Monday, January 28, 2013

Guns, the Gospel, and the Message of the NRA

In the effort to push back against the post-Sandy Hook drive for greater gun control, NRA president Wayne LaPierre has said a number of things. But his core message seems to be summed up in these words from his December response to the tragic shooting:

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

What should Christians think of that message? Given how many Americans self-identify as Christian, this a question that should interest anyone engaged in the gun debate, whether they are Christian or not. So, what does LaPierre's message mean from a Christian standpoint?

I’m not asking which public policies Christians should endorse. That question is a different one and connects to some deep Christian struggles. Should Christians ever resort to violence in a world riddled with it? How far should they welcome the state’s efforts to use its coercive power to reduce societal violence? In a world where liberty is both precious and misused, what kind of balance should Christians pursue between individual liberty and the common good?

My question here isn’t about these challenging controversies, nor is it about LaPierre's specific proposal to put armed guards in schools. I’m not asking to what extent Christians should want to see state regulations that disarm the American people. I’m asking, rather, what Christians should think about Wayne LaPierre’s justification for arming them.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

As if there were never any nonviolent alternatives.

As if the world could be neatly divided between the good guys and the bad guys.

As if the stamp of our creator and the stain of sin were not ubiquitously present in all our souls.

What should we think of this message, those of us who profess to follow Jesus—Jesus who preached that we should love our enemies, who replaced “an eye for an eye” with “turn the other cheek,” who forged for us the Way of the Cross and invites us to pick up our own cross and follow Him?

I don't think we should think much of it. We certainly shouldn’t endorse it. In fact, I would say that Christians who support LaPierre's policies should, with at least as much energy and passion, oppose LaPierre's stated reason for those policies.

If there’s a common theme in Jesus’ ministry and message, it’s about a different way of responding to evil, to injustice, to violence, than the traditional human response of fighting fire with fire. Jesus’ life and death were a testament to this divine Third Way—a way that refuses to identify sin with sinners, evil with evil-doers, that insists on the possibility of redemption and seeks to transform a violent situation not by a final lethal stroke of violence, but by a creative act of love—even, if necessary, love that suffers unto death.

As a response to evil, there’s an unbridgeable gulf between picking up a cross and picking up a gun.

To say that a good guy with a gun is the only solution to an armed villain—well, isn’t that a fundamental rejection of the very heart of the gospel? The gospel message is that the evils of the world were overcome, not by a military general using the weapons of war to kill and maim the bad guys, but by a man who refused the temptations of worldly power and, instead, followed the path to Calvary—a path whose purpose was to save us all from the bad that is in each of us.

The gospel message stands in stark opposition to LaPierre’s idea that violence is the only way to stop evil, and it does so in large measure by challenging the core assumption that underlies it, the assumption so explicitly presupposed in LaPierre’s claim—namely, that the world can be neatly parsed by hat color into the good and the bad.

If there is a reason why Christians must reject LaPierre’s slogan, it’s because Christians believe that none of us is so good that we can’t go wrong in targeting the so-called bad guy (as we all saw so starkly in George Zimmerman’s fatal altercation with Trayvon Martin); and none of us is so wicked that a creative act of love, a surprising moment of transformative grace, has no chance of reconnecting us with our Creator and so inspiring our finger to fall away from the trigger.

I don’t mean to say that violence can never be justified within the context of Christian ethics. That is a difficult topic, one I cannot begin to adequately tackle here. But if violence is justified in a Christian context, it will be as a tragic last resort in a terrible situation. It will be because, in a desperate moment, we are at a loss for creative ways to reach out to a dangerously aggressive person, someone who yet remains a fellow child of God. It won’t be because we assume that a bullet is the only way to handle “bad guys” (while assuming we know who the bad guys are).

There are times when the prospects for creative nonviolence are real, when mutual misunderstanding or temporary outrage can be overcome, if only we aren’t misled by the good guy/bad guy narrative.

There are times when making violence as easy as twitching a finger keeps us from looking for the creative solutions that are there, if only we were paying closer attention.

And there are times when seeing violence as the “sure thing,” as the safe path, encourages us to prematurely embrace a narrative that vindicates our violent response. We accept the good guy/bad guy story not because it is true, but because it relieves us of the moral imperative to risk ourselves in a creative gesture of compassion.

What Wayne LaPierre does not say, what his slogan seems committed to obscuring, is the fact that sometimes a better solution emerges because the “good guy” doesn’t have a gun, and so is driven by necessity to reach out for the grace to connect on a human level with the aggressor—and succeeds (as seems to have happened in a recent California high school shooting).

Again, this is not to say that all situations are like that. It is not to say that pulling a trigger is never the best tragic answer to the reality of human brutality in a fallen world. Had I somehow found myself in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School with a gun in my hand that fateful morning—if I’d seen what was about to happen and knew that I could prevent it with a well-placed bullet—I would have thought about my six-year old daughter, my own precious first grader, and I would have done my best to place the bullet well.

But something else that Wayne LaPierre does not mention is the fact that when the so-called bad guy doesn’t have a gun, the options proliferate—as do the opportunities to discover that the bad guy isn’t reducible to a Child of Darkness. Without the threat posed by a gun, it is easier to see the anguished human being capable of being redeemed. There are reasons to seek ways to keep guns out of the hands of the so-called bad guys, because if we succeed in doing that, we aren’t as likely to be forced into the desperate corner in which it seems as if the only way to save children of God is to kill a child of God.

Each of us is a complex mingling of the potential for compassion and for rage, the resources for creativity and for destruction. Instead of a world with good guys and bad guys, we live in a world where all of us are a little bit of each—and each is vying for control. In that internal struggle (as the saying goes) the one that wins is the one we feed. Arm us with what we need to approach the world in a certain way, and we are more likely to become the kind of people who approach the world in just that way.

Arm us with training in creative nonviolence, and we feed that part of us that looks for the good in those who pose a threat and then seeks to defuse the threat by nurturing that good. Arm us with a gun, and unless we’re careful we may feed that part of us prone to seeing problems as a matter of bad guys vs. good guys and solving them by taking the bad guys out.

Even if we regretfully concede the necessity of putting guns in the "right" hands in a fallen world—because sometimes they fall into the wrong ones—Christians should view the life-taking power of a gun with deep trepidation. That power can seduce us into the good guy/bad guy story, a story so at odds with the Christian story of a savior who defeated sin by dying for the sinners rather than by killing them.

In short, there is a profound difference between LaPierre’s claim and a claim like this:

“Sometimes, tragically, a beloved child of God is so caught up in anger or confusion or ideological blindness, and we are so limited by the urgency of the moment and our own finitude, that our best tragic choice in the midst of desperation is to use violence to protect other beloved children of God.”

This claim can be sincerely embraced by those who believe the gospel message. LaPierre’s claim cannot.


  1. has a thoughtful discussion of the topic. Personally, I have difficulty imagining Jesus returning fire - no matter what the circumstances.