A Theology of Guns and Self Defense

Jesus Says No Guns?

It appears to be fashionable to oppose guns. We’ve seen celebrities, politicians, media outlets, and the average Joe and Jane all chime in, offering their various reasons for why guns are bad. Now, however, it appears that faith groups have also begun chiming in on this debate.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and spiritual adviser to President Obama, has already added his two cents to the debate. In one piece on his God’s Politics blog where he strongly rebukes NRA President Wayne LaPierre for some of his comments on guns and self defense, he emphasized that all people of faith need to push for a renewed conversation on gun control. Last week, he posted another entry more emphatically calling for people of faith to apply themselves to gun violence just as they have in the past on issues like immigration. With a not-so-subtle jab at pro-gun Christians, he argued that faith should guide our actions on both sides of the debate.

It was not our politics but our faith that caused us to change our hearts and minds on immigration reform. And now we must apply that to gun violence. Shouldn’t people of faith who are gun owners apply their faith to this issue? And shouldn’t members of the NRA who are people of faith apply their faith to the leadership of their organization. If millions of dollars in NRA funding comes from gun manufacturers, doesn’t that make it a gun-running organization more than a gun safety organization? And what should people of faith say to that?

Not-so-subtle jabs aside, I agree with his basic sentiments. People of faith should include their faith in their reasoning when it comes to major ethical issues. And in this most recent debate, liberal religious individuals have most certainly been doing just that. The group Faiths Against Gun Violence, started shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting as an inter-religious response to gun violence, has grown to over 40 member organizations from a variety of religions.

Some in religion and academia have tried to push forward particular tactics for their debate. Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, wrote a piece on the left-leaning Religion Dispatches website that advocates a plan for gun control activists: call gun ownership “sinful.” After explaining the long history of progressive religious movements in America and the powerful appeal of mythic imagery on both sides of the gun control issue, he concludes with his ultimate vision:

The gun control movement should emphasize that such [progressive] reform movements are a glorious American tradition. To call all Americans to change their ways, while using the levers of government to encourage them, is deeply American.

Let the call sound throughout the land: Owners of assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and all guns with inadequate safety locks; sellers of guns who evade or ignore rigorous background checks; parents who fail to keep their legal guns safely under lock and key: This is sin. There is another way, a more patriotic way. The choice is yours. And the time to choose is now. Tomorrow may be, quite literally, too late.

A Different Conclusion

Now that the gun control debate is back, and it’s most clearly not going away, conservatives need to engage with this sort of message. It is, to most people, appealing to argue that gun ownership is morally deficient in our modern society. As I’ve written elsewhere, our society is keyed into popular images about guns seen in film, TV, and games – and as a result, we tend to respond emotionally to gun debates rather than rationally. At least for the moment, the emotional thrust in media and pop culture seems to be against guns rather than for them.

Many modern people who are popularly engaged in public theology (the relating of religious principles and ideas to matters of public interest and inquiry) lean more liberal. People like Jim Wallis, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson all make some effort to put their faith into a public context that people can latch on to. They lift up images of a peace-loving Jesus who tells Peter to put down his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, and of Old Testament Prophets who decried injustice at every turn. These images are valid parts of the Christian tradition, and even if most conservatives find their end conclusions to be horribly off-base, we still have acknowledge them and wrestle with them.

So how do people of faith respond? Within Christian circles, some groups have sought to analyze Biblical texts for tips. And while this is a great help for church groups and Christian adherents, I don’t know if it goes far enough. Not everyone, after all, is a Christian. And not everyone who is a Christian holds scripture at the same levels of respect. Public theology requires a bit more of a universal approach. That’s not to say scripture doesn’t have a role, but failing to analyze or interpret that scripture in a way that makes it publicly relevant is a huge misstep that can is made all too often.

So is it possible to argue for an entirely different theological approach to the question of gun control and self defense? I think it is.

A Common Starting Point

The first question we have to ask, essentially, is about the point where we can all agree. What basic principles can we all commonly agree upon? For Christians, I think that there are two: love and justice.

Love is one of the most basic elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition. God’s steadfast love for Israel is one of the firm underpinnings of the ongoing covenant relationship between God and the people, even when the people themselves continually break and violate that covenant. It is also the operating premise of the Gospel message in the New Testament (see John 3:16). And just as God loves us, we are commanded to love God and love other people. While there may be specific disagreements about what specifically constitutes that love or how that love is best expressed, love is undeniably a major principle.

Justice is another. Throughout the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see a God that is very concerned with matters of right and wrong. The entire concept of a religious law assumes that there are standards of behavior and conduct that are God-directed. Justice, specifically, is to be promoted (see Deut. 16:18-20) and is enforced by God (see Amos. Further, in the prophetic texts we hear from multiple voices that command us not only to be just ourselves, but to seek justice ourselves (see Micah 6:8). Jesus is also very critical of those who fail to pursue justice, especially with regards to the religious authorities of the day (see Matthew 12).

