Present-day Christians wrestle with the issue of violence just like our forefathers in faith did. We disagree on whether violence is permissible in instances of self-defense and whether Christians should support acts of war on a national scale - even if conducted in the name of justice, democracy or some greater good. A new study out of Yale University, summarized in The Atlantic, suggests a way forward which resonates deeply with Christian teachings.
The study explored community fragmentation in areas of New Haven, Conn., where high percentages of violent crime occur. It turns out the cohesion of the community - largely defined in the study by the level of trust one has in their neighbors - has some correlative connection with the occurrence of acts of violence. “By collecting data from roughly 150 New Haven residents through community-based surveys conducted in 2014, the study authors concluded that strong social ties may help reduce gun violence and produce more resilient neighborhoods,” the Atlantic article states.
While the United States as a whole ranks fairly well in social cohesion when compared with other nations, there are no doubt communities across the country which do not. If the research supports that greater social cohesion can lead to decreases in gun violence, Christians have some important contributions to offer.
First, there is the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor. This command is rooted in Leviticus 19:18, and is a repeated refrain in Jesus’ teachings and James’ exhortations. Paul also declares it to be the fulfillment of the Law. Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the principle well, where intervening concern for others, even at the cost of one’s own resources, is commended and commanded by the Lord.
Second, the unity of the church community was a priority for the authors of the New Testament, Paul in particular. Whether addressing schisms between Jews and Gentiles in Romans and Galatians, dealing with divisive immoralities in Corinth and Thessalonica or promoting solidarity among the Ephesians and Colossians, Paul was deeply concerned for the unity of the church.
And third, one of the most common designations for “believers” in the New Testament is adelphoi, “siblings.” Paul viewed his fellow Christ-followers as kin, which was no small thing in the ancient world. As Joseph H. Hellerman has demonstrated, the communal nature of the New Testament believers meant they were tight-knit and self-giving. And this group mentality provided the right spiritual conditions for unity and transformation. The emphasis on the familial characteristic of the relationships and the strong commitment to the group illustrate both the depth of the bond and the radical nature of the cohesion.
So what does any of this have to do with gun violence? It seems to me that a unified and engaged church, one in which individual members learn to put the needs of others ahead of their own, can help heal hurting communities. If social cohesion offers a path forward, we find in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul and James a roadmap for collective unity. If Paul emphasizes the necessity of the unity of the church, viewing his fellow believers as kin, do we find this reflected in our own interaction with our community of faith? And if Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor, in a time when many do not even know who their neighbors are, how are our neighborly relationships measuring up? Social cohesion may be but a piece of the puzzle to addressing the problem with violence in America, but if we want to have a part in the effort, loving our actual neighbors isn’t a bad place to start.