Guns and God and the USA

I was over on a work-related trip to the US last week. There are lots of things I love about America. The people are hugely generous and hospitable. I’ve been fortunate to have great friends and colleagues who are American. There is such energy, enthusiasm and optimism. There is a wonderful climate with proper winters and proper summers. The landscapes are fantastic and the sheer scale of the place is liberating; it’s the best place in the world for a road trip. All sorts of things seem possible.

And then there are things that I know I’ll never really get about the US. Last week, before the indescribably horrific events in Connecticut, I was taken to a huge sports store 09122012563(photo). A large proportion of it was taken up with what can only be described as everything needed to start a small war. Combat gear, telescopic sights, every sort of bullet, pistols, semi-automatics, rifles and sub-machine guns. All there for purchase with ID. The place was packed with men, women, families – all window shopping and buying guns.

Yes, I get the idea about the self-defence, freedom and the ‘sport’ of range shooting and hunting.

Scot McKnight has a good post on this
that asks good questions beyond surface simplicities. Worth reading, especially on asking questions about America’s ‘cognitive dissonance” between violence at home and overseas American military action that leads to civilian communities being destroyed by US Drone attacks – the President grieving over one and ordering the other.

The narrative seems to buy uncritically that American is the land of God-given freedom. That freedom is tied up in the individual’s right to bear arms. Freedom is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. Normally, it is the state (police) that is mandated to enforce law and order through violence if necessary. In America, it seems to be accepted that it is OK to have an ad hoc army of self-armed citizens operating in parallel to the state.

But OK, let’s get beyond the idea that America (or any nation) is a ‘Christian’ country. What I struggle to understand is the enthusiastic and active involvement in this gun culture by so many American Christians (and I know many others are as baffled by this as I am). By gun culture I mean a culture that puts trust in violence to solve problems and bring ‘peace’. That blithely seems to assume that I, the individual, am righteous enough not only to use violence for ‘just’ ends, but also that I am beyond making fatal mistakes and beyond the corruption that the power over life and death brings. Which leads, in some places, to numerous Christians turning up at church armed and where churches employ armed guards?

How can Christians (of all people), with a supposedly developed and realistic sense of human sin, be so unself-critical? My theory – is this the dark side of American optimism about human nature? And the church (or part of it) has bought into it without a second thought?

Comments, as ever, welcome

21 thoughts on “Guns and God and the USA

  1. My experience and opinion is that a lot of churches seem to view the faith as “believing all the right things”. The application of the faith in one’s daily life doesn’t go beyond reading your bible, some sort of “prayer time” and keeping the 10 commandments – or at least 5 or 6 of them. The transformative power of Jesus’ teaching are lost. The idea that peace would mean anything other than the occassional warm fuzzy feeling is almost totally absent. The idea that Jesus would want us to take his teachings seriously is regularly argued away or said to apply to a very narrow range of circumstances or be a “spiritual” truth only. (As if the spiritual and physical worlds exist seperately from each other, but that’s a whole other issue.)

    Much of American Christianity demands no more of its followers than that they hold and be willing to express unpopular opinions (held by everyone they personally know, of course) as a sign of their devotion. I think it’s starting to change – mostly through individuals here and there here in America and in other parts of the world who have found the Christian Way through study, practice and prayer as well as belief. Almost 100% of the time it’s happening outside any church – most churches are quite inimicable to those whose faith is growing, transforming and becoming powerful. But I believe these people are going to turn the tide of the church. It’s going to be a rough road, but renewal is coming.

  2. I promised myself I would not be dragged into the political debates that have popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. So I won’t. I would, however, like to correct a couple of factual errors in your post.

    Since you’re not an American, I’m assuming that they’re honest mistakes born of ignorance. I will add, however, that if you’re going to explain and judge the culture and laws of another country, you should probably do some research first.

    First, all these guns are NOT “All there for purchase with ID.” The only guns that are for sale without a federal background check are air guns (BB guns, pellet guns, and Airsoft/paintball guns, the strongest of which could barely kill a squirrel) and muzzle-loading guns (of the sort used in the early 19th century and previously, which use loose powder and require each shot to be tamped down individually. During the American Civil War, a properly trained soldier could fire three aimed shots per minute, so long as he was able to stand still and reload without being disrupted).

