Making guns our God

August 7th, 2019

The piece below originally appeared here on Ministry Matters in August of 2015. In the wake of the last few weeks, I decided to read it again and see how both the wider narrative on public gun violence and my own thinking have shifted in four years. I'm troubled, but not surprised, to say 'not much' on both accounts.

We are still a nation deeply divided by our culture's legal embrace of firearms. We are still a nation plagued by public killings, usually involving legally purchased automatic rifles. We all know what an AR-15 is. We've all seen, either personally or via the news, what they can do to the human body and to the souls of communities where they are used for violent attacks. We are a nation marked by PTSD.

In four years, we as a country have only gone deeper down our tragic path, seeing more gun violence each year and continuing to do very little about it. The ensuing fear has come to define our solutions: We fear being gunned down in any and all public spaces so we fight for a future without guns. Or, our fear makes us believe more guns will, despite the evidence, make us safer, so we fight for more access and weaker regulation. And really, we can't be surprised by deepening divisions when the political solutions aiming at middle ground have not only been so toothless and half-hearted, but have been unable to get out of congressional committees in the first place.

The article below doesn't conceal my position on the matter. As the years have gone by, as our weeks have come to be consistently marked by mass shootings like those in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, I have only grown more sure in my sense that any culture so partial to guns can only be committed to the idolatrous and antithetical to the life-giving way of Christ. The thing is, that way and the life, that "big L" Life, isn't just afterlife, some promise we offer as comfort to the families of those cut down by bullets. Life in Christ is primarily life here on Earth, life here as it is in heaven. This place gets our attention to kingdom work first, and until we give up allegiances like those to the gun, I don't see how we can be about such work.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I was wrong four years ago. But saying we shouldn't make tragedies political or saying this is primarily a mental health issue or calling violence the price of freedom or claiming hand gun and assault rifle ownership is unfortunate but untouchable law hasn't stemmed the tide of violence. Maybe rejecting guns as a practice of Christian discipleship could.

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[August 28, 2015]

It’s difficult to write critically about guns in America. Not because there aren’t clear or definitive statements to make, but because you know exactly what kind of responses you’ll get before you type your first word. Guns are a passionate topic in a land that includes right to their ownership (though most ignore the ‘well-regulated militia’ part) in its highest legal document. I’m confident that, as you’re reading this, several comments will be posted by people who read only the title and began typing.

It’s frustrating and defeating, whether I’m thinking about the issue religiously, socially, logically, emotionally, or any other possible way. It’s incredibly hard not to be cynical, which I was after hearing about the deaths of two local television employees in Viriginia, shot dead live on the air by a former coworker. Two young people, cut down and added to the ever-swelling tally of those dead by gun in the United States.

It’s frustrating that there is sharp disagreement among Americans on the realities of gun violence. There are few issues in this country that create such seemingly irreconcilable division as gun ownership and its results. I’m fully aware that nothing I say here will change anyone’s deep-seated beliefs. Commenters will call me out as naive, stupid, or against “freedom,” however ambiguously that’s defined. Others will share this article with their like-minded friends, perhaps offering a hearty “Amen!” with it. Both will be liked, retweeted and affirmed among their community of believers.

Personally, I’m not sure there’s any progress to be made. Sadly, I agree with Dan Hodges:

Still, cynicism isn’t where I want to land. It certainly isn’t prophetic. I may not be able to sway anyone by arguing that allegiance to gun ownership in the face of the deathly realities it brings our neighbors day after day is antithetical to Christ’s identity as peace-giver. But giving up and choosing not to speak out of my own resignation isn’t keeping with that Christian identity either. Speaking out against the epidemic that is gun worship and the violence it spreads might be the only Christian action I can take, at least as long as substantive change appears out of reach.

So let me be clear about where I stand. I don’t have a problem with hunting rifles used to hunt animals for food. Other than that, I’m opposed to civilian gun ownership. Guns are made for dealing death. And if they’re not made for the death of an animal, that means they’re made for the death of a human. And given that reality, I see no way to reconcile owning handguns, assault rifles and the like with reality of Christ, which is fundamentally about dealing life. Not death.

I expect to have several arguments quoted at me. One will be the right to self-defense and the preservation of one’s own life in the face of danger, to which I say (if the arguer is a Christ-follower) Christ himself rebuked the use of the sword upon his own capture, knowing capture meant his own death and the possible deaths of those associated with him. We must also examine the claim of self-defense when it comes to guns, as they aren’t elements of defense in the first place. As Professor Adam Kotsko said rather well:

“Guns are devices for causing grave bodily injury, up to and including death. That's their express purpose. Pretending that the purpose of a gun is to "defend yourself" is euphemism and sophistry. You cannot directly "defend yourself" using a gun. It's not a shield or a barricade. Nor can you shoot bullets that will intercept or deflect those being shot at you. You "defend yourself" with a gun only indirectly by threatening to kill someone — or actually wounding or killing them.”

This presents a severe complication for the Christ-follower. If we truly believe Christ offers us life abundant, life beyond life, and that this same Christ commands us to love all, even our enemies, then the knee-jerk reaction to first kill those who might cause us bodily harm is something other than Christian.

This is how I’d also respond to the other argument I know will be thrown at me: just war theory. I’ll be told that, as they read it, St. Augustine long ago laid out a clear understanding of how and when Christians should deal death. To which I can only say, “I don’t buy it." While I do think there are situations in which violent conflict can be justified (the classic example being fighting to bring down Nazi Germany in WWII), I don’t think it can ever be done so in Christian terms. Theologically, we cannot agree if you assert that killing of any kind can be justified in the name of Christ. I believe this for the reasons given above, namely that Jesus lived, died, and lived again to affirm the blessedness and the sanctity of the lives we live together.

The Christ I know is one of life and peace, even in the face of death. Christ shows us that even if we can’t avoid death, much as we might like to because we are human and a fear of death is natural, we know that life wins out. This is what we’re asked to affirm in when faced with the empty tomb. Losing our fear of harm and death, and lifting up a savior who delights in lives lived fully, is our Christian call. Why can’t we trust in that more than a gun?

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