America’s love affair with guns stems from a deeper assumption that it is possible to fight violence with violence.
The Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., has set off spirited debate over the merits of gun-control legislation. As a theologian who thinks that a lively debate within a contested tradition can be a sign of its health — and who thinks this is ultimately a theological issue — I will jump in.
Even if gun-control legislation is ill-conceived or ineffective, as some argue, that shouldn’t mean we ought to reject it. We ought to keep working to make it better-conceived and more effective. True, the assault weapons ban left legal a good number of similar-functioning weapons, but it did ban some, and some is better than none.
The bigger issue is the myth of redemptive violence that undergirds America’s love affair with guns.
Whether anyone else does or not, Christians at the very least should forsake that myth for the biblical story of the way of the Suffering Lamb. For me, one aspect of seeking to live that story rather than the myth of redemptive violence means that I will not exercise my constitutional right to own a gun, while recognizing that many other Christians — among them some of my closest friends — have well-considered reasons for making other choices.
It could be argued that by choosing not to arm myself, I am leaving my family vulnerable to harm. I actually worry more about how our young son might be harmed by a weapon in our home, no matter how carefully stored, or in the homes of friends whose parents have guns, even when they take every precaution.
Even if our son were not physically harmed, my conviction is that simply owning a weapon and keeping it in our home would do him spiritual harm by reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. The world is going to try its hardest to teach him the latter story; I’m going to try my best to teach him another one.
Others have good reasons for making other decisions about this, and I do not intend this as a criticism of them. I also recognize that mine is a privileged perspective: if I had no choice but to live in a neighborhood where violent crime is routine, I might think differently.
I don’t have fully satisfying answers to all the questions and thoughtful counter-arguments posed to me by other Christians who differ with me on this issue. I’m more and more convinced, though, that all justifications or allowances for violence are ultimately capitulations to the myth of redemptive violence as the reigning narrative of the world. We keep trying different variations on fighting violence with violence, which in the grand scheme of things only perpetuates violence.
Over the past few years I’ve come to the conviction that as a theologian I’m not contributing anything of value to the church or the world by offering theological rationales for the use of violence. I do think I’m offering the distinctively Christian thing I have to offer the church and world if I provide theological rationales for nonviolent responses to violence.
Some Christians — and some non-Christian critics of the faith — object that the Bible doesn’t consistently advocate a nonviolent ethic. One can always point to this or that biblical text as a divinely sanctioned allowance for violence. But the larger trajectory of the biblical story trends toward pacifism, which was in fact the mainstream perspective of the church after the New Testament era in the second, third and early fourth centuries.
That is why the early Christian apologists kept having to explain why Christians seemed to be freeloaders in relation to the Roman Empire, enjoying the benefits of the Pax Romana but refusing to fight for it themselves. As the apologists explained, this refusal was not only because of the military’s demand of an idolatrous allegiance to the emperor but especially because killing in war is a violation of the law of Christ. It was because the preceding tradition was so overwhelmingly pacifist that Augustine had to advance a justification for violence — a “just war theory” — in the early fifth century.
“Realistic” rationales for the “just” use of violence make good sense in a violent world. The contrasting way of the Suffering Lamb doesn’t make much sense according to the wisdom of the present age. Indeed, it’s foolish by those standards.
Thus I’m not optimistic about winning this debate in the public square. But I am optimistic about the ultimate triumph of the Suffering Lamb and those who follow in his way. In fact, I’m convinced that we can count on it.
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Steven Harmon is Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, N.C. He is the author of Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Cascade Books) and a contributor to the ABPNews Blog.
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