Christians and Guns

Again, I know of nothing in the Christian tradition that suggests untrammeled rights to bear arms; in fact, I suggest below that the unfettered accumulation of weapons that may be used to kill is about as far from a Christian understanding as can be. But perhaps the tradition can help us as we look at its ideas about war, our closest approach to a Christian theory of violence and reacting to violence.

In Christian tradition, we find three main strands: holy war, just war, and pacifism. I think we can set holy war aside; it is the idea of holy war that has brought our country to its current breaking point, where right is to be defended by any means necessary and our opponents vilified or eliminated. If Jesus rejected violence and preached peace, then it is reprehensible to conquer in his name.

In the just war tradition, we read that Christians may be involved in the use of violence if it is in protection of others, if all other means have been exhausted, and if the violence is proportional and does not injure innocents. Augustine wrote—and Aquinas cited—the possibility of just war in these circumstances: "True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good." The use of violence to protect and defend would seem to be authorized by this tradition.

That doesn't mean we can set aside the pacifist tradition represented by Jesus and upheld to the present day by traditions like the Quakers and theologians like John Howard Yoder. These suggest that the highest and noblest human behavior is to stand naked in the face of power and refuse to raise a hand in your defense. It is a behavior that requires, perhaps, even more courage than standing armed against danger.

It is truly Christlike.

But it is, I fear, a call that many of us would fail miserably. I am with Bono in claiming to be a Christian pacifist—and in noting that if someone tried to hurt my family, I would resist with every means in my possession.

Including a gun, if I had one.

So if the Christian tradition suggests a legitimacy—and human nature acknowledges a desire—to resist violence with violence in some cases, one question remains: Does the tradition suggest that guns be widely available, as those arguing a right to bear arms suggest?

I don't think so. Using the screen we have developed here of putting faith and compassion before our own needs—the "I am third" rubric that models Augustine's Two-Fold Commandment to love God and our neighbor (to, in fact, love God first through our neighbor)—there seems to be no warrant for guns to be available to so many. Bob Herbert cites the disturbing statistic that in the years since 9/11, 150,000 people have been killed by gun violence in America—the equivalent of a terrorist decimation of the Super Bowl or the atomic destruction of a small city.

Love for our neighbors suggests that we may, and should, accept restrictions on some absolute right to bear arms in order to protect our neighbors. The NRA and its allies are fond of the slippery slope fallacy, the argument that banning, say, assault rifles or enormous ammo clips such as Jared Loughner is accused of having employed in Tucson will lead to Americans losing their hunting rifles or target pistols. It's called a fallacy for a reason: controlling armaments that have, as the Times put it, "no legitimate purpose outside of military or law enforcement use" has nothing to do with preventing Texans from hunting deer.

I come from a ranching family in Oklahoma. I have shot targets and animals. I know card-carrying members of the NRA, and love some of them. And I believe they are wrong about this slippery slope.

In similar fashion, requiring potential gun owners to undergo a real background check seems to me to be another obvious example of loving our neighbors. If, as with Loughner, we were to discover that someone had a history of police encounters, mental disturbances, and had been turned down by the military, would we, in all good conscience, still say that a cursory check (or at a gun show, no check) was suitable in his case? Would we, thinking of his example, argue that anyone who wanted a gun should have one? Of course not. Protection of our neighbors from those who would use guns badly (including using them upon themselves) also appears to be a Christian duty.

Now, where does this lead us? I don't know. I was telling friends in England that I fear that this outrage will wash over us and leave us where the last did. Few politicians seem willing to stand up to the gun lobby, even to propose sensible restrictions.

1/20/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Violence
  • Guns
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • politics
  • Rights
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.