Peace Church Colleges Debate Having Armed Guards

The other day in a Washington Times article there is a discussion about peace church colleges working through questions about whether to employ armed guards for student protection. Two Church of the Brethren schools have recently decided to authorize their guards to carry firearms. Given the catastrophic campus shootings of Virgina Tech and Northern Illinois University, not to mention all the other school shootings in recent years, it’s not hard to see why this is becoming an important question to address (even though statistically these campus crimes have been decreasing in the last ten years). In the article they also mention two Quaker colleges: Guilford and Earlham, both of which do not have armed guards but do have good working relationship with local law enforcement who understand their position on the matter. This is also true for Mennonite Goshen college in Indiana where our former pastor is president. I like what Donald Kraybill had to say about it:

“There may be other nonviolent alternatives officers could use…I would hope that colleges in the peace church tradition have the brainpower to come up with creative nonviolent alternatives.”

Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, a Brethren-related school in Lancaster County, Pa.

Here’s a few remarks:

  • A private university/college setting such as the ones being discussed in the article are in a very unique situation because they are in some ways more public than the church because they are operating more like a business, they have students who are not all of the same mind theologically and spiritually, they usually receive money from the government (which does things the peace church does not approve of) and operates not only as a school but as living quarters for thousands of people. This makes their position even more tenuous in some ways than thinking about these issues as a church.
  • Nevertheless, these are (more-or-less) church institutions, the church lived out in the world. That is to say, if these institutions hope to deal with these questions properly, or at least faithfully within their own traditions, there will need to be theological answers to these questions. There will need to be a sense in which these colleges see themselves as living out the practices of the church in the world. Here the Christian university is where the politics of the church rub up against, and challenge the politics of the world.
  • As soon as you sign onto these kinds of “solutions” there will always be a temptation to become morally lax. In settings where you have to be more vigilante about creating and maintaining peaceful relations, there is more attention spent on praying and thinking through these things carefully. How do we disciple students in such a way as to live peaceably in the world? How do we prepare ourselves to respond properly and faithfully to tragic emergencies? What kinds of practices do we as an institution need to put in place to create an atmosphere where this isn’t likely to happen, and if it does one that operates out of the forgiveness and love of Christ.
  • Another important point is that nonviolence is not a policy, it can be a policy, but it can never work out properly if its just something “on the books.” It really has to be something that envelopes the whole of our lives.
  • This is also not an issue you can not deal with, it isn’t something a college can sit around and wait until something happens. It is an issue of great importance.
  • Just because there are armed officers on a campus doesn’t mean anyone is necessarily more safe. Not only are armed officers not all-seeing omniscent beings who can prevent all evil, but they are themselves capable of evil – remember last year?
  • Finally, how can we bypass the mundane logic of the world and, as Kraybill says, and think creatively about these issues?

I am glad there are schools who are taking these challenges seriously and are offering alternative solutions and ideas on how this can be done. I hope they will be seen as an example to the world, not unlike how the Amish so naturally dealt with their own school shooting two years ago and left the world (ant its logic) dumbfounded.

5 responses to “Peace Church Colleges Debate Having Armed Guards”

  1. Hey Wess,

    Nice thoughts. I went to an Mennonite Brethren University for undergrad so this sort of thing always interests me.

    As I moved through the philosophy and theology classes and programs I was struck by how truly “Mennonite” the professors were, and yet how “un-Mennonite” the administrators were.

    In fact, when I attempted to organize a peace march (actually get more students involved in a local gathering), I was told by the University President that we could not meet in front of the college sign! The university is different than the church, but when the university is (hopefully) existing for the church, then how is that balanced? These are questions that are running deep in Anabaptist Universities around the country, I suspect.

    I think my problem is more indicative of the mess the MB’s have gotten themselves in, but it does seem that Mennonite Universities would be wise to listen to Kraybill and claim their peace of the creative alternative in all things, but especially when it comes to arming their guards.

    I am not responsible for hundreds (maybe thousands) of young lives, but it seems almost painfully obvious that Peace Church colleges should be known for their refusal to commit to the type of rationale that puts loaded guns on campus.

    Tim (just started at the coffee shop)

  2. The real question is, how do you keep guns from being brought on campus by students, visitors, etc? If you can control the entry points, the need for armed law enforcement becomes significantly less important. However, is this even practical? Perhaps we should just come to the conclusion that apart from the hope of Christ there is no security in this life and accept the fact that we may be called to give our life for our faith. There are things worse than death. Obviously that is easy to say, eternally difficult to live out. However, if our conviction is non-violence, we must accept the reality that we may have to give our life for that belief.

  3. @Tim – Thanks for the comment and the story, very interesting to hear about your clash with school administration on something like this. I think you came up against and threatened certain ruling (probably unspoken) powers that lay underneath the surface of the school.

    @Kevin – great point! “However, if our conviction is non-violence, we must accept the reality that we may have to give our life for that belief.”

    This is something I should have added to my list above, ultimately accepting this position is to accept the reality that security and life cannot be guaranteed and that we should be ready to give up our lives for what we believe.

  4. From the standpoint of Earlham College, it should be noted that, while our Quaker ideals do fit with our decision not to arm our security officers, that decision is, most fundamentally, a pragmatic one — having to do with the superior training and the rapid response time of local law enforcement, the reality that any incident of violence would almost certainly occur too quickly for armed security officers to make a difference, and with the implications of selecting and training our own security offices in safe/effective use of firearms (which would, inevitably, alter the kind of officers we’d have and the role they would/could/should play in the vastly more frequent everyday situations involving our students and community). We have, therefore, opted to focus our energies on improving identification of threats beforehand and on prevention of violence

  5. @Nelson Bingham: Hello and thanks for the comment. Thanks for pointing out the more pragmatic side to this.

    I think for me, while I have no role in making decisions on this nature, coming up with solutions like this stem from being being open to other possibilities where the church and/or institutions think through these things carefully and creatively, even if the solution is ultimately pragmatic. It is potentially a different way of dealing with the whole question and process and I appreciate that aspect to it.

    Thanks again for your insider perspective.