Thursday evening I told Karen, “There was a shooting in Hesston!” She had seen the news too: “And several are dead, and many critically wounded.”
Mass shootings are becoming much too common. But this one felt close to home: Hesston is basically a Mennonite town. The year before we met, Karen lived a few blocks from the factory where the shooting took place. One of the factory owners was our sons’ college dorm residence director; his wife was a friend and co-worker of one of our daughters.
I was also taken aback that there was violence in a Mennonite-owned factory. Wouldn’t a plant with an office full of Mennonites known for working hard at peace-making and whole relationships typically avoid such bloodshed? Even if they would hire ex-cons, like the shooter?
But this part of the story struck me most: the bloodshed was kept from being worse by the Hesston police chief—who has a Mennonite last name and membership in one of the nearby Mennonite churches. He got to the scene fast. And didn’t wait for backup but at great personal risk called the shooter to come out and killed him when he returned fire.
Did that police chief do right? There are no easy answers:
- The country sheriff and Kansas governor called the chief a hero, stopping many further deaths. Yet he himself, steeped from boyhood with a sense that killing is sin, surely struggles with what he has done. As Kurt Horst, a pastor in Hesston, told a reporter, “We are thankful for the lives he saved, but we grieve for what he had to do to save them and the impact that may have on him.”
- I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist who joined a plot during WWII to kill Hitler. He believed he was breaking the moral teaching of Jesus. Yet felt he must: to do nothing would let him maintain personal holiness but let great evil fall on many others.
- It’s clear that God ordains police as “servants” to “bear the sword” against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) to limit violence and greed; without a police presence, society descends into anarchy. Yet Jesus calls his followers to “do good” to evildoers rather than destroy them (Matt. 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-36). Paul and Peter do too (Rom. 12:19-21; 1 Pet. 2:20-23; 3:8-9).
- Mennonites typically avoid serving as police, knowing they might be called upon to exercise deadly force and unable to see how taking an evildoer’s life would be to “do good” to them, as Jesus instructs. Yet would it be desirable to have a police force or a military with no Christians in the ranks? Yet violence can only stop something; it cannot bring a positive well-being, shalom. Force was not Jesus’ calling—nor is it the calling of us who choose to be marked by the teaching and spirit of Jesus. That calling is to embody God’s gift of grace.