Gun Control

Baptism, Gun Control, and the Power of Death

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.

Gun Violence and the Power of Death

The first week of December  I sent out these two tweets bellow, which then brought out a good conversation on Facebook. You can click through to see those conversations.

Gun control doesn’t make us less violent, Just protects us from a certain violence & gives the means of violence mainly or only to the State

Posted by Larry Kamphausen on Thursday, December 3, 2015

355 mass shootings isn’t only about guns: We need to face that we are violent. We depend upon violence to feel safe. Our Hypocrisy abounds.

Posted by Larry Kamphausen on Thursday, December 3, 2015

 

355 mass shootings in a year, though that number depends on how one defines a mass shooting. Even so, the statistics on gun violence are overwhelming.  The numbers of dead and wounded and families and friends affected. And all for what appears to be a defense of accessible guns based on a particular interpretation of the 2nd amendment of the Constitution.  To the point that is preventable incidences, preventable deaths and preventable injury.

We keep going back to the argument about gun control each time one of these shootings makes the headlines

Gun control is the answer: it gives a sense of what can directly be done to prevent such deaths in the future.

I see and make a connection between the violence of the mass shootings and police violence especially against black bodies and drone strikes.

My comments were an attempt to link up the violence of a mass shooting to other violence in our society and culture: the violence of policing, our military presence and actions around the globe, the violence in our entertainment, and the violence of the coercive nature of the state.  These sorts of violence are considered legitimate and necessary (with the exception of mimed violence of our entertainment, though we do seem to consider it legitimate.).  The violence of the state is for our protection and safety, except when it isn’t, and for whom it isn’t, thus the #Blacklivesmatter movement.

There is of course the desire to end suffering and with gun violence the obvious target is guns, and for many that impinges on a right they believe they have.  And so the back and forth, people are called to give up that right (or it is denied as a right at all) for the sake of safety and ending unnecessary suffering.

Yet, this doesn’t get at the root of the problem.  Eddie Izzard had a bit about the NRA’s slogan Guns don’t kill people but people do (something like that) to which he responds true, but having a gun sure helps.   He goes on to imagine a monkey with a gun randomly shooting up Charlton Heston’s home.

As we debate guns we focus on one side or the other, the guns or the people, but not the underlying violence that these mass shootings show us.  We are living upon a sea of violence and we are surprised when waves of that violence rise up and claim some of us.

President Obama has been talking about needing to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.  This presupposes that some should have them.  I’d like to see more citizens question the need for weapons, and thus the need for violence.  We should question why we deem some violence legitimate and other violence illegitimate.  After all the ultimate power of any violence is death, or at least the threat of death.  Even if in violence , I’m only injured, that injury shows that the one who has injured me also has the power of death, and is willing to use that power. Coercive power, has little weight if there wasn’t also behind it the threat of death.

Granted this line of thinking won’t stop dead in its tracks the mass shootings and gun violence in our streets, nor the unjust use of that violence by police   Yet, anything we do to attