Guns & Religion

During the 2008 election, Barack Obama took a lot of criticism for comments he made at a fundraiser while speaking about economically anxious working-class voters in the Midwest:  “it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  GOP opponents in particular seized on these remarks as indication of Obama’s otherness, how out of touch with “real America” he was.

In light of our newly framed debates on gun violence after the 2012 massacres in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Connecticut, it might be time to revisit the fear and anxiety that is in fact leading people to cling to their guns, stocking up on bullets and assault rifles merely because people started TALKING about changes in gun control laws.  And yes, we should also talk about a certain kind of religiousness that seems to undergird this apocalyptic worldview.

Rev. Jim Wallis, over at the Sojourners God’s Politics blog, points out the very particular kind of theology that the NRA is using and encouraging among these fearful folks:

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said this as his response to the massacre of children at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn.: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

That statement is at the heart of the problem of gun violence in America today — not just because it is factually flawed, which of course it is, but also because it is morally mistaken, theologically dangerous, and religiously repugnant.

The world is not full of good and bad people; that is not what our scriptures teach us. We are, as human beings, both good and bad. This is not only true of humanity as a whole, but we as individuals have both good and bad in us. When we are bad or isolated or angry or furious or vengeful or politically agitated or confused or lost or deranged or unhinged — and we have the ability to get and use weapons only designed to kill large numbers of people — our society is in great danger.

…  When we are good, we want to protect our children — not by having more guns than the bad people, but by making sure guns aren’t the first available thing to people when they’re being bad.  Being good is protecting people and our children from guns that are outside of the control of rules, regulations, and protections for the rest of us.

It is a specific fear-based binary religiosity that is the problem.  A kind of either-or theology that accompanies gun-toting anxiety leaves no room for complexity and doubt and confusion.  The fact that not a single one of us is simply a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ means that such binary thinking cannot determine what responsible gun control looks like.

There are more constructive options.  Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says in a recent video message:

“As long as a culture of violence is holding us captive – our spirits, our imagination, our debates, our actions – then we have work to do.  It is the work of peacemaking, the work of reconciling relationships and restoring communities.”

But this is hard.  It’s not just good vs. bad.  It’s messy and long-term and essential work that we have no choice but to do.

Together.

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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • srocha
  • Joshua

    Excellent article. Just look at the laughable and scary reactions of people who have publicly and vehemently defended their right to own guns. I bet every single one of them would say they were the “good guys”, and yet I wouldn’t want these Wild-West-types anywhere near me in any sort of tense standoff.


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