    The former are mostly used for punching holes in paper, hunting the smallest game, or even (in the case of Airsoft and paintball) playing games with friends. The latter are used for hunting and historical re-creation.

    The background check is run electronically, through a database of criminals, felons, and people with known, severe mental impairments, so it isn’t always obvious from across the store, but the system is set up and administered by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations.

    Second, sub-machine guns are very difficult to get in the U.S. Only those registered prior to 1986 can be legally owned. Acquiring the necessary tax stamp (government approval) is a process that can take 3-12 months and requires *extensive* background checks. The guns themselves are rare enough that they typically cost thousands of dollars (some cost tens of thousands of dollars). They are not for sale at a sporting goods store, and the vast majority of Americans will never even *see* one, much less own one. Airsoft and paintball versions are available, though.

    Third, nobody trusts gun owners to “use violence for ‘just’ ends,” that is, to solve problems and make the world a better place, nor does anybody expect that. Gun owners either use guns for sporting purposes (hunting, for example – though some hunters will donate excess meat to local soup kitchens, shelters, and other charities, and I suppose that counts as a “just” end) or for self-defense.

    Self-defense isn’t like a movie, where the good guy kicks butt for “justice.” Self-defense is the gravest extreme. It’s when some person or animal is putting you or those around you in danger of immediate grave bodily harm. Grave bodily harm is defined as death, serious injury, or rape.

    It’s something that American gun owners (roughly 1/3rd of the population) take very seriously, and do not ever want to face. But they are, in general, unwilling to trust their lives, and the lives of their spouses and children, to a police response that could be 5, 10 or even 15 minutes away.

    Now, I’m not going to get into whether we need more gun control or less, what specifically could have prevented Sandy Hook, or anything else. I promised myself I would not. But I did not want your conclusions or your readers’ to be drawn on false premises.

      • Private sales do not require background checks in all states. In some they do. So the system is not airtight there.

        Sales at gun shows have to abide by all the laws of the state and the federal government.

        If a licensed gun dealer makes a sale, s/he has to do a background check, regardless of whether s/he is at a store or a gun show.

        If a private person makes a sale, then the state’s laws apply. Some states require them to take the gun to a gun dealer and have him/her run a background check through the FBI. Many do not. But being at a gun show does not affect whether the background check has to be run.

        The “gun show loophole” literally does not exist. The private sale loophole does exist in most states.

        The illegal private sale/black market/steal it loophole exists everywhere, but not just in the US.

        We in the US have been very inept at stopping the flow of illicit drugs, money, and even human trafficking across our borders, so the potential for a black market in guns is huge.

        Actually, the black market is already there for the kind of weapons citizens can’t realistically get, like machine guns, sub-machine guns, and rocket launchers. But it’s small at this time. It could expand if demand expanded, just as the drug and human trafficking networks expanded.

    • Well all of that may be true or not, but it still makes me none the wiser as to why so many American Christians think having a gun is good. Any thoughts on that?

      • The same reason two of Jesus’ 12 disciples carried swords. In Luke 25:35-40, when Jesus told them to buy swords, two of them had swords with them. Unless they were having that conversation in a blacksmith shop, two disciples had been walking around armed the whole time, something Jesus couldn’t have been unaware of.

        Why? The world was dangerous. There were outlaws who would kill for money or whatever reason. There were dangerous animals that might attack a person.

        (I reject the idea that these swords were metaphors. For what? What were the money belt and bag metaphors for? There’s no reason to create an allegory where none is present. Jesus explained his parables to his disciples, and those explanations were recorded in the gospels. Where is this explanation?).

        Those swords were carried for defense, not to start a revolution, not to get revenge, not to solve Judea’s problems with the point of a blade.

        But when Peter tried to use the blade to protect Jesus from being arrested, Jesus stopped him.

