Gun Control: A Biblical and Theological Case

January 28th, 2013

The issue of gun control in the United States is once again at the forefront of our national conversation due to last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut—one of many similar incidents whose frequency is on the rise.

A lot of people are giving passionate and articulate cases for their particular position, and as I am neither a constitutional scholar nor an expert on firearms or public safety, I will leave those arguments to those that speak on them with authority.

I do, however, believe that the church has a significant role to play in this conversation, and I believe that the biblical witness and our theological heritage give us reason to support restrictions on firearms such as those currently being debated by the President and Congress.

I do not cite these scriptures as “proof-texts,” nor do I claim that this is the only understanding one has to arrive at to be a true follower of Jesus. I also want to state at the beginning that while I am not a gun owner, I support the rights of people to possess firearms in their home for protection and for use in hunting or other recreation.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here is what I believe to be a biblical and theological case for gun control: I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12

Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up. 1 Corinthians 10:23

Twice in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul talks about the intersection of freedom and responsibility. Long before Enlightenment philosophers spoke about the autonomy of the individual, St. Paul recognized that while a person has the freedom to do whatever they want, not everything is necessarily a good idea. This is particularly true if one is in a covenant relationship with others.

Paul’s immediate context in making these statements is sexual behavior and eating meat sacrificed to idols, respectively, but he is also talking about a broad approach to one’s life.

I can go where I want, when I want, spend every cent in my bank account and pick up a lady for a one night stand. But if I want to stay married to my wife and be a part of my children’s lives, I’m going to choose not to do those things. They trust that I’m going to be responsible with our shared resources. They trust that I’m going to live by the values that we as a family have agreed on. I choose to be faithful to this covenant because that web of relationships is more important to me than acting on every impulse I might have.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the right to buy a plane ticket and fly wherever I want without anyone asking why or wanting to see what’s in my luggage. I’ve never done anything that would make anyone suspect I had intentions to harm my fellow passengers or anyone else. But I take off my shoes and put my laptop in a separate bin in the security line, go through a metal detector or full-body scanner, and accept that someone from the TSA might mess up my nice, neat stack of undershirts. I gladly accept this because I value the safety of the general public more than I dislike the few minutes of inconvenience this causes me, even though I have done nothing to warrant such screenings.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the right to buy a gun, and I have done nothing to suggest any ill intentions. But I consent to a background check because I value keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people more than I dislike having to wait a few days to complete my purchase. I have the right to buy an AR-15 assault rifle and hunt deer with it, but I choose to use a lower powered rifle with a smaller clip of ammunition because I value lowering the chance of someone walking into my children’s school and killing several dozen kids in a matter of seconds more than I value my right to squeeze off a hundred rounds a minute and feel like Rambo.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

At the core of many of the arguments opposing any gun control measures is the concept of “freedom.” I put that in quotes because it’s a word that means different things to different people. Some define freedom as “doing whatever I want whenever I want,” which I have just argued is not helpful for those who wish to be in covenant relationships with others.

The question becomes, is there a better definition of freedom? Christian theological tradition would say and emphatic “yes”.

Jürgen Moltmann sees the true definition of freedom in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. This relationship is summed up in the term perichoresis, which means mutual interdependence and indwelling. Moltmann sees God’s Trinitarian life as a model for human relationships of loving community: true freedom.

I am free and feel myself to be truly free when I am respected and recognized by others and when I for my part respect and recognize them. I become truly free when I open my life for other people and share with them, and when other people open their lives for me and share them with me. Then the other person is no longer the limitation of my freedom; he is the expansion of it. In mutual participation in life, individual people become free beyond the limits of their individuality, and discover the common room for living which their freedom offers. That is the social side of freedom. (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 216)

I willingly give others the space to feel free by agreeing to place a formal societal limitation on my “right” to own an assault weapon because, though I will not walk into a school and start shooting, other mentally disturbed people might. So for the good of the whole, I agree to a legal prohibition of certain guns and ammunition clips. This is the same reason I agree to speed limits, seat belt laws, and blood alcohol limits in the use of my car. This is the same reason I agree to only being able to purchase small amounts of certain cold medicines, so as to help stop the spread of meth.

We are not so naive as to believe that all of our fellow citizens will go along with these societal agreements. That is why we elect representatives who will pass laws to enforce these agreements for the good of the whole.

We do not naively assume such laws will guarantee there will never be another school shooting, any more than we assume there will never be another drunk driver or that meth labs will suddenly disappear. We do believe that such actions will reduce such incidences enough to help us be safer and closer to that true freedom whose full realization is yet to come.

I believe that this is a solid biblical and theological case for gun control laws. May we all open ourselves to the possibility of limiting certain individual liberties for the greater good and progress towards our true, God-given freedom.

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