Remarks delivered at “Critical Conversations: Gun Sense,” convened at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, October 17, 2017.
Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe has spoken already to the policy and advocacy side of the question here today. I have been invited to address a theological perspective. As any good Methodist, I am naturally drawn to using the Quadrilateral and so, began my own reflection with the scriptures.
Scripture does not make explicit mention of firearms, of course, but it certainly has a lot to say about violence. And the scriptures are replete with references to swords—there are 407 verses that reference swords in some way, with the highest number in Ezekiel, followed by Jeremiah and 1 Samuel—books relating the story of Israel and Judah at war.
If one is to look for a consistent ethic, it is not always easy to find. There are certainly verses where God commands violence. There are verses in which violent retribution for some offenses is affirmed or tolerated. And of course, there are verses that counsel another way forward:
Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.Matthew 10:34; 26:51–52 NRSV
While it may fairly be asked, Why does any of the disciples of Jesus even have a sword?, it is clear that the sentiment expressed in the statement “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is in accord with Jesus’ admonishment that all his disciples be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). It is a sentiment in line with the beatific vision found in Isaiah and Micah of the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares. It is emblematic of the perfection in love that Jesus calls us toward.
In an attempt to see if there were any other verses commonly cited in the church’s reflection on gun violence, I searched online and thereby came across a number of curious phenomena.
First, was an image of a Bible cut into the shape of a gun with the caption, “The most powerful weapon in the world is the Word of God.”
Second, was an image of a number of weapons which had been inscribed with a verse from the 144th Psalm: “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”
Third, were images of gunsights that had been sold to the military for use in Iraq and Afghanistan that had had scriptural references engraved on them for verses like 2 Corinthians 4:6 (“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”) and John 8:12 (“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”)
There was something about the juxtaposition of these weapons of violence with scriptural references to Jesus that was troubling.
And no, it’s not that it’s incongruous for a Christian to be a gun owner, or in the military, or in the police. St. Augustine addressed that question 1600 years ago. It was about the role that the firearm was playing in many of these images.
There was a conflation of Christian faith with the firearm that was problematic. As if the firearm was not simply a tool used by a Christian, but was somehow the expression of Christian faith.
The Nature of the Gun
There is something particular about the gun: it is powerful, it is immediate. In the martial arts, by the time you get to the point where you could kill a person with your bare hands, you don’t. You’ve undergone so much discipline and training that the awesome power you now wield is grounded in that very discipline and training. But a gun requires no such discipline—it is immediate, it is powerful, it is deadly.
And that deadliness is what concerns so many. Could the mere presence of the gun be the cause of so much violence?
Whence the Violence?
In his 2003 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore set out to explore why it was that gun violence was so high in the United States. He looked seriously at the question of whether it was the presence of firearms alone.
In statistics that today are similar to the results Moore found in 2003, there are 112 guns per every 100 residents in the US. In Canada, there are only 30.8 guns per every 100 residents. A nearly 4-1 difference. But the U.S. sees 3.5 firearm related homicides per 100,000 people versus Canada’s 0.5 firearm-related homicides per 100,000. That’s a 7-1 difference. That cannot be accounted for by the number of guns alone. Something else must be at work.
Is it that we’re more violent than other peoples? That is certainly a fair question to ask in a nation founded on settler-colonialism, genocide of indigenous peoples, and captive slavery of Africans. But it would be hard to say that we were more violent than, say, the Germans or the English or the French, all of whom have firearm related deaths 14 to 35 times lower than we do.
In talking to some Canadians, Moore encountered a common refrain they had about the US after having watched a fair amount of American television: “It seems you all are really scared down there. What are you so scared of?”
That’s a really good question. There is no doubt that we Americans are a scared lot. Fear is used to sell foreign policy: fear of terrorism. Fear is used to sell domestic policy: fear of immigrants, fear of racial minorities, fear of economic instability, fear of change. Fear is used to get you to tune in to the evening newscast: “An everyday product probably in your house right now can kill you! Find out which one at 11!” Fear is used to sell products: we are told to fear receding hairlines and off-white teeth. Fear pervades our national life.
When I reflected on this, I realized why the juxtaposition of Bible verses and guns was so troubling: because it’s the modern-day version of a very old and troubling practice.
Power and Salvation
The ancient prophets of Israel were never really concerned that the people would abandon their worship of God in favor of worshiping pagan idols; they were concerned that the Israelites would supplement their worship of God with pagan idols. They’d hedge their bets with a little sacrifice to Asherah in addition to prayers to Yahweh. Out of fear, they’d seek to blend the two together.
And that’s what we’ve done.
We’ve created a culture of fear in which we are all terrified of one another. We are all scared and feeling out of control. A firearm is an incredibly powerful tool that gives us the illusion of control and so we turn to it—not out of necessity for hunting or self-protection—but because we want that security and control. The lure of that immediate, powerful, and deadly tool is strong when we are feeling afraid. When we are feeling alienated, disrespected, or powerless the siren song of immediate power is often too great a temptation.
But in doing so we run the risk of diminishing our faith in God. And I am reminded of this passage from Isaiah:
A carpenter stretches out a string, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with carving tools, and marks it with a compass. He makes it into a human form, like a splendid human, to live in a temple. He cuts down cedars for himself, or chooses a cypress or oak, selecting from all the trees of the forest. … Half of it he burns in the fire; on that half he roasts and eats meat, and he is satisfied. He warms himself and says, “Ah, I’m warm, watching the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, into his idol, and he bows down, worships, and prays to it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!”Isaiah 44:13–17 CEB
It is not the tool itself alone that is the problem. It is the fear we have created. It is the way we look to the highly seductive tool that we have made with our own hands as our salvation rather than God. It is the idolatrous theology that we construct around our idols, to keep our illusions secure. It is when we trust more in that tool than in the God we have come to know in Christ Jesus, whose perfect love casts out all our fear.