Reading Time: 10 minutes
Reading Time: 10 minutes
One Viewpoint: “Though defensive violence will always be ‘a sad necessity’ in the eyes of men of principle, it would be still more unfortunate if wrongdoers should dominate just men.”
– St. Augustine
Another Viewpiont: “America is a Gun”
– Brian Bilston
My coworkers and I are gathered in the office in between classes, discussing what we’ll have to teach this afternoon. One of my colleagues, Rich, jokingly asks if I can take his lesson on “discussing the news.” With a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, he says “I just don’t think I can talk about school shootings again.” Another colleague, Mike, reflects on starting one class with the video of Emma Gonzales’ six minutes and twenty seconds of silence. Mike’s a big guy at six foot four. He tells me without a hint of embarrassment that he broke up in front of six students.
Gun violence, or more exactly, the domestic mass shootings not within the context of war, has become a staple topic in American conversation. But unlike the debates over human rights or the proper stewardship of the environment, there is a special kind of sting these conversations bring. I think most of us just don’t want to really sit with the kind of evil which expresses itself by kids killing kids.
One of the worst aspects of this evil is the isolation which it can bring. Maybe you feel as I do: alone, and helpless against a threat which can literally explode onto the scene anywhere, and with the only guarantee being that it will happen again. The quick fragmentation and variety of avenues that arise when discussing guns in America makes the conversation difficult. In the end, we have a network of conversations that includes (a) gun control legislation, (b) the nature, causes, and motivations of gun violence, (c) the important social and political responses, and (d) the need for citizens to both process hard objective data and cope with a sense of national grief.
Given this complex, seemingly endless web of considerations, it would be very easy to ignore the problem, to let it slip into the swamp of our day-to-day lives, at least until the next time. But this, we know is not a solution; if anything, it makes the problem worse.
One way forward is to talk, to connect, and to work together. For Christians, this is the call to be a part of the Church, the Body of Christ which not only feels, but acts. Wondering where to go to have these conversations? Here are some church traditions which might interest you:
- Peace Church Tradition
- Evangelical Tradition
- Catholic Tradition
- Mainline Protestant Tradition
Peace Church Tradition
Starting off is the peace church tradition: Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren are a few members of this group. Historically, these peace churches are Anabaptist, which is a family of protestant churches starting in the 16th century which defined themselves through martyrdom in the face of persecution by other faith traditions. From this historical background, peace churches have a radical commitment to non-violence, and a sense of solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. Both of these qualities have been represented throughout the history of this faith tradition. Both can be seen in the peace church tradition as far back as the late 16th century, with the letters of martyr Maeyken Wens, who wrote movingly and peacefully in her letters to her family, calling for compassion and non-violence in the face of persecution. Other examples of this stance on non-violence can be seen in both World Wars: many of the conscientious objectors during both wars were generally from the peace church tradition. As for solidarity, this virtue has rarely been better exemplified in the history of the Church than during the era of slavery, when Quakers formed a strong and virtually unanimous voice for abolition.
Both of these concerns continue to play out in contemporary conversations concerning gun violence and gun control legislation. In 2013, the Church of the Brethren submitted a written testimony to the subcommittee hearing on “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence.” Citing its “long history of peacemaking and advocating for non-violent solutions to the problems that plague our world” the testimony argues for stricter legislation, including a universal background check and stricter gun trafficking laws.
However, this stance of non-violence does not necessarily mean all in the peace church tradition are in favor of strict gun control. Matthew Van Meter, writing from a Quaker perspective for the Friends Journal, presented an argument against gun control—pointing out that such legislation tends to disproportionately affect underprivileged communities, in addition to historically being racially charged. Taking a somewhat middle road, the Mennonite Central Committee issued a guide which “helps to equip individuals, small groups and churches to advocate for gun violence prevention.” If you find that you are interested in conversations around gun violence which focus on non-violent solutions that are counter-balanced by an appreciation of the vulnerability of the marginalized, the peace church tradition will likely be a welcoming home.
The Evangelical tradition has a long-held place of prominence within American political and cultural conversations. For starters, they claim roots back to landmark American theologians and religious figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and Billy Graham, as well as political leaders such as George H.W. Bush. In terms of the conversation on gun violence and legislation, Evangelicals are particularly important to address, as they are the religious group most likely to own a gun, according to the Pew Research Center. This statistic is not to say that Evangelicals are not uniformly pro-gun; in fact, many Evangelicals may simultaneously be gun enthusiasts and want stricter gun legislation.
Reflecting this complexity and interest in guns, many Evangelical leaders are entirely willing to jump into conversations surrounding gun violence and gun control. David Barton, who was placed on Time’s list of “Top 25 Most Influential Evangelists” has cited biblical justification for self-defense, and ergo against strong gun regulation. This is not to say that all Evangelicals are against stronger gun laws as a solution to gun violence. Rick Warren, a popular pastor and author, has shown a strong ambivalence on this subject due in part to his son who committed suicide with a gun, which has led many to speculate whether he will come out for stronger gun control laws.
