There are so many ways to come at the issue of guns in our contentious culture that we often don’t know where to begin the conversation outside of heated, emotional, partisan shouting matches in the wake of yet another tragedy.
So this month we’re all going to take a deep breath. We’re going to own up to the guns we own, or have owned, or want to own, or would never fathom owning. We’re going to talk about our personal relationships with guns without heaping judgement on those whose feelings differ from ours. Unlike all of the other conversations on this topic that happen in our society, we’re going to listen to each other.
Because as Christians, we have a conflicted history with violence that we have to reckon with.
We love telling children the story of David and Goliath. Time and technology are the only things keeping David from being a gunslinger instead of a rock-slinger. God gives the Israelites military victories as they expel people from the Promised Land and try to keep them out. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s people used the most advanced weapons of their time to carry out the will of God.
In the New Testament, Jesus never engages in violence beyond flipping over some tables and cracking a whip in the temple. He resists violence to the point of giving up his own life. This non-violent resistance is practiced by his early followers as many of them were killed during waves Christian persecutions. This example of non-violent resistance is carried forth by modern Christian martyrs such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
This appears to make it seem like the God of the Old Testament was violent and the God of the New Testament is peace-loving. But I’m afraid it’s far more complicated than that.
God’s promise of peace and call to reconciliation far outweighs the violence God gets credit for in the Old Testament. And while Jesus may have lived a life of non-violent resistance, there are aspects of his teaching that could be interpreted as a call to arms.
Perhaps one of the most famous Christians to wrestle with the question of violence to kill another human being was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot failed, and he was captured and killed in prison. His biography paints the picture of a man committed to pacifism who comes to see that he must suspend his personal ethic and throw himself on the mercy of God in order to stop Hitler, whom he calls “the Antichrist.”
This brings us to one crux of the argument in today’s political debate about guns. The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "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." This amendment has been interpreted by some to mean that an individual’s right to gun ownership is protected by the Constitution. Others interpret this to only apply to the collective rights of states to defend themselves. Either way, many people cling to this amendment as assurance that they can, if necessary, fight against an oppressive, evil government as Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators hoped to do. This may be in line with the original intentions of the framers of the Constitution who themselves had taken up arms against the British Empire who ruled them.
So one theological question in considering this issue of guns would be, “when is it okay to suspend your personal ethics, or the non-violent ethics of Jesus, to overcome evil and defend innocents?”
I have told people in the past that I won’t have a gun in my house for protection. The most common rebuttal I’ve heard is, “but what if someone came in and threatened to harm your son? Wouldn’t you want a gun to protect him?” This is precisely that question of suspended ethics. What level of threat is necessary for you to take up arms?
In a world of 24-hour news cycles, threats appear to be everywhere. We are fed a diet of near-constant fear, whether it be in the form of terrorists, high school students, or the person next door.
And so another aspect of a theological discussion about guns is what to do with our fear. Do we protect ourselves with weapons? Do we offer ourselves up as sacrifices to those who would do us harm? What options do we, as Christians, have in the fight against fear itself?
My father worked for a defense contractor, and part of his commitment to defending our country was to keep it from being taken over by a government that would not allow us freedom of religion. While the earliest followers of Jesus died as martyrs instead of taking up arms against Rome, Christians throughout the centuries since have fought and killed to defend the faith. While this may not seem to be in keeping with the ethics of Jesus, one could argue that it is in line with the ethics of God as revealed in the Old Testament. God fought for the Israelites to preserve them as God’s chosen people, to keep them from being assimilated into other cultures with other gods.
So my final question for this discussion will be, “is it right to take up arms in defense of the Christian faith?”
These questions I’ve posed won’t provide direct insight into how guns get into the hands of kids who shoot up their schools or whether or not a concealed weapon might have stopped a terrorist attack. What this conversation will do, I hope, is provide a more comprehensive, meaningful framework for discussing those issues. Gun control and gun ownership depend largely upon how one answers the questions I’ve posed above. And when we can answer those kinds of questions as a nation, perhaps we can find a way forward in this contentions debate.