I have long ago learned that one topic sure to guarantee a red-faced, table-pounding exercise in nondialogue is guns.
While I am one of those naïve few who actually believe there are reasonable voices on both sides of the issue of gun rights and gun restrictions, those voices are usually drowned out by the lobbyists and the extremists.
So it is a subject best avoided in both polite and impolite company.
However, even I had to raise my eyebrows when I saw that the Lt. Governor of Tennessee, Ron Ramsey, advised Christians to consider arming themselves in the wake of the Roseberg, Oregon, shootings.
“While this is not the time for widespread panic, it is a time to prepare,” Ramsey said in a Facebook post. “I would encourage my fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit. I have always believed that it is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.”
Ramsey’s warning was prompted by the killer in Roseberg who reportedly asked the religious beliefs of his victims before he shot them. Ramsey believes that Christians are in the gun sights of secularists, jihadists and racial supremacists.
What’s jarring, however, is that followers of Jesus Christ — who asked us to turn the other cheek, forgive 70 times seven and endure even martyrdom for his sake — are now being asked to arm themselves. How far we’ve come from the saint who said, “I bless you for having judged me worthy from this day and this hour to be counted among your martyrs.”
An alternative viewpoint to Ramsey’s might be that of an evangelical minister named Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action and a pro-life activist, who looks at gun ownership in light of his pro-life beliefs. Schenck is not lobbying for government restrictions on guns but is asking Christians to consider the moral and ethical issues connected to the use of guns against other human beings.
“When you talk about aiming a weapon at another human being, no matter what the circumstances are, that’s a question of paramount moral and ethical dimensions, so it’s something that we should take very seriously, and I don’t know that a lot of us are,” he told National Public Radio recently.
“I’ve said publicly, that in our respecting of the Second Amendment, we have to be very careful we don’t break the Second Commandment, which is the commandment against idolatry. We can set up our own idolatry when we declare ourselves the arbiters of right and wrong, and especially, of the value of a human life.”
Perhaps the most powerful part of the interview was his admission that he did not own a gun in part because of a history of depression and gun suicide in his family. “Maybe more of us would be better off to question what we will do in the heat of anger, fear or, God forbid, depression,” he suggested.
Two-thirds of the deaths from gun violence in this country are not murder victims but suicides. For Rev. Schenck, gun ownership is not so much a legal question as a moral and ethical question. This may be a more fruitful realm of discussion, and one where the Church could help. The prudential judgment to own or not to own a gun, much less to fire a gun at another human being, is not somehow made simpler by invoking Christian teaching. But the Church does have centuries of moral reflection to bring to bear on the discussion.
Helping to form the moral conscience of its people and of society is exactly where the Church could perform a great service, appealing to both faith and reason in what is now a hot-tempered stalemate.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.