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A Christian realist perspective on God and guns

Beware fascination with guns, or with gun control

A woman takes part in a vigil in Newtown, Conn., following last week’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Associated Press/Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

A Christian realist perspective on God and guns
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James K.A. Smith, a noted philosopher and Christian political theologian at Calvin University, tweeted in response to the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting horror: “We’ve taken too long. Habitualities built up over a 200 year history will not be undone by tweaks on policy and half measures. We need the collective will to repeal the 2nd Amendment and confiscate guns. Only Mammon and our idols prevent us from doing so. Burn them down.”

The tradition of Christian realism can object to Smith’s proposal from several angles. First, supermajorities required from Congress and from state legislatures to remove a constitutional amendment are virtually unattainable. Second, this amendment protecting the right to bear arms is part of the storied Bill of Rights, added to the U.S. Constitution at the urging of James Madison and other Founding Fathers as additional protection against tyranny. Third, protections for some level of private gun ownership presume that government can overreach, and individual liberties must be protected. The Bill of Rights guards the freedom of speech and religion, gun ownership, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, trial by jury, and speedy trials.

Power and authority are easily corrupted and can become dangerous, as Christians, above all, should know. Constitutional government, with protections like the Bill of Rights, guards against the state’s propensity for control and exploitation. Without these guardrails, individuals lack recourse against excessive state coercion. Some perceive such guardrails as obstacles to the common good. But cutting corners when confronted with a horrific crisis is a temptation for every society.

Smith’s indignation over the mass murder of children is justified. His desire for dramatic action, shared by millions of others, is understandable. But Christian realism always counsels against ambitious absolutist solutions that override precedent, ignore human nature, and downplay the complex social factors that foster the conditions for catastrophe. As Madison observed, such laws and traditions are needed because men are not angels. Men sometimes behave like demons.

The Uvalde, Texas, murderer was demonic in behavior. How can society guard itself against such evils? God ordains the state as a proper authority to restrain and punish evil. Its coercive and lethal force is intended to deter crime and assault. School shooters, who are often suicidal, are undeterred. How should Christian realism address their threat?

Christian realism always counsels against ambitious absolutist solutions that override precedent, ignore human nature, and downplay the complex social factors that foster the conditions for catastrophe.

Christian realism is wary of absolutisms. Human evils typically are not eliminated but contained. Rejecting all restrictions on gun ownership and use does not comport with a traditional Christian view of a dangerous, fallen humanity. Persons who are immature, deranged, malevolent, suicidal, and psychopathic should not have ready access to guns and other instruments of mass murder. Indeed, the deeply determined and crafty will almost always find a way to pursue their crimes, but society is obliged to obstruct them whenever possible.

It may be hard for some conservative Christians to accept, but not every aspect of gun culture comports with their faith. Christianity traditionally argues not only against malevolent violence, of course, but also against vain amusements. The vast, vast majority of gun enthusiasts are mainly devoted hobbyists. For most, their pursuits are benign. But traditional Christianity cautions against unhealthy enthusiasms for worldly hobbies, however benign. This is especially the case where a prurient fascination with guns bleeds over into the macabre.

For more than 2,000 years, Christianity often has preached against theaters, salacious literature, dancing, festivals, bear-baiting, carnivals, card playing, horse racing, and other recreations that many Christians see as mostly harmless in themselves. The argument against passions for such pursuits is that life is short and that Christians are called to redeem the time and be sober, alert, and focused on God’s work.

Sometimes, gun owners can build comradery through gun clubs or hunting with friends. And some gun owners have legitimate concerns about self-defense and defending their families. But for others, zealous hobbies can focus their practitioners inward rather than toward others. Today’s major examples include online games and social media, which inhibit genuine friendships, create self-absorption, and substitute fantasy for reality. Like any hobby, gun obsessions, even if not overtly troubling, can become self-absorbed preoccupations.

Christians recognize the utility of guns for law enforcement, for the military, for self-protection, for hunting and target shooting, and perhaps as a collector’s hobby. But Christians should not sacralize guns or totemize gun culture. Gun preoccupations—like any other—can become demonic. A gun-obsessed person is likely isolated from humanity and God.

Christians admit that until Christ’s return, there will be murder and horror on this earth. But as agents of redemption, we are called to restrain these horrors whenever possible. Figuring out how to do that is the hard part.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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