September 1, 2019

Eyes Wide Open

Shopping, walking, eating out; what can we do if someone wants to do us harm?

Scott Rackley

Scott Rackley has served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years, 15 as a special agent for the Criminal Investigation Division. He resides in Reston, Virginia, with his family. He provides resources for churches and schools designed to reduce the risk of random, senseless violent attacks. He agreed to answer some of our questions about personal safety.—Editors.


We’re living in a moment nobody thought we’d ever see. People with guns shoot innocent, defenseless victims in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and concerts. What biblical promises come to mind when you think about these challenging times?

Proverbs 1:33: “Whoever listens to me will live in safety, and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

Through my years of experience, speaking in our houses of worship and academies, I find that we focus on the moment of prayer; but that at times we seem to forget what to do after we finish praying.

A person prays for protection or safety; they connect deeply with God. But once the act of prayer is complete, they often take no further action. At times we may fail to listen to the message God wants us to hear. God wants us to listen, and He wants to protect us.

Living in a world in which violence is a fact of life

For example, common sense tells us not to walk into a busy street without looking both ways and using a crosswalk. We know. Yet we don’t necessarily follow this same common sense when we discuss basic, practical, secure, and safe measures in our schools and churches.

Short of arming ourselves, what should we be aware of when we visit places thought by some to be “soft targets”?

A lot of people ask about this during my visits to churches and schools. Arming yourself does not make you safer. Many people believe that a weapon (gun, knife, etc.) makes us safer. That’s not necessarily true.

Carrying a gun does not make you a trained law-enforcement professional. Many questions are involved here: when was the last time you went to a [gun] range? What was your qualification table? Did you pass the basic qualifications for carrying a weapon? Liability issues are involved, such as armed law-enforcement professionals versus armed private citizens. Do you have a legitimate concealed-carry permit? Remember, paper targets don’t shoot back. Under stressful situations a person carrying a sidearm may cause more issues than solutions.

What’s the best strategy when gunfire erupts? Run, or hide?

That depends on the location, the situation, and so many other factors.

If you can escape, do so; if you have any doubt about whether you can escape safely, then barricade in place. Something as simple as turning out the lights and hiding after barricading the door of a classroom could save your life and others with you. The most important thing: action is key; you must do something; you must prepare yourself to do something.

People have been attacked while shopping, eating out, taking a walk. What three things should we be aware of when we’re out in public?

Be aware of your surroundings and your environment. Look for the unusual; notice things that tend to be out of place or don’t seem right.

Listen to yourself and to your God. I have conducted numerous interviews of personnel following traumatic events. A common theme/denominator among them was that they did not listen to their intuition. Sometimes God uses the “toolbox” of intuition to alert us to safe action.

Sometimes we think that ultimate safety comes with bodyguards and security drones flying overhead. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Act. Action is sometimes the hardest thing to do. When you see something that seems unsafe or not “right,” then act. The adage “deer in the highlights” or “fight versus flight” happens more often than most people think. Train yourself to a life of both trust and awareness. Change your routine, start simple, and retrain your brain. It’s one of the most difficult things to grasp.

Some Christians might be conscientiously opposed to carrying weapons, even for self-defense. What are some nonviolent options for self-defense?

This specific question is very difficult to answer. I respect everyone’s right to choose to carry or not carry, to defend themselves or not. Here’s a helpful animal comparison: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep carry on life in their pasture, eating grass, blissfully unaware about the world around them. Wolves watch from the shadows of the wood line near the pasture, waiting for one sheep to separate from the herd, unaware that the wolf can spring and attack. But the wolf is wary and cautious. What causes the wolf a moment of pause? Answer: the sheepdog. The sheepdog watches over the herd and its flock. It will lay down its life to protect the sheep. I think we all have filled sheep or sheepdog roles in our life. I have seen even the most passive man act to defend his friends or family. No one knows exactly what they will do until the situation presents itself.

Are there different ways of training people to be safe depending on their ages (children, youth, adults, seniors)?

Training is based on people’s experience and responsibilities. I have trained children in escape tactics to be self-aware of various situations, including possible abduction. Precollege students are instructed in self-defense. Church leaders, elders, and deacons are trained in escort procedures and self-defense measures to ensure the safety of themselves and members of their church.

Anyone can learn self-defense, but much depends on their receptiveness, and whether they will continue to practice once the training is done. All skills are perishable and have to be maintained.

What are the differences between protecting ourselves in a public place (such as a mall, church, or school) and in our homes?

I find it interesting that even the most introverted person seems to feel a sense of safety among crowds. We maintain the safety of a pack mentally. By contrast, when we are home, or walking down a path alone, we may feel more calm and peaceful. But then something we see or hear causes our senses to become heightened. We should use that heightened awareness we feel when we are alone and apply it to when we are in crowded areas.

Recent attacks in Washington, D.C., and other cities have shown that groups of individuals will attack crowds regardless. So awareness is the key: without it you cannot protect yourself or others.

What essential pieces of technology should we invest in for our personal safety? How much should we expect to spend?

An excellent question. Sometimes we think that ultimate safety comes with bodyguards and security drones flying overhead. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sometimes the simplest tool creates the best solution. I tell my wife and kids that if you’re worried that someone is following you, get on the phone and call someone, or pretend to speak to someone. The fact that a suspect believes or sees you talking to someone could make you a “hard target.” Simple and effective are the best kinds of solutions.

Now that unexpected, violent attacks are part of our culture, how can Christians push back in a way that is hopeful, not fearful?

Unfortunately, our culture has become a violent and aggressive one. Refuse to be a victim. Make that your mind-set, developed with time and practice.

Also, maintain eye contact; don’t be a “ground grazer,” someone who just walks along looking at the ground and never looks up. People looking for easy targets are looking for sheep, blissfully unaware of their surroundings or anything outside the fence line of their pasture. Recognize the cues of violent acts before they occur and become significant, emotional, and life-altering events.

With everything you see on a daily basis, with my work in our churches and schools, we are all rightly concerned about the prevalence of violence. But let us take courage from the growing attention that church leaders are paying to being good stewards of our kids’ and members’ lives and property. Together we are learning more about just what we can bring out of our Christian toolbox.

Be blessed. Be aware. Keep listening. Because God still promises, “Whoever listens to me will live in safety, and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Prov. 1:33).

Scott Rackley
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