Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Dear Christians, We Gotta Talk About Guns

I can vividly remember standing at the bus stop when I was 10 years old, and seeing a rabid fox slowly approach us on the nearby railroad tracks. It walked slowly in circles, kept falling over, and we (my brother, my neighbor, and I) got increasingly nervous as it drew closer. Thankfully, the bus arrived before too long, we quickly boarded, and my neighbor’s dad grabbed his rifle, shooting the diseased animal shortly after we pulled away.

I was glad my neighbor had access to a gun.

And then, I hear of yet another horrible shooting in Las Vegas, which has filled up all our news and social media feeds. I am not glad this person had access to a gun. And predictably, comments, conversations, and arguments about gun legislation rage back-and-forth in the wake of the event, with no obvious progress made on either side.

It’s hard not to despair, in the face of such tragic and needless loss of life, especially when ensuing conversation seems to only further entrench people in their already-held views.

And it’s even worse for me, speaking as a Jesus-person, to see Christians amongst the entrenched.

This post is not about a specific direction for gun legislation in America, nor is it really for those who don’t purport to follow Jesus or have any faith-claims (though, if that is you, I hope you might find what follows to be interesting). Rather, based on my own experiences in impassioned and divided conversations with people in the same worshipping communities, I want to propose some basic ground rules to help us Christians cut through the chatter and have more productive conversations about a pressing issue in our culture.

So, here are 2 suggested ground rules for discussions (with other Christians) about guns:

1. Don’t Make Lazy Comparisons

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At the risk of sounding too simplistic, remember that we are talking about weapons with immense destructive power. To flesh out this point, consider two frequently-referenced scripture passages by those who want to protect gun-ownership rights: John 2 & Luke 22. In John 2, Jesus famously storms into the Jerusalem temple, flipping over tables and sending out the money-changers, seemingly in a rage. In Luke 22 (verse 36), Jesus specifically tells his followers to “sell their cloaks and buy a sword,” apparently to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy that Jesus would be found “among transgressors.”*

I’ve heard defenders of gun-ownership employ both these texts, the violent behavior in the temple and the explicit endorsement of weapon-ownership from Jesus’ own lips, as scriptural support for owning guns today. And although I have serious exegetical/interpretive issues with either of these texts being handled in those two ways, I want to make a simple, even blunt point:

We aren’t arguing about owning swords or whips today; we are talking about guns. Placing these items under the same vague category of ‘weapons,’ and then treating scripture as if it handles the issue broadly, is lazy at best, and downright manipulative at worst.

Kids don’t accidentally kill themselves by playing with their parents’ whips. Mentally unstable individuals don’t kill dozens of people in public gatherings with swords. They aren’t the same thing, and it's maddening that we even need to be reminded of this. But if we have any hope of moving towards thoughtful conversations, we need to get over this absolutely ridiculous conversation-stopper. Guns carry enormous destructive power, and we need to talk about them that way.

2. Don’t Obscure the Conversation With Vague References to “Sin”

A second rhetorical move I have noticed that Christians tend to make is something like, “The problem isn’t really guns, the problem is the hatred and murderous tendencies of the human heart. The real problem is sin!” Conversation shut-down.**

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This obscurantist move is wildly frustrating, especially because (in many cases, at least) the same people who are trumpeting this argument have no problem talking passionately and in specific terms about other societal and legislative issues like abortion or marriage.

Yes, I too believe that the problem-behind-the-problem is always “sin.” But sin shows up in specific ways. To further this point, imagine a parent who refuses to confront a child’s selfishness and therefore, especially over time, enables and inflames that very behavior, eventually creating a monstrous, self-absorbed adult. Similarly, our stubborn refusal to name specific cultural sins actually enables the behavior to run amok and, over time, creates a cultural monster. And, frankly, I’m beyond tired of our weak responses.***

We have many specific sin-problems in our culture. Some of them are sex-and-objectification-of-bodies-problems. Many others are greed-and-wealth problems. And, most certainly, at least one of them is a tragic gun-and-violence-problem.

So especially to my brothers and sisters in faith who are reading this post, for the love of God and God’s children who have been consumed by this monster as we have tried to ignore its presence, join me in confronting it.



 

*Space doesn’t permit an exegetical treatment of Luke 22 here, but a frequently-overlooked detail in this story comes right after Jesus’ command, in verse 38. The disciples say “Lord, we have 2 swords here,” and he replies “That’s enough!” If Jesus was really providing a robust defense of weapon-ownership, it seems a little strange that he was OK with only 2 of his many, many followers carrying a sword. Furthermore, it’s even stranger that when precisely one of those swords is used to strike the guards who are arresting Jesus, he yells “None of this!” and actually heals the guard’s injured ear.

**Interestingly, this same move is made frequently in conversations connected to race, wealth inequality, and justice issues. Frankly, I’ve come to believe that the Conservative-Evangelical tactic of labelling the “real problem” of an issue as “sin” is really just code-speak for “this is uncomfortable for me to think about.”

***Please note that I am not making the argument that no Christians should own guns. I have good friends who own guns for sport and hunting, and I have even joined them at the occasional outing to a shooting range. Take my argument on its own terms: we have a larger problem in our country that needs naming and confronting.