        Why stop him after he’d just ordered them to buy swords? Why stop him after letting him carry the sword with him as they traveled? Because Jesus had to die. He had to be arrested and be crucified.

        Well, in that case, why tell them to carry (and let them carry) swords in the first place? Because they would be on their own until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began their full-time ministry.

        They needed to protect themselves from wild beasts, bandits, etc. until such time as the Holy Spirit would fall upon them and set them on their path to Sainthood and martyrdom.

        So where does that leave us? Well, I’m not comfortable with missionaries going armed. That smacks of imperialism and forced conversion.

        But what about the rest of us, the laity? Those without a specific vocational calling? The ones not called to sainthood and martyrdom?

        True self-defense, against immediate grave bodily harm, has nothing to do with revenge (returning evil for evil), with bearing insults (turning the other cheek when slapped), or with approving of our violent culture or the violence done in our name by our government (drone strikes against civilians, for example).

        Self defense means not letting your loved ones and your self be brutalized and destroyed simply because someone wants to.

        90% of the time (according to research), simply presenting the gun is enough, and no shots have to be fired. This happens between 100,000 and 3,000,000 times a year in the US, far more than the violent crime rate, which is at the lowest it’s been in 40 years.

      • I’m not 100% comfortable with my last response. It comes off unambiguously pro-gun. But you did ask why American Christians would want to own guns, and that was my best answer.

        That said, I’ll also add a couple of more reasons:
        Tradition: Lots of people grew up shooting and hunting, and have fond memories of that. They see it as part of their heritage.

        Some people feel it’s a major part of the American heritage, going back to the Founding Fathers, but that gets into our American tendency to uncritically laud our Founding Fathers, who were amazing in many ways, but deeply flawed in others and deeply rooted in the prejudices and injustices of their time.

        Many Americans use guns for sporting purposes, like hunting (which serves as a major food source for a surprising number of Americans) or sport shooting (there are all kinds of shooting competitions, including some that use 19th century guns and have specific themes).

        In rural areas, guns are almost a necessity for pest control. Coyotes attack pets and even children, sometimes. Other vermin spread disease. Feral pigs are extremely dangerous, especially in groups.

  3. I think Patrick the word self-righteous that you used is a good one. It is when we start to think or practice contempt towards others that we become blind. Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. When a nation starts to think that they are the “chosen ones” is when they start losing perspective of right and wrong and they fight to protect their uniqueness. After all, the greatest crime committed in history, the crucifixion of Jesus, was the organised plot of those who thought were above everybody else, including God.

  4. […] gun control, the U.S.A. & violence:* Freedom Bites Back by Scot McKnight [required reading]; * Guns and God and the U.S.A. by Patrick Mitchel; * The Freedom of an Armed Society by Firmin Debrabander [required reading]; * […]

  5. Does a person have the right to defend themselves? Can a person (Christian or not) defend themselves even if it means killing?

    In the horrible event in Connecticut, when the shooter came into the school and started shooting, what if a teacher had a gun and could have stopped the shooter? Would that teacher be a murder or a hero? I would guess that most people (Christian or not) would consider the teacher a hero.

    People seem to be focusing on the tool used rather then the problem. Guns are not the problem, people are the problem, peoples hearts are the problem, sin is the problem. If we blame guns for killing then we need to blame spoons for making people fat and cars for drunk driving. Just last Friday, in a school in China, 22 kids where stabbed and injured in a spree. ( Should we ban all knifes?

    Banning guns will not deal with the problem, it will only take guns out of the hands of people who legally own one and keep them in the hands of criminals, criminals wont hand over their guns because the law changes.

    But what if Adam Lanza, the shooter, knew there was armed guards at the school, would he still have gone?

    I think it is irresponsible for people to ignore a danger when they know its there, If there is a potential realistic danger and we do nothing about it, and then something happens, that is a greater crime. People in the US know that shootings are possible, so having armed guards in certain locations makes sense. If a church is a target, then armed guards make sense to deter or stop a situation before it starts.