Taking this outside of the specifically Christian context, these principles can be applied to wider social interactions in American politics. We can all value the importance in a secular society of caring for our neighbors and ourselves, even if we don’t necessarily all jump fully into the mindset of instinctively loving one another. Further, the promotion of justice is a paramount concepts in American politics and the western political tradition in general. Given these basic realizations, I think it is fair to use these two principles as a starting point.

The Ethics of Force

The next question we have to ask is specifically related to the issue at hand. Love and justice as esoteric principles are great, but they have to be applied in some way. So, within the tradition of Christianity itself, how do we understand the use of armed force?

Here is where arguments become tricky. At this point we see two competing narratives: one, of the Old Testament with many battles and wars sanctioned by God, and two, of the New Testament in which Jesus literally lays down his life in non-resistance to the injustice that was his crucifixion. Many more liberal Christians have attached themselves to that image of the more pacifistic Jesus, basing their views on nonviolence on his example. That choice is significant, as pacifism is indeed a powerful and meaningful way for Christians to live in the world and relate to their neighbors. Many modern theologians, like Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas, embrace pacifism. Further, in some circumstances people have succeeded with pacifistic tactics in places of extreme conflict.

The narrative surrounding the use of armed force is more often discussed in terms of warfare, and there are stark differences between fighting a war and using force for self-defense. The two are different enough to mean that we can’t simply appropriate another ethical concept like Just War Theory it for our purposes. Just War Theory does, however, suggest that there are cases where, given certain rules and standards, armed conflict is an acceptable (even if undesirable) means of resolving conflict. As Just War Theory is deeply rooted in the theological and ethical tradition, we may still be able to glean some insights from it for our current dilemma.

Paul Ramsey, an American theologian and political thinker, engaged the notion of just war theory from the position of the two principles of love and justice that we outlined earlier. For him, the motivation in a Christian life should be the pursuit of love AND an emphasis on justice:

Sometimes love does what justice requires and assumes its rules as norms, sometimes love does more than justice requires but never less, and sometimes love acts in a quite different way from what justice alone can enable us to discern to be right… When his neighbor’s need and the just order of society are at stake, the Christian still governs himself by love and suffers no injustice to be done nor the order necessary to earthly life be injured.
(Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, P. 178.)

This idea is very useful to us. Love for another is a genuine desire for that person’s good and well-being. This is why the story of The Good Samaritan is so compelling in the Christian tradition. We don’t have to like someone or know someone personally, but we do have to genuinely take interest in the other person’s situation.

With justice considered as an equally important idea, we have an interesting twist in the conversation: caring about another person’s well being may involve caring about their moral decisions. Willfully supporting someone who does wrong, or not intervening when someone is doing wrong, allows that person to harm themselves spiritually and morally. These are both potential violations of the core principles of love and justice.

Ramsey himself is a firm believer in the Christian notion of an afterlife that will be greater than this temporal life; as a result, he supports the idea that death is not the worst possible outcome of a situation because there is the possibility of something greater beyond death. Thus, in the realization of justice and love in the world, it may be required to use controlled force up until the point of killing in the interest of restraining evil and preventing harm. This is true for both protecting the neighbor from harm and preventing the aggressor from causing harm to others and themselves. Timothy Jackson, Professor of Christian Ethics at Candler School of Theology, re-describes the idea in this way:

Short of doing something evil in itself (malum in se), even killing may be a proportionate means precisely because death is not the worst calamity. Taking the life of an aggressor to defend the innocent may serve both parties, or at least be compatible with willing the good for both. Although a “hard saying,” it may sometimes be better/more just to be killed than be permitted to become a successful murderer, better/more just forcefully to restrain evil than allow the political triumph of the murderous.
(Timothy Jackson, The Priority of Love, P. 108)

Ramsey’s theory, however, stops after a point. Because Christians are called to a denial of self and to turn the other cheek and forgive a transgressor, he argues that it may not be permitted for them to defend themselves in the same way or to the same degree that they might act in the defense of another person. Simply because they are actively harming you does not mean that you should not still attempt to forgive them.

I disagree with Ramsey on this point. While it is true that a Christian must forgive, and that Christ did teach us to turn the other cheek, it is not true that a Christian should allow injustices to occur. Failing to stop an unjust aggressor who is assailing one’s self, in my view, would still be permitting someone to corrupt themselves through injustice. This would still undermine a part of Ramsey’s own claims about the need to act in response to the injustice in others. Failing to do something to stop them if able, therefore, could still be viewed as morally problematic.

