham, considered the father of the Jewish faith:
“When Abraham heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.”
“He goes with a militia of people,” Norry says. “He gathers arms and people to rescue his kidnapped nephew. He doesn’t pray to God, ‘Help me make peace among the nations.’ He goes ready to make battle.”
Norry says he doesn’t relish the thought of violence. He calls himself a man of peace. He was reluctant to even talk about the fact that he is armed in worship. And he described President Trump’s comments that an armed guard inside the synagogue would have stopped Saturday’s attack as “tone deaf.”
But his experience and the headlines have made him wonder what he would do if a gunman were to burst into his synagogue or attack his family.
He says violence is justified, “even holy,” when it comes to protecting your children and your congregation.
“How is fighting back worse? I don’t understand that position,” he says. “In that moment, you have to fight. You can talk about reducing hate. I’m for that. But why would you want to make me defenseless?”
It’s not a Biblical passage, but Norry can think of another use of words that could possibly prevent more mass shootings in houses of worship.
He cites the signs that churches and other communities often put up to attract visitors. They’re often bristling with scriptures, perky uplifting messages and times of services.
Norry thinks it might be time to change some of those signs.
They would still welcome the stranger.
But they would send another message to the wolf that shows up at the door.
“How about signs that said, ‘Our congregation is trained and prepared to fight back. Go somewhere else.’
“I bet you somebody would think twice about messing with that congregation.”
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