How A Progressive Christian Pastor Made His Peace With Guns (Kinda Sorta.)

Growing up,  I was taught by my mother that guns were not good things.  Having come of age in Flint. Michigan that started to see a rise in violent crime in the 1980s, that message was only drilled into me further.  The urban environment that I come from taught me one thing: guns were bad, very bad and it was stupid to give people access to handguns, let alone semiautomatics.  I guess I was like a lot of mainline/progressive Christians in seeing no real good use for guns in light of all the damage they cause.

Sitting here as a middle-aged man, I still think there should be some types of restrictions on guns like background checks.  I still don’t like the NRA.  I also don’t think I’m going to pick up a gun anytime soon.  But my attitude towards guns has changed.  I don’t have the same negative attitude that I used to have when I was younger.  While I still think guns have had an impact in our cities among the poor and persons of color, I’ve also met folks-most who live in rural areas- that use guns and are not the “gun nuts” that I thought they were.  I met people who were normal people.  They liked to hunt with guns, or carried guns with them through concealed carry laws or had them in their home for protection.  While I don’t endorse an anything-goes when it comes to guns, I’ve come to well, tolerate them.  Not everyone who has a gun is going to become the next mass shooter.

In April of this year, Gregg Garrett wrote an article on the Christian Response to gun ownership.  As articles go it was pretty standard response from a liberal Christian.  He never says guns are evil and should be banned, but he might as well have.  Garrett does talk about how Christ practiced pacifism and maybe we should follow his lead.

He makes some good points, but he basically does what a lot of progressive folks do when talking about guns: lump the person who might carry a handgun or goes hunting with a gun in the same boat as a gunman who mows down a church or school.  But the thing is, there are a lot of responsible people who have guns.  It’s not my cup of tea, but I don’t know why folks immediately look down on these people.

One of the people who has given me a different perspective on guns is a Catholic blogger from Kentucky, Mike Dwyer.  Mike hunts with his guns and is a “gun guy” but he is not what many might like to think a gun owner is: that is a “gun nut.” In a recent post, he explains his background with guns and then talks about the issue of gun violence:

Regular readers know me as the League’s ‘gun guy’. I am not the only writer at the League experienced with guns, but I am definitely the loudest, and so that means I have some responsibilities. For obvious reasons the past week has caused me countless hours of self-reflection. I have started to write at least ten posts and trashed them because I realized I didn’t have a firm grasp on what I wanted to say. That is starting to come together for me now and I want to try to share those thoughts today.

The truth is that I do love guns. I grew up around guns. My grandfather and my uncle were police officers and their duty weapons were always present. I was also a child of divorce and I missed my father deeply at times even though I saw him nearly every weekend. Guns played an important role in our relationship. They represented his trust in me. They were an opportunity for him to teach me. They meant time we would spend together hunting and target shooting. As I grew older, guns meant time in the field with my friends.  Increased responsibility with bigger guns. Moving into adulthood hunting has become an obsession that trumps all others. Guns also mean that I have become the teacher of friends who want to learn to shoot as adults, my wife and my kids…

As plenty of others have noted, gun violence is part of a larger problem. Spree killings often represent failures of gun sellers, the mental health system or the people around these individuals who said nothing. Gun violence related to gangs and drugs has its roots in communities without enough fathers and in the warped need to carry a gun to feel like a man. Shootings like the Treyvon Martin case come from a distrust between groups and an irrational fear that seems to be an eternal feature of humanity.

I know some folks will say that we aren’t planning on taking away guns for hunting.  Okay, but you still should listen to someone like Mike.  And that’s part of the issue here: many progressive Christians don’t listen to people like Mike who use guns.  He’s not Wayne LaPierre, he’s just a guy that likes to hunt.

Richard Land is the Director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptists.  Earlier this week, NPR interviewed him in the wake of the Newtown shootings.  While I don’t agree with Land, his background was interesting.  Here’s how he was described by host Robert Siegel:

The Reverend Richard Land says he was horrified by the shootings in Newtown, especially as the grandfather of three grade school age boys. But on a matter of gun control, the Southern Baptist clergyman, author and broadcaster speaks of his upbringing and that of many conservative Christians. Most of us, he says, grew up in a region where guns were as natural a thing as lawnmowers.

