With the rest of our country, I grieve the recent spate of mass shootings in our country. Regrettably, it is nothing new; we have a growing, bloody history of such tragic events, not to mention the “routine” killing of individuals by gun violence all across our country, especially in impoverished, inner city neighborhoods. There is a congeries of causes: mental health issues, drugs and crime, poverty, isolation and hopelessness. I do not have a definitive answer to these complex problems. To say that Jesus is the answer, or a change of the human heart, is, of course, true, but it doesn’t move us one inch toward actually minimizing the loss of life.
While I have no answer, that does not mean that I have no theological perspective on the issue. What I have, I offer here in a preliminary fashion: a template for self examination and a clearing away of some of the debris of sub-Christian thinking around the issue. I have brothers and sisters who own guns and value the right to do so. I have other brothers and sisters who eschew guns and wish all followed their lead. I do not entirely fault either position, nor do I uncritically support either position. To choose one side or the other is not my purpose; to help us think Christianly and critically about the issue of gun ownership and its social impact is my sole purpose. I suspect that I will alienate some on both sides of the issue, though that is not my intent. It is important to note — and I do — that there is a difference between guns and weapons. All guns may be weapons, but not all are intended for that purpose. I have friends who enjoy target shooting but who could not even imagine killing a living creature. I have other friends who are hunters. I have still other friends who own guns for protection and who would, with little compunction, kill another human being for self-defense or for the defense of loved ones. All of these are my Christian friends, and I write this for all of them.
I do not plan to respond to comments on this post; I have said my piece. I do ask that comments, if any, deal with the post itself and not with other agendas. And, as a matter of Christian integrity and truthfulness, please read the post thoroughly and respond to what I wrote and not to a caricature of it. Comments that follow these two guidelines will stand; those that do not will be deleted.
The human heart is a perpetual idol factory (Calvin, Institutes I.11.8).
I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands (National Rifle Association (NRA) slogan).
“Idol” may conjure images of temples and statues of Dagon or Artemis, or perhaps biblical stories of prophetic battles against Baal. But, we must think more broadly than this.
An idol is any material object, relationship, or ideal that is disproportionately constitutive of identity, demanding of loyalty, and deemed worthy of sacrifice.
The NRA slogan, above, is dangerously close to a doctrine of idols. To truly and thoughtfully endorse it is perilously near bowing the knee to guns. The implication of the slogan is simply that guns are so fundamental to the owner’s identity — so constitutive of it — that he/she would kill or be killed (human sacrifice) to retain possession of his/her weapons. That is the loyalty of martyrs, vested not in God, but in the metal and wood creation of human hands, and that would indeed be a form of idolatry.
Perhaps this is the starting point for a theologically sound Christian response to guns: a through and discerning self-examination of the idol factory of the human heart to discern if a devotion to guns has supplanted love for God.
But, as noted earlier, idols are not necessarily material objects; causes, too, can function as idols. It is possible for both ends of the ideological spectrum on this issue — those willing to defend to the death the right to own guns (NRA slogan) and those adamantly opposed to all gun ownership — to worship the cause for which they stand and to see any dissenters as enemies, even to see fellow Christians as enemies. The vitriol with which this debate is conducted is clear evidence of the idolatry of being on the right side of a cause. The proper place to begin this debate is with self-examination and repentance of all hints of idolatry.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed (United States Constitution, Second Amendment).
1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (ESV): 23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
The proper context for any discussion of gun policy is not the Constitution, but rather Scripture. The proper theological basis is not rights, but responsibilities and care for the other. The proper Gospel proclamation is not freedom “to” but freedom “from:” not freedom to do as one pleases or even to do as the law allows, but freedom from the dark powers so that one may be obedient to Christ. So, the Christian must lay aside those rights that do not build up, that do not promote the good of his/her neighbor.
This principle is obvious, for example, in the case of abortion. Is a Christian “free” — does she have the right — under the Law operative for the past five decades to have an abortion? Yes, certainly. But the Church does not accept the exercise of that right. The consensus faith of the Great Tradition would not accept as valid an appeal to the Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. Were the Congress to amend the Constitution to guarantee the rights of women to abortion, that would make no difference to churches with any claim to the orthodox faith.
