THE BLOG

The Heart, the Hand and the Gun

04/08/2013 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Only four months have passed since the senseless deaths of children and teachers in Newtown, Conn., and even in that short space gun-related violence has claimed law-enforcement officials in Colorado, Texas and West Virginia -- people who presumably should have demonstrated the principle we so often hear from advocates of gun ownership, that being armed is a way of being safe.

The Christian tradition has an ambiguous relationship with the problem of violence. It cannot be denied that the worldwide spread of the Christian faith was abetted by the use of violence -- and not just in the crusades or colonialism. Theologians from Augustine to Aquinas set out theological grounds condoning violence, and even guiding its use in inter-state conflict.

In contrast, the position of nonviolence has a long history in Christian teaching. From Tertullian in antiquity to Martin Luther King, Jr., Christian writers and thinkers have also argued the case that inherent in the Christian message is an expectation, or standard, of pacifism.

That stance has been a central principle of whole Christian traditions (the Anabaptist movement, most notably) and denominations. It is well known that Jehovah's Witnesses, refusing to take part in military service, were interned in Nazi concentration camps. Unlike most prisoners, they were given an option to renounce their views and take up arms; thousands courageously refused this offer.

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, conservative evangelical churches have not been found stridently supporting the positions of Second Amendment partisans. Interestingly, you can find a HuffPost collection of stories on the general subject of "Guns in Church," but there is a seeming absence of conservative church leaders eager to line up with Wayne LaPierre in his general argument that the way to solve the problem of gun violence is essentially to spread the plague of firearms.

By contrast, leaders of more liberal denominations have taken up strong positions advocating for legislated limits on the possession of firearms, access to assault weapons and high-capacity accessories and universal background checks as a means of controlling gun ownership. Leaders of my own Episcopal Church led a Stations of the Cross procession in Washington on the Monday before Easter, designed to bring attention to the issue of gun violence; the observance was led by Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut's Episcopal diocese.

Twenty years ago the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a resolution calling for "rigid" and exhaustive controls on "handguns, assault-like weapons and their parts." As recently as five years ago, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its Resolution 3426 calling on the church, among other things, to "support federal legislation in the US Congress to regulate the importation, manufacturing, sale, and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public." Similarly, the Presbyterian Church has recently created a "Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit," offering congregational leaders resources for engaging community-level conversations on the issue.
It is not clear, on the ground of Scripture, that there is something one could recognize as a "Christian perspective" on guns. Jesus certainly does tell his disciples to put away their swords (which, interestingly, implies that they went about armed, at least as the controversies surrounding him came to a head), but never seems to make the same demand of the civil authorities who use weapons as a means of political oppression. And at the same time, Jesus himself seems capable of acting in ways that are difficult to describe in any way other than violent.

That said, there is a great deal in the Christian Scriptures on the problems of the conflicted human heart. Jesus often and openly confronts us with our capacity for treating others in ways inconsistent with the basic expectations of human dignity. And it is in that problematic tendency -- otherwise known as sin -- that the problem lies.

Think of it this way. In American culture -- especially in the much-maligned culture of the frontier west -- guns assumed a kind of reputation as a means of achieving by force the value of equality. It is not by accident that American slang regards "equalizer" as a synonym for "gun."

You don't have to agree with that notion to grasp the essential problem. American society is becoming less and less equal; the middle class, once the source of the church's strength, is in crisis, and the growing distance between the shrinking few at the top of the pyramid and the rest of American society confronts us with a basic contradiction when we make our claim to equality. We don't expect equality of outcomes -- individual accountability has to count for something, after all -- but we still hold the ideal of equal opportunity, equal treatment, equal access to the means of fulfillment.

That is what seems to be breaking down in 21st century America. So it is hardly surprising that incidents of gun violence have brought as a predictable echo another wave of gun purchases. It's a pretty good bet that most of those purchasers aren't from the more secure end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Now think of the Christian message in all this. The Scriptures may not speak of guns, or even all that much of weapons. They do speak about human dignity. And most of all, they speak of equality -- the radical equality of all people before God, regardless of belief, clan or any typical source of privilege.

The perpetrators of gun violence, at least in the most prominent recent examples, were people on the very periphery of society -- exactly the people for whom the message of equality is meant to be a hope. It is by no means a justification of their choice of response to say that, for them, a gun was a means of somehow restoring balance -- or, as it is more often understood in the mind of a perpetrator, "getting even."

Gun violence is a form of violence; and violence is a problem of the human heart. The hand that holds the gun is motivated by the heart. And the heart of every person desires to know the dignity of basic possibility and acceptance, of inclusion and not ostracism.

So if the church is to speak effectively to speak against gun violence, it must speak from that ground. It must offer a vision of a truly inclusive and affirming society, one that demonstrates a genuine regard for the dignity of all people.

And that means the church must itself be a community that has a discipline about equality and acceptance -- especially for the marginalized and those on the periphery. These are not always simply the people we might want to bring in from the edges; they are also the people we might rather see less of. They are the people we see as downtrodden, and the people we see as distasteful and disagreeable.

It is only when we model that sort of community that we will offer an effective -- and distinctively Christian -- answer to the problem of violence.