God and Guns: The Bible Against American Gun Culture
Like many children raised in the 1960’s, I was taught that guns were for soldiers and police officers and certainly not for play. My brothers and I tried to persuade our mother to let us have plastic guns or, better, air rifles, so that we could go out back and morph into Marshall Dillon or, my favorite: Lucas McCain, Rifleman.
“No, and don’t ask again,” our mother would say, as she calmly ironed, squared, and stacked our dad’s hankies.
Then, when I was 21, two ski-masked men with guns reinforced her teaching. Around midnight they snuck into our college home of 5 friends, rapped a loaded gun at the back of each of our heads, made us lay face down on the floor, tied our hands behind our back and our ankles together, and then for about 5 hours ransacked every inch of our house for anything of value. When the police arrived the next morning and dusted the place for fingerprints, they made one thing clear, as we shivered close by in this house that no longer felt like home: “If you’d tried to resist in any way, you’d be dead.”
To this day I have absolutely no doubt that owning a gun would have gotten us killed that night.
So, when I read about God and Guns, The Bible Against Gun Culture, edited by Christopher B. Hays and C.L. Crouch, I knew I had to read it–because as a Christian I also believe, as Hays puts it early in the book, that “any Christianity that supports guns as a solution to social problems is not Christianity at all” (10). Written and edited by seven Biblical scholars with an excellent foreword by Stanley Hauerwas, each chapter is steeped in Biblical scholarship but written for a wide audience. The authors recognize that there are good people on both sides of this issue; however, as Hauerwas says, they still “must challenge what has been and continues to be taken for granted by good people” (x).
The book opens by categorizing the latest data: 58-percent of Americans have experienced gun violence in their lifetime; 67-percent of gun owners “list protection as a major reason why they own a firearm,” even though “guns at home are 4 times more likely to be involved in an accidental shooting…, and 11 times more likely to be used in a suicide than they are to be used for self-defense” (xvi). The statistics are clear: a gun makes a home less safe, not more.
One essay includes this alarming statistic: “Protestants constitute the highest percentage of gun owners (with white evangelicals, perhaps predictably, leading the way), more than Catholic, Jewish, or nonreligious populations” (113), which is why each author here carefully considers how the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, addresses violence. They recognize that, just as with the argument over slavery among Christians in the 19th Century, the Bible can be used and misused to support both sides of today’s gun argument. The book’s structure proceeds from an emphasis on Old Testament passages that focus on violence to the New Testament ones that do as well, building to a final essay that asks, simply, “Can a Christian own a gun?”
Brent A. Strawn makes the case that often the concept of “projection”–where we take our own nasty baggage and project it onto people we dislike–is at work both within the Israelites’ attitudes toward the Canaanites and within us as we read of the violence perpetrated by Israel in the Book of Joshua. He claims that the violence within our culture today is worse than what we read in Joshua, quipping, “When we come to the Bible and say, ‘My, my, I’m shocked at all the violence here,” we might well imagine the Bible looking at us and saying, ‘Who are you to be calling me violent?’” (24). He argues that, like the Israelites, white males with guns often justify them by mistakenly projecting their own violence onto people of darker skin tone. The statistics agree: “Gun owners with the highest moral and emotional attachment to their weapons are 78% white and 65% male,” even though “the chances that a white man will be killed by a black man are extremely slight” (33). He concludes with a memorable paraphrase of Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13: “you can’t worship both God and Glock” (36). Of course, some politicians try: consider their family Christmas photos portraying each member, young to old, piously smiling as they clutch their arsenal of lethal weapons, peaceful Christmas symbols cozying the background.
Yolanda Norton’s essay uses the Old Testament story of Rizpah to show how a mother’s public lament over a slain son can be “a prophetic witness” to both state and community, citing contemporary instances of such lament by mothers of slain black sons. Her essay is a powerful indictment of American gun culture, which, she argues, “has again and again, demonstrated its own willingness to sacrifice Black bodies to its own purposes” (53).
Of course, the Bible has nothing to say directly about guns per se, but T.M. Lemos makes a fascinating comparison between Israelite bows and American guns, showing how hypermasculinity is common to both. He argues that “This idea of personhood, grounded in domination, is something that other parts of the Bible take great pains to reject. This has important implications for the place of the gun in the life of contemporary Christians” (78). Given the multifaceted, violent media environment we inhabit in 2023 and the pride with which mostly men pose, biceps bulging, their AR15 front and center, it’s hard to argue with Lemos’s point.
David Lincicum’s concluding essay, “Can a Christian Own a Gun?” cuts to the Biblical chase: “The gun is a temptation to arrogate life-destroying power to the wielder and should be resisted by those who follow in allegiance to a crucified Messiah” (116). He crafts a strong argument using eight illuminating sub-theses; one especially stood out because it’s missing from most anti-gun arguments I’ve heard. In developing it he quotes Bruno Latour who writes, “You are different with a gun in your hand” (117). Do most Christian gun owners have the moral imagination and the preparation and training to appreciate the full depth of that fact? As Lincicum puts it, “But if a gun extends the range of possible actions available to a person, it also extends the range of possible moral actions, and so opens that person up to new possibilities of moral scrutiny” (117). It’s clear to me that you can’t pick up a gun in the morning, as easily as you do, say, your car keys or cell phone, and expect to be the same person. Keys open doors; phones start conversations; guns end lives. There is a reason so many soldiers and police officers, who daily carry and are trained to respect the lethal consequences of their gun, still suffer from PTSD after shooting another human being.
Lincicum ends with a challenge: how do those Christians who carry guns for self-protection “meet a stranger as a neighbor”? (128). He asks several other tough questions that every Christ-follower needs to consider before strapping on a gun: “Who then is my neighbor?… Have I habituated myself to violence with the intention that I should kill effectively when my neighbor confronts me? How then can I fulfill the second commandment–to love my neighbor as myself–if I am preparing myself to kill my neighbor if I believe necessary?” (128).
This book is a crucial gift to our violence-weary culture and especially to every Christian who wants to influence fellow Christians against the lure of guns. Each essay leaves the reader well-equipped to make an informed, biblical case against owning guns for protection. Of course, “This book alone will not change that behavior,” Stanley Hauerwas admits in his preface, “but it is a start. Thank God for it.”