The problem is not the guns, but what people are doing with the guns. He also tells the story about what happened when he 15 in Houston. His father was away. An intruder was trying to break in. His mother woke him and young Land grabbed a handgun and told the intruder to leave by the count of three or he would shoot. At the count of two, he says, the man left.

What struck me about this introduction was the talk about the environment he grew up in; one where guns were a normal part of life.  While such an environment might be uncomfortable for me, it is the lived experience of others.

The other thing that struck me was Land’s story about an intruder trying to break into his family’s home.  He used a gun to threaten the burglar.  Most of us that think about some kind of restrictions would think that this is an issue for the police, not vigilantes.  But gun owners might think there are times when the cops are far away or not going to get to you in time to come to your aid.

Land did call for some things that are sensible like closing the gun show loophole.  Late in the interview, Siegel asked Land what was the Biblical justification for using a weapon:

SIEGEL: What’s the New Testament justification for owning firearms?

LAND: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. If you see your neighbor being attacked, if you see your neighbor in danger, you have an obligation and a responsibility to do what you can to protect them.

SIEGEL: Do you have an obligation to turn the other cheek?

LAND: I think I do, personally. But the difference between personal and defending others, you know, it’s the justification that’s used for soldiers and others and police officers, and I think for private citizens as well.

If I find that someone is trying to do harm to someone else, I believe that I have a moral and Christian obligation to do what ever I can – with the least amount of violence necessary – but if necessary, lethal violence to stop them from harming others. That’s loving my neighbor as myself. That’s doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.

I have to say it sort of shocked me when I heard it, but in looking back at the transcripts, Land wasn’t so far off.   I don’t know if there is a biblical justification for owning firearms, but I can see how he interprets the Golden Rule in such a way to protect and defend the neighbor.

That reasoning was loss on Progressive Christians like Christian Piatt:

So basically, Land employs both the Golden Rule and Jesus’ Greatest Commandment to justify shooting someone to death if necessary, so long as there is a perceived threat against someone you consider your neighbor. But if this was the case, why is there nowhere in the Bible that Jesus endorses violence? What about when Peter cut off the ear of the centurion? Surely this would have been justified within Land’s understanding of Gospel teaching?

Taken further, Land applies this thinking to justification to everything from police deadly force to war. But if this was what Jesus meant, why did he disappoint so many who expected him to ride into Jerusalem and kick some Roman ass? Weren’t his Jewish neighbors being oppressed, even killed, by their Roman occupier? Why didn’t he lead a rebellion like the people wanted? Why submit, instead, to a humble death, striking out against no one in retaliation?

Here’s the problem: what do you do if someone is harming someone you love?  What happens if someone comes into our homes?  Are we saying that we should just let a burglar or what-have-you do whatever they want?

Progressive Christians tend to look to Jesus as a model for nonviolence.  On the whole that makes sense, but life is not like it is in the Bible and we aren’t Jesus.  We live in a world where there are gray areas.  As Ghandi is rumored to have said, if we are put in a position where we have to choose between cowardice or violence, we may have to choose violence at times.

I can understand what Land was getting at even though I might not choose his methods.  If someone is harming another person, then in his view it might be justified to use deadly force.  It’s not something we do lightly, but it might be something that someone has to do.

When it comes to gun violence, I don’t have easy answers.  I do think that there is some need for governmental action, but any new laws have to take in mind the people who might own guns and don’t go off on shooting sprees.  Can we find a way to stop young black men in cities like Chicago from killing each other  with guns AND allow some white guy living in the country to be able to use his gun?

Whatever we do, let us do it in prayer and not in demonizing those who are different from us.

One more thing: if you have not already, please consider reading Jeffery Goldberg’s article on his hybrid approach to gun policy: stringent gun laws and more concealed-carry laws.  It’s probably closest to where I’m at when it comes to gun policy these days.

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