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An Eastern Orthodox Case for Banning Assault Weapons

01/28/2013 09:38 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

NRA president, Wayne LaPierre says that instead of banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, we need to do something about violent movies and video games. He is technically correct that the cause of gun violence is not the gun. It's the violence, but sometimes the root problem is not the one that needs fixing. Mr. LaPierre's uncompromising ideology could benefit from a little oikonomia.

Oikonomia, in the Orthodox Church, refers to the application of canon law. Simply put, the canons are sets of "rules for Christian living" that have been ratified by various councils over the centuries. We have a lot of canons in the Orthodox Church. Some deal with the proper elements for Eucharist:

That honey and milk must not be offered at the Altars (Canon LVII of the Sixth Council)

Others address interfaith ecumenical services:

That one must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics. (XXXIII of the Synod of Laodicea)

And a few address Christian-Jewish relations:

Let no one ... in any way become familiar with the Jews or call them in case of sickness ... (Canon XI of the Sixth Council)

In my estimation, the mainstream view in the Orthodox Church is that canons addressing dogma are non-negotiable, while many canons (like the one about praying with heretics) only apply in some situations, and others (like the anti-Semitic ones) are just "dead." Of course, there are hard-liners who treat every canon as if it were penned by Jesus himself. Nonetheless, pretty much every Orthodox pastor agrees that the application of canon law must be guided by oikonomia or "economy."

This kind of economy has very little to do with money. Oikonomia comes from the word oikos, which means "household" or "family." When it comes to the canons, oikonomia means that, just as parents do not enforce the rules in every situation, neither do priests. The canons are what the Orthodox theologian, Fr. John McGuckin, calls a "pastoral instrument." If a priest knows someone is sinning, the canons might dictate a particular course of action, and the priest might choose to ignore it. The letter of the law is subordinate to the needs of the soul. If enforcing a canon is going to make someone feel ashamed, despair, or leave the church, the most responsible thing the priest can do is to suspend the "letter of the law" for the sake of the immediate need.

Wayne LaPierre needs a little oikonomia because oikonomia demands we value people more than ideology. The "letter of the law" in the NRA is to oppose any regulation on the sale and manufacture of firearms. But holding fast to one's ideals can make a person blind to their human cost, leading to irrational behavior. Thus, in the wake of shootings like Sandy Hook Elementary, LaPierre refuses to admit the obvious fact that a shooter with a smaller clip can kill fewer children. Instead he says that we should focus on the root causes of the problem. But the root causes are not always the ones that need to be addressed. In the Orthodox Church, oikonomia is a kind of spiritual triage: First save the patient! ButLaPierre is like a doctor, who comes across a person in cardiac arrest, and scolds her about proper diet and exercise.

Even if LaPierre is right about the connection between media violence and school shootings, addressing our culture of violence will not be enough to stop the flow of blood. It takes a long time to change a society. We could take every violent toy, image, movie, and video game, load them all onto a rocket, and fire it into the sun, but children would still be shot in the classroom. LaPierre's method would take a generation. That is why even God practices oikonomia. When Moses led the tribes of Israel out of Egypt and into the desert, it did not take long before the people started grumbling about their conditions. Where was the food? Where was the water? Many wanted to return to slavery. So God gave the people manna, made water gush from rocks, and sent quail wandering into the cooking pots of the camp. God provided for the people for 40 years -- the time it took for the first generation to pass away, and every memory of Egypt with them. We would need decades to fix the root causes of the gun-violence problem. In the meantime, children will still die, and we must first save the patient!

LaPierre does say that putting police officers in every school would save kids' lives. Maybe he is right, but it will still not be enough. There were armed guards at the Columbine shooting in 1999, and Virginia Tech has its own police force. For a police officer to prevent a school shooting, she would have to be present at the very moment the gunman drew his weapon. Once shots have been fired, the first concern of police officers is to secure and evacuate the victims. If Wayne LaPierre thinks cops are going to rush into a school with guns blazing, he has watched too many violent movies.

LaPierre does have a point. We do need to address the way our culture glorifies violence. (Maybe we should start with the NRA's infatuation with what are basically deadly toys.) But the priority must be to stop the bleeding. A disturbed person with an assault rifle and a 100-round clip is probably going to fire 100-rounds. Rambo is not coming to the rescue. Children will be shot.

I can appreciate LaPierre's commitment to his ideals, even if I disagree with them. But he needs to show a little more oikonomia. He needs to be willing to suspend the strict and universal application of his beliefs for the sake of the future victims of gun violence. Yes, let's reduce the number of violent images we expose our children to! But in the meantime, let's also ban high-capacity magazines (the kind that would raise the eyebrows of anyone who has ever read Freud)! Let's ban weapons than can fire a dozen shots before a fallen deer even hits the ground. Let's stop the bleeding with an assault weapons ban, at least for a little while.

Forty years should do the trick.

David J. Dunn writes on public and political theology from an Orthodox Christian perspective. His views reflect the diversity of Orthodox opinion on this issue, not any "official" position of the church.