Yet, when the issue is guns, there is a tendency among some Christians and Christian groups to lay Scripture aside and to stand instead on Second Amendment rights. That is a theological dead end. Any argument premised on the preeminent authority of the Constitution is a house constructed on a foundation of sand. The rains will come and the water will rise, and great will be the fall of that house. The proper basis for a Christian understanding and policy of guns in our society is Scripture. Building that foundation will take careful, deep, and lengthy immersion in the whole counsel of God’s word, not just individually, but also corporately in the context of prayer and worship.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.
Proverbs 1:22 (ESV): 22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
The Christian faith embodies a great wisdom tradition in both the Old and New Testaments, a tradition which reasons from the Book of Nature, from the Book of the Law, from the Book of the Gospels. Such wisdom begins with fear of the Lord, and it depends on the work of the Holy Spirit. But it also requires Christians to exercise their minds: to think clearly, to reason soundly, to leave simple slogans behind. It requires the expertise of those trained in the faith and in secular professions/vocations. The “and” is essential in the previous sentence; “and” not “or.” The issue of the proper place of guns in society is a complex one, not amenable to simplistic ideas. It will require the best thinkers and pray-ers amongst us to resolve rightly. As a priest — as a representative of the Great Tradition — I have a certain theological perspective to bring to the table, but I have no political expertise, no sociological expertise, no psychological expertise, no legal expertise, no financial expertise. That is precisely why we need Christian politicians, Christian sociologists, Christian mental health professionals, Christian lawyers and judges, and Christian business people — and Christians in a host of other specialized disciplines — to engage this issue, not bracketing out their faith but engaging it fully to influence public policy.
Guns don’t kill people. That is true enough. But people with guns kill people. And people with assault style weapons and high capacity magazines kill many people, rapidly and efficiently. The problem is the false “or” in the simplistic argument: either guns “or” people, when “and” or “with” is the proper conjunction. People and/with guns kill people. The point is simply that a complex problem is not amenable to simplistic sloganeering on either side. The wisdom tradition of the Church demands more and better of Christians.
America is a country founded on guns. It’s in our DNA. It’s very strange but I feel better having a gun. I really do. I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel the house is completely safe, if I don’t have one hidden somewhere. That’s my thinking, right or wrong (Brad Pitt).
Matthew 19:3–8 (ESV): 3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
Implicit in Brad Pitt’s statement is this: the United States without guns is simply unimaginable. And yet, it was not so in the beginning and will not be so in the end: not the beginning of our country, but the beginning of all things.
When Jesus was asked about divorce, he did not appeal to the Law, but rather to God’s intent in the beginning, at creation. Is it not sound Christian theology to do the same with guns as weapons? In Eden there were no guns, and I dare say no weapons. From the beginning it was not God’s intent that weapons — whether men’s hands or stones or crafted things — be used by one living creature against another. And that means that guns — which were almost certainly created to be weapons — are products of sin and the fall. Though we cannot conceive it now, there was a world before guns. Though we cannot conceive it now, there will be a world to come — when heaven and earth are joined in New Jerusalem — when guns are no more. The problem is simply that we live in the meantime, between those two thought worlds. And in this meantime, we cannot conceive a world without guns.
But, as Christians, we must begin to construct that thought world and even to make incremental steps toward it. Neither Peter nor Paul condemned the practice of slavery; generally speaking, Christian masters were not commanded to release their slaves, even their Christian slaves. The first century thought world could not have conceived of society without slavery; arguable the full, immediate release of all slaves would have been socially catastrophic, likely both for former slave owners and former slaves. Rather, Peter and Paul did something much more difficult and much more radical. They began to conceive and construct a thought world in which slavery — Christian slavery — was unimaginable. They did it by giving slaves dignity and agency. They did it by reminding Christians slave owners that they were in bondage to Christ and that their Christian slaves were free in Christ. They did it by inviting all — slave owners and their slave — to meet around the same Eucharist Table and to share the same bread and wine, the Body and Blood of the same Christ. And Paul took the further incremental step of appealing to Philemon to release his slave, Onesimus, now his Christian brother. We can only imagine the ripple effect throughout the Christian community of such a request.
The great Christian task vis-á-vis guns is to begin thinking through and moving toward a thought world in which guns as weapons play no part. This will be as complex for us as slavery was for the Apostles, but, like them, we have the Spirit of Wisdom to guide us, and we have various gifts in the Church to move us forward. God only knows if significant progress is possible caught as we are between Eden and New Jerusalem. But it is our Christian calling to pray our way forward, to think our way forward, to worship our way forward.