    @anamullan – I have been living and traveling in and out of the US for ten years now. In my general view of people as a whole, I would not agree with the term “self-righteous” people. I would say there are people like that, but not a nation of people like that. I know more Irish people who are self-righteous then American people. There is a difference in being proud of your country and looking down on another country. American are proud of their country and I think I can speak for the Americans I know, that if they thought that where coming across as self-righteous or anything like that, it would not be intentional.

    My prayer would be that violence would not be needed, but we live in a fallen world, where sin and violence are at every street. I don’t think as Christian we are to be like door mats and “just take” what the world throws at us with a smile. We shouldn’t let people take advantage of us. There is a balance in this (which I have not found), I don’t believe violence is the answer, but I don’t think being passive is the answer either.

  6. I should maybe clarify a couple of things.

    Tim, Rebecca thanks for clarifications from an American perspective. Any mistakes and misinformation are mine as a foreigner. And I’m with you – I wasn’t trying to get into a discussion on gun control laws etc.

    And I hope what I wrote did not come across as anti-American. Ana I didn’t mean to suggest American self-righteousness. As I tried to emphasise at the top I have a huge respect and affection for America and many American friends. I was trying to link the willingness to use violence with an assumption of the moral right to kill.

    Dermot, welcome! Thanks for your comments. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The bottom line is the use of violence by Christians.

    I believe we have to start with Jesus and the kingdom of God. The world is a violent place. It was in Jesus’ day and the early church suffered violence at the hands of Empire. Yet Jesus unequivocally rejected violence. So did his followers. I think the research is pretty uncontestable that until about the 4th century Christians refused to engage in violence. They did not join the army and took Jesus’ words to be peacemakers seriously. They endured persecution and death for their faith. They did not enter the spiral of violence. They took his words literally about loving enemies. Hard to do so by killing them.

    In other words, Jesus’ followers are called to be an alternative kingdom community of peace, reconcilation, forgiveness and non-violence. This is not a strategy to rid the world of violence but a radical calling for a follower of Jesus in a violent world.

    That’s my starting point. And I’m very aware that is a crazy position to take. If it seems to ‘sacrifice’ the innocent to evil actions of others, those that are armed and ready to kill others (which is what carrying a gun means) are ready to risk killing the innocent. Violence, once unleashed is never neat and tidy. Look at any supposedly ‘Just War’ – it always expands to unjustified mass murder of civilians (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden)

    My post is trying to question this ‘unease’ with the use of violence by followers of a Messiah who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse.

    • Well, I didn’t read it as anti-American at all. And I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the idea that Americans are FAR too comfortable with violence.

      I personally think (and I believe the statistics are with me) that the nastiest way that comes through is in our military interventionism. We decide how the world should be, and we use massive force to make it happen.

      Our President (who won a Nobel Peace Prize almost as soon as he took office) has ordered drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan and Yemen for the last two+ years. For the most part, we’re only finding out about them now. But most Americans, including Christians, don’t seem to care. It’s as if the fact that they’re not American means their lives mean nothing.

      You can see it in our culture. Constantly, a ‘hero’ uses violence to ‘overcome evil,’ and things are made right by killing the right ‘bad guys’ (or maybe arresting them, if it’s a police show, but even then, shows like The Closer glorify all kinds of ends-justifies-the-means police brutality and misbehavior)

      I could start listing them here, but it’s honestly easier to list American cultural artifacts that DON’T follow this pattern.

      So, yeah, America has a problem with violence.

      But people who lawfully buy guns aren’t, on balance, the problem. The most dedicated gun owners, those with permits to carry concealed weapons, have a violent crime rate that is less than 1/5th that of the general population (per 100,000 people).

      It’s hard to untangle “legitimate reasons” for owning guns in a dangerous area and a dangerous time from reasons that are rooted in fearmongering, violence-worshipping cultural illusions.

      • Let me add one more thing. I think Americans are far more comfortable with the idea of violence, as done by the military, police, or in fiction/movies/tv than with actual violence.

        Many Americans are surprisingly soft – not morally opposed to violence, per se, not in any conscientious way – but uncomfortable with ugliness and hardship in general.

