What is my response as a member of the Body of Christ to gun violence? Some fellow Christians know definitively what we should do, others know with equal assertion what isn’t the solution. Are either informed, truly by the mind of Christ the crucified one, God Father Son and Holy Spirit. Is my response to the question the state and its claimed monopoly on violence, so informed? The more I sit with the horror of all the violence, what we consider legitimate (Police and military, the power of death wielded by the State) and what we consider illegitimate (the power of death wielded by non-state actors, those we call terrorists), I waver. How do we end suffering? Perhaps it is the best to let the state maintain its monopoly, and that will keep others safe, or at least limit suffering and death. Can the State in wielding the power of death keep death at bay? Maybe – probably often, but what does that mean? Am I, then, entrusting myself to the power of death for my own and others safety?
It is difficult to think well about such things as a White Christian (of whatever political or ideological stripe), in part I think because of the predominance of lynching, but also because we have implicitly or explicitly for the most part accepted certain types of violence as necessary for the maintenance of the secular public order that we also baptize. Progressive White Christians want to impose a certain logic of violence upon us that continues to reserve the power of death to the state (as long as there isn’t an explicit death penalty) and demand the citizenry maintain a veneer of non-violence, partially enforced by restricting certain means of violence. The Christian right wants to protect the constitution and a certain amendment of that constitution, and the right for Christians citizens to wield the power of death when necessary against aggressors and possibly against the state if it over reaches its bounds. Both still bind up the Christian stance with violence, one restricts legitimate violence entirely to the State, the other wishes to extend the realm of legitimate violence to law-abiding citizens.
In this discussion the Bible is often used to shore up one’s opinion. Of course the Bible is full of violence, and even God makes use of violence and the power of death, to coerce and carry out certain ends (e.g. the Exodus from Egypt). My theological account will look to scriptures and God’s self-revelation but my beginning point won’t be the Bible and my position isn’t Biblical. That way too lies a dead-end.
How then do we address our violence theologically and as a member of the Body of Christ? Here I’m pulling punches, as I’ve, in that phrase, already countered a claim that the state may have upon my person as it’s citizen. I’m pointing us also to a liturgical rite.
This reflection begins at Baptism, and thus a renunciation as well as an affirmation. A liturgical act and not the Bible is my beginning point. Of course Scripture and what God says about the act of baptism is what gives that act meaning. Baptism takes us from one realm to another from one allegiance to another. To be one with Christ is to renounce sin death and the devil. Yet much of Christian history seems to contradict this as Christendom attempted to make room for death in the members of Christ that served the state (or were the state, as emperor or king). We give little attention to a particular detail of the biography of the first Christian Emperor, Saint only became a member of the body of Christ until just before his death. He remained a catechumen his whole life, only receiving baptism upon his death bed. This was a frowned upon but common practice at the time. I’ve no proof of this, but I’ve wondered if that wasn’t a most honest move by Saint Constantine: As a baptized Christians he would have compromised the vows of his baptism had he wielded the power of death as the state. These days we are well versed in the compromises of a legalized and imperial Christianity and how Christians have sought to find a meeting between the coercive power of the state and the Church, a name for that compromise is Christendom.
I mention all the above to point out that we shouldn’t be too confident of our conclusions. Yet, at the same time there are hints that Baptism shows us that what we consider necessary for the maintenance of the state and of the common good isn’t readily compatible with being a member of Christ’s body the Church.
Where we begin makes all the difference. If we begin with the Bible, we can look to the formation of the people of Israel as they were delivered from bondage and Egypt and established in the land of Israel, and Biblically assume that a certain violence is legitimate and necessary. But we won’t necessarily answer where the line of legitimate violence is drawn in a democracy like ours. I’m arguing though that seeking Biblical sanction of legitimate violence isn’t seeking the mind of Christ, nor is it seeking the stance of one who is a member of Christ’s Body, through baptism. My actions and thinking in relation to the state and our democracy isn’t about my being a U.S. Citizen but only in my being a Baptized member of the body of Christ. This is a radical claim. However, I believe like the early Christians that the best citizen of the world and its states is one whose identity isn’t bound up with that state or nation but is entirely given over to Christ and the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
As one whose identity is Christ, whose body is claimed by the cross and the name Father Son and Holy spirit, I’m no longer beholden to the state and to the power of death and its logic. While God, it is reported in the Scriptures, made use of the power of death and the logic of the state’s monopoly of that power, God’s ultimate revelation shows God’s own renunciation of that power. God, Father Son and Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the Son in Jesus of Nazareth suffers the legitimate violence of the State, instead of coming to wield that power. This is the way of Christ and of the Church.
Thus, my response to our current debate over guns and gun violence is to say that as a member of Christ’s body one is no longer given over to the power of death but freed from the power of death. Thus, neither defense of gun ownership nor shoring up the states monopoly of violence is the appropriate response or stance of the Church. In some sense the Cross of Christ shows there’s no such thing as “legitimate” violence or wielding of the power of death. Though, we may have to concede that to limit the destructive evil of those given over to the power of death, some may need to wield violence and the power of death, but in doing so one is in sin and in violation of one’s baptism ( this is my interpretation and application of Bonhoeffer’s reflection on the plot to assassinate Hitler; doing so was to participate in sin, but one took responsibility for that sin, as it would end a greater evil. Though the just end cant’t redeem the sinful act of taking a life).
As such as a citizen of Christ I’d urge, a simultaneous limiting of that state’s violence first in disarming the police while also removing military style weaponry from the possession of ordinary citizens. Also, This would require a more Christ like culture of policing, one where the safety of the police officer isn’t paramount. Rather we would come to see policing as deeply self-sacrificial, even to the point of willingness to suffer death for the other and for peace on our streets. This would be a radically different view of policing something that could hardly be viewed as simply a dangerous job. It would need to be a true calling where one would enter it knowing one may not retire alive. We wouldn’t train officers to self-protect, but to lay down their lives. If the state was willing to limit its wielding of violence and the power of death, then so should its citizenry. I would work with my fellow Christians progressive and conservative towards such a limit of the power of death in our world.