What you will tend to find across the board in Evangelical conversations is a strong need for textual justification on any issue, usually from either the Bible or the United States Constitution. In regards to gun violence, the Evangelical viewpoint seems to be influenced by two types of passages: (1) those that consider weapon ownership, such as Luke 11:21 and Luke 22:38; and (2) those that consider sin and human nature, such as Matthew 15:19.
This play of texts can certainly be seen in figures such as David Barton, who in his conversation on “the Glenn Beck Show” back in 2013 seemed equally as comfortable citing the Bible and the Second Amendment. However, Evangelicals also have a deep focus on the reality of sin within human nature, perhaps springing from deep connections to the Great Awakenings and subsequent revivals and revivalism theology. A sense of personal conviction of sin is important within the Evangelical community, as well as an appreciation that the rest of the world is in a broken condition. This view of the world influences the concern voiced by many Evangelicals that removing guns invites the tyranny of governmental structures, and limits the freedom of the individual.
If you think our conversation around gun control should be supported by Biblical and constitutional justification, and think the conversation should be tempered by a robust understanding of sin and salvation, the Evangelical tradition might be worth your time.
Catholics, despite being the second largest religious group in America behind Evangelical Protestants, maintain a remarkable degree of uniformity within their conversations surrounding gun violence and control. This is because, for most Catholics, it is not only the Bible and personal conscience which enter into conversations on current issues and policies, but also the tradition of the church. In terms of our conversations on gun control, we can look at the tradition in terms of its historical and contemporary sources of authority, and its philosophical engagement of these issues.
The first element of the church tradition can be a little refreshing in its directness; Catholics like to be able to look up their beliefs. For example, an often cited passage for Catholics in the gun violence debates comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a book introduced under the guidance of Pope John Paul II which forms a pretty comprehensive reference book for Catholic doctrine and belief. Paragraphs 2264-2265 lay out the idea that a Catholic can use lethal force in self-defense, provided that they use only the necessary amount of force. Indirectly, this seems to at least condone the use of guns in the limited context of self-defense. What is more, neither the universal magisterium – a term for the most solid and agreed upon teachings of the church – nor any particular magisterium or American bishop has currently given any substantial statement on the use or restriction of firearms. The closest example provided would be a 1994 statement by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace entitled “The International Arms Trade: an Ethical Reflection,” which calls for a limitation of gun trafficking, particularly to terrorist and extremist groups.
Philosophically, however, the Catechism seems to reference what is called the Principle of Proportionality, which is an element of Just War Theory. On its most basic level, “Just War Theory” is an ethical concept most famously developed by the theologian Thomas Aquinas which explores when, if ever, it is right for Christians to go to war. The Principle of Proportionality is the part of that exploration which states that war can only be just if the military response of Christians is in proportion to the present threat; in other words, don’t bring an army to a knife fight. While Just War obviously deals most directly with military ethics, many Catholics use the considerations of Just War in talking about beliefs surrounding gun violence and gun control. If this more philosophical dialogue, grounded in a strong textual tradition, appeals to you, joining the Catholic conversation through meeting your local priest or catholic/catholic-friendly journals could be productive.
Mainline Protestant Tradition
The final tradition worth looking at is also the most nebulous. Mainline Protestants can very generally be defined by seven major denominations: United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A); Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches USA; United Church of Christ; and Christian Church or Disciples of Christ. While there are vast divergences of theological opinion between these different groups, there are some debates and qualities which either unite or define these groups. One such issue is that of free will versus the providence of God, on which the mainline protestant tradition is split, and yet this split forms a kind of “partners in arguments” relationship between the different denominations.
At first, the dialogue on gun violence may seem to have little to do with the intensely theological debate on whether and how human beings have free will under a God who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. However, the effects of this conversation on free will and what is essentially a mild deterministic view can be felt throughout mainline conversations on any issue. Presbyterian Pastor David Gibson succinctly named this divide as such:
On one level, this debate seems to represent a classic theological divide: There are those who argue that human beings should not try to supplant God’s role with their own efforts to redeem the world, and others who argue that believers have a duty to protect the God-given gift of life and human dignity.
It is also worth noting that Pastor Gibson then goes on to mention a second layer, which more directly addresses the influence of contemporary culture on the Mainline Protestant positions and debates, showing the connection in the Mainline tradition of cultural awareness and this particular theological debate. Persons with a greater focus on free will may be in favor of stronger civic action, and place the blame more on institutions and structures which perpetuate gun violence; whereas individuals with a greater focus on the providence of God might instead focus on prayer and preaching to a broken world, and place blame more on flaws within human nature such as mental illness.
It is also worth noting that Mainline Protestants do not fall universally on one side or the other on the topic of gun control, although certainly all are opposed to gun violence. However, if debates on free will, predestination, and the role of the church in contemporary society interest you, the Mainline Protestant tradition could be a good place to enter in the conversation.
Which tradition intrigues you? How should Christians respond to gun violence? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
About the Author: Evan is a writer, teacher, and language enthusiast currently living in Moscow, Russia. He holds a Master’s in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Theology, and has worked as a youth pastor, theology instructor, and haunted pub-crawl tour guide. Evan’s interests include theological aesthetics, theopoetics, Medieval theology, Patristics, and the works of Dante Alighieri.