        They buy meat pre-packaged, or even pre-cooked. They’ve never shot an animal and learned where that meat actually came from.

        They’ve never even watched videos of a factory-farm slaughterhouse in action (such videos are responsible for my only eating free-range meat and eggs).

        They call the building super rather than reach for a plunger if they’re having plumbing issues.

        They’re too ‘peaceful’ to own a gun to defend themselves, but they’re happy to call 911 and have someone else come shoot the intruder.

        They like our President, so they turn their eyes away from the burned bodies his drone strikes have produced.

        And it’s not only in stereotypical areas like Manhattan. Even in Mississippi, you see a surprising amount of learned helplessness and almost childish fussiness.

        It’s something I have to fight against in myself sometimes. Okay, a lot of the time.

        And I honestly believe that if more Americans actually saw violence, let themselves experience it, watched a slaughterhouse in action, stared at the photos of drone strike victims, killed and cleaned their dinner, that they – no, we – would be less comfortable with the violence done in our names.

  7. 28 people killed in US by a mad kid. Conclusion: Americans are self-righteous gun obsessives? Answer: ban guns?

    The same week, 20 kids stabbed in China by a madman. Conclusion: what does this say about the Chinese? Answer: Ban knives!?

    Ireland: How many people does Guinness kill each year – more than 20. Conclusion: The Irish are a nation of dependents? Probably! Answer: ban alcohol (& Carlsberg, probably)

  8. ‘But what about the rest of us, the laity? Those without a specific vocational calling? The ones not called to sainthood and martyrdom? ‘

    to be honest I don’t really understand why you would be uncomfortable with a missionary being armed (so they could protect their family)in a foreign country but why you seem comfortable with Christian sitting at home in the US with a gun to protect their family.This makes no sense to me.

    Sometimes I have been sitting in church and wondered what would we do if a terrorist burst in through the doors on a Sunday morning.
    Maybe I remember something about the incident at Darkley from my childhood ( )
    Could we stop him, wrestle him to the ground? But the idea that we would be reading something like ‘He was led like a lamb to the slaughter’ with a gun on a belt just seems light years apart

  9. Dermot, I am sorry if I painted everybody with the same brush, I know that I wouldn’t like that. I used the word that it was already in the text and you are right, anybody and any country can be self-righteous, that is the reason I did not use the name USA in my entry. We all have that tendency and history proves that.
    Patrick, what you say about Christians and non-violence is spot on, but I still have this question:What is the root of it? Is it fear?

  10. How is killing someone in the act of self-defence any less violent than the act of our ‘attacker’? I find it problematic that we as Christians would justify harming or even killing another human being (who has been made in the image of God and is as valued by God as we are). If we are following Jesus we can do nothing but become people who are self-sacrificing even to the point of death.

    • Can you actually not see the difference between kicking someone’s door down and killing all inside on the one hand and stepping up to stop such an act on the other?

      Can you truly see no difference between initiating force and defending against it? Not taking revenge, not reacting with force to insult, but defending against the imminent threat of grave bodily harm?

      Can you truly say that the righteous thing is to stand by and do nothing while one’s spouse is killed, one’s children are killed, or worse, brutalized and then killed?

      Does nothing within you cry out “this is wrong!” at that thought?

      Do you really think the love we have for our families – the way we love and protect them more than we love and protect strangers (especially those who attack with means and intent to kill) – is sinful, is some horrific artifact of the fall?

      You can choose martyrdom for yourself, but is it really your right to choose it for your children? For other people’s children?

      Is there literally no difference to you?

  11. I’m aware that its fashionable to not resort to “situational questions” when thinking through different problems of ethics but i find it hard to defend pacifism when it means that i cant attack someone who is attacking my loved ones. I’d like to know how it can be self-sacrificing when I’m ultimately sacrificing someone else.

    • if Christians are sons and daughters of God why does God not step in when Christians get attacked or martyred and protect them? Like why did God not step in and stop the soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross?

  12. Tim, the only difference I can see is that the motivation of one might be viewed more favourably than the other – this however makes it no less violent.

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