The above principles, I feel, can be related to the majority of the secular conversation without considerations about the Christian priorities of each category. Given that caring for others and upholding justice are both fundamental principles, it makes sense that citizens should take part in upholding those two principles. Further, Just War Theory principles are widely-held standards for considering questions of armed conflict that can be justified apart from religious norms. It’s not too far of a jump to argue that these ideas can be contemplated by non-Christians or nonreligious individuals in a different context.

One final point to consider before pulling our discussion to a close: in conversations about resisting injustice and evil, one has to consider the question of effectiveness. In Just War Theory, there are two criterion that speak to this issue. The first is that of Probability of Success, which demands that a nation must decide before entering a war if it even has a shot of succeeding in the first place. The second is Proportionality, or the challenge that makes sure that going to war is an appropriate response to the perceived unjust acts done by the opposing nation. These, I think, need to be considered as a part of the self-defense conversation. If there is a moral imperative to resist injustice, is it not right to ask if one’s actions could successfully resist the unjust party? And is it not important to consider whether or not one’s response to the unjust act is scaled to the nature of the offense? Without these questions asked, I don’t think we can formulate a good response to the self defense question.

A Theology of Guns and Self Defense

Drawing on the core principles and ethical ideas that I outlined above, I would propose the following as a theological argument in favor of armed self-defense and gun rights.

  1. Love and justice are two God-given principles that form a fundamental part of community and political life. In communities, we find ourselves in a position of mutual relationships with and obligation to our neighbors. To maintain and improve those mutual relationships, we must embody the principles of love and justice in our interactions with others.
  2. When others in the community come under an immediate threat of unjust harm, our mutual obligations demand that we seek to effectively uphold the principles of love and justice in our response. Our relationship obligations do not merely extend to the victim of harm, or to ourselves if we are the victims, but to the perpetrator of that harm as well, and our actions must relate as appropriately as possible to both parties.
  3. Given the goal that our actions should seek to be both true to those core principles of love and justice and meaningful, we must also seek to respond in a principled and meaningful way. In a case where there is a threat of unjust harm, a meaningful response could best be described as one that both A) best embodies the principles we must uphold in our response and, ideally, B) is effective in mitigating or stopping that injustice both out of interest in protecting the potential victim and stopping the unjust aggressor from corrupting themselves in the process.
  4. Using force, even deadly force if necessary, to stop a threatened unjust and violent act against another person or against one’s self, therefore, may be a meaningful and principled way to prevent that injustice from taking place.  This is done out of both an interest in pursuing justice and as an expression of love: not only love for the victim so that he/she is, or you yourself are, protected from harm, but out of love for the attacker so that he/she may be prevented from doing that injustice and corrupting his/her self in the process.
  5. Given that many people in our modern society who commit unjust acts of violence and harm do so using weapons up to and including firearms, an individual may need to respond in a way that is proportionate to the scale of the threatened injustice in order to be meaningful in their response, including the use of weapons up to and including firearms. An individual who feels morally or spiritually compelled to prepare for such a possible event may justly prepare for that possibility through their responsible ownership of, maintenance of, and training with such weapons.

These points aren’t meant to be perfect or thoroughly complete, but rather to start a conversation. We need to have a principled debate about the nature of gun ownership and armed self defense in this country on both sides of the aisle, and not merely rely on platitudes about resisting government tyranny or protecting the rights of hunters or sportsmen. No doubt those issues do have real importance, but they distract from the conversation because they are either flagged as extremist on sight in the former case, or are completely detached from the core meaning of the Second Amendment in the latter case.

In fact, I would argue that the Second Amendment stands closer to my above theological position than any argument about hunting rights or sportsman’s rights. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion for the DC v Heller handgun ban case, “…the ‘militia’ in colonial America consisted of a subset of ‘the people’ — those who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range.” Gun ownership and usage rights were at their core predicated on the concept of community-based self defense and protection, hence the emphasis of the Founders on giving “the people” the right to keep and bear arms. The right of individuals and communities to resist harm injustice using force is precisely the sort of philosophical and theological question that I want to engage with my above position, and that seems to be exactly what the Founders wanted to address with the Second Amendment.

Hopefully, as communities of faith continue to engage in the conversation about gun ownership in America, we can continue to engage in rational and reasoned dialogue. Our faith can and should be a core part of this conversation, and only when both sides of the ideological debate can weigh in will we truly be able to grow and move forward as a society.

Authors note: For readers who desire a more in-depth scriptural approach to the subject, I would encourage them to start out with the Biblical Self Defense blog. While I’m not in full agreement with all of the interpretations therein, the article itself is a very exhaustive starting point for study and discussion.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin

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