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God and Guns
The 2005 film “Thank You for Smoking” is about a tobacco PR executive who wins a public debate about smoking by sidestepping the health questions and reframing the debate as an issue of consumer choice and individual rights. I wonder what would happen if the gun debate were reframed in the opposite way. Instead of asking whether people should have the right to own semiautomatic rifles with unlimited capacity ammo clips, my question as a pastor is whether it is morally compatible with Christian values to collect guns. Not to have a gun to defend yourself and even carry around the shopping mall with you if you live in Arizona. Not to have a gun to use for hunting (I love it when guys from my church give me venison). But to collect guns. Lots of them. Not ancient muskets to be displayed in cases, but powerful guns that you take to some out of the way place to show off to your friends. Is that morally compatible with Christian values?
Whenever a mentally ill, socially isolated middle-upper class white guy shoots up a theater or a school, I think back to my own middle school experience. I was a loner. I got bullied a lot. When Pearl Jam’s first album came out, there was a song called “Jeremy” that I would play over and over in my walkman: “At home drawing pictures of mountaintops, flaming yellow sun, arms raised in a V, the dead lay in pools of maroon below… King Jeremy the wicked ruled his world. Jeremy spoke in class today.”I drew some pretty disturbing pictures in middle school. My other favorite song was “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA: “When I’m cornered, I got a sawed off, squeeze the trigger, and bodies grow harder. You too boy if you **** with me, the police are gonna have to come and get me.” Gangsta rap was how I coped with being bullied. I wonder if the reason it took off was because of all the scrawny white suburban kids who bought those albums for the same reason.
My dad didn’t own a gun. If he had owned one, I almost definitely would have been too chicken to do anything with it (if I were somehow able to get a hold of it). Not because I didn’t fantasize about doing very evil things to the kids who picked on me, but because I was very much a rule-follower (at one point in my life), and even though the other kids picked on me, I wanted my teachers and other adults to think I was a good kid. But what if something really intense had happened like a horrible rumor about my sexuality or something and I was terrified of going to school the next day and filled with adolescent rage against the kid who started the rumors? Could my immature 14 year old brain have lost all sense of scale and reality and consequences? But my dad didn’t own a gun.
At what point does it become morally irresponsible? How many guns is too many? Is there a cap? I don’t know the answer to this question. I’m just asking it. When they interviewed people who knew Nancy Lanza, the Connecticut shooter’s mom, they said that she used to go to the shooting range with her sons but that she owned all her guns “strictly for self-defense.” If you’re going to the shooting range, that’s a hobby; it’s more than self-defense. I’m not saying it can’t be a hobby. It would probably help my stress management if I went to a shooting range myself every now and then. But where do you draw the line? Can there be a line?
Here’s a comparison that I think is fair. Let’s say that a dad has a liquor cabinet that he keep locked and his kids know not to go into it. Then he and his wife go out of town, and their teenagers have a party and they find a way to get into the liquor cabinet. A kid who comes to the party drinks some of that liquor and then crashes into a family and kills 4 people when he’s driving home. Obviously the kid who broke into his dad’s liquor cabinet is morally responsible and the kid who drove the car. But is the dad responsible for having the liquor in the house in the first place? Again I don’t have an immediate answer. I’m not trying to be manipulative or sneaky by asking these questions. I just think there is a moral dimension to the question of guns that isn’t being considered. Christians have no problem moralizing about sex and drugs, but guns are a taboo topic.
Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books that guns have become the American idolatry, analogous to the Canaanite god Moloch. What do you think of that comparison? If Jesus came to you with a sack and said He wanted you to put all your guns inside it, would you be able to do it? I think that’s the test of whether you’re dealing with an idol, whether it’s guns, baseball cards, liquor, stock portfolios, or whatever else. Could you do without it? Or do you see it as essentially definitive of your personhood? There are definitely some things that I wouldn’t immediately be able to hand over to Jesus if He asked me to. If He said, “I want you to take down your blog,” I guess I would do it but I wouldn’t jump up to do it right away and without grumbling.
So these are just some things to think about. I have tried to be as fair as I could in how I am framing things. Because of my own life experiences, what I cannot say is that the people who cause these incredibly evil tragedies are just “bad people” whose existence is in a wholly different category than mine. Some loner kids who get bullied in middle school grow up to become mass murderers; others grow up to be pastors. I don’t think Nancy Lanza loved her son any less than my mother loved me. It’s not fair that God protected and nurtured the way that He did; I can only be grateful for God’s grace and try to be an understanding adult to kids who seem like they’re having a rough time.
The Rev. Morgan Guyton is associate pastor at Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, VA.