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ETHICS: Guns and the American Story

By Deonna D. Neal

At the scene of Jesus’ betrayal, Judas arrived with a large crowd of men, armed with swords and clubs.  When the men stepped forward to arrest Jesus, one of Jesus’ companions pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Instead of being grateful, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back in place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Deonna D. Neal

Transpose that scene into 21st-century America.  Imagine yourself as Jesus’ companion and you are armed with a 9mm pistol instead of a sword.  (The armed men ready to arrest Jesus all have handguns, too, of course.) Do you shoot the high priest’s servant? How does this scene play out?

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has worked to help us understand that as Christians we are a “story-formed community.” He says that “the primary social task of the church is to be itself — that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” (Community of Character). The narrative of the cross and resurrection tells us who we are, who God is, and how we should live. The story gives us our identity. It is the foundation of discipleship.

But as Christians, who live in the United States, we are not only formed by the story of the gospel, but we are also formed by the story of our country. Unfortunately, the American narrative seems to be playing an outsized role in shaping our personal attitudes about guns. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, meeting violence with non-violence, accepting suffering, putting our lives at risk for the sake of our faith ­­– such principles often appear naïve and idealistic in the face of the world’s harsh realities.  People unwilling to own or use a gun for defense of are often judged as not only being irresponsible, but also even cowardly.

So, what is that American narrative that we tell ourselves about guns?

As a young boys and girls we learned about the courage of the militiamen in the American Revolution, who supplied their own arms and ammunition. The courage and tenacity of those brave, first citizen-soldiers lead to the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights soon afterwards. If a political revolution had just been fought by men and women fleeing from an oppressive government, who brought their own weapons to the fight, it makes sense to grant citizens the right to bear arms.

The “Western Frontier lifestyle” is also an indelible part of the American narrative. Families moving West needed guns not only to hunt, but also for self-protection against “outlaws” and “Indians.” Indeed, the “Western” even became its own movie genre that had lasting effects. Dirty Harry’s “Make my day!” quote was claimed for self-defense laws that allow for preemptive use of deadly force against home invaders (aka Castle laws). Gangster movies depicting organized crime of the 1920s and 1930s were perfected in the iconic Godfather trilogy.

What did we learn from our movies? With gangsters on the loose, who would fault business owners for wanting weapons within reach? The police can’t be everywhere, or they’ll be too late getting there. Folks had better arm themselves just in case.  Concealed-carry can give you a valuable surprise advantage. But, then, open carry might be a good deterrent. If the “good guys” aren’t armed, then the “bad guys” will win.

Our narrative also tells us that most gun violence is gang violence (that’s a whole narrative in itself), so it really isn’t so big a problem for those of us not affected by gangs. Also, some argue, people who commit suicide with a gun would have used another method if they didn’t have one. Domestic violence would happen with other weapons, too.. Our narrative tells us that mass public shootings are really issues of mental illness and not guns. And, yes, sometimes children will get killed while going to school. It’s a tragic price we’ll just have to pay for our liberties.

In very broad-brush strokes, those are some of the key chapters in the long American narrative about guns. This is why we should not be surprised that a 2018 Small Arms Survey (smallarmssurvey.org) reports that US civilians alone account for 393 million (about 46%) of the worldwide total of firearms.  This amounts to 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents. That is 10x more than the small arms controlled by the Russian Army, which controls the most (30.3 million) of any military. Should anyone then be surprised when gun stores are declared essential businesses during a shut down? Or that people open carry firearms at public protests, especially when they are protesting what they believe are oppressive government rules?

Guns have captured the American imagination and have been part of our DNA since the founding of our country. But if, as Hauerwas tells us, “the primary social task of the church is to be itself — that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” then how, as a church, can we be ourselves better? How does the Christian story provide us with the we need to stem the tide of gun violence in America?

The first-century Christians faced ridicule, persecution, and torture in the Roman arena simply for professing their faith in Christ. The Christian story formed them in ways that it is hard for us to imagine. What percentage of the 393 million small arms are owned by the 240 million Christians in the U.S? What if just all the Christians who owned small arms gave them up as an act of faithful witness? Gun violence would decrease. It would require no change in any laws. So, what are we afraid of? Dying? Or are we afraid of appearing too naïve and idealistic? Which story will continue to shape us? The American story, which tells us if we give up our guns the bad guys will win? Or the story of the gospel, which tells us that the bad guys won’t win, and the “Good Guy” has already won?

The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal is priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and works full-time as a professor of leadership and ethics at Air University (USAF), at Maxwell Air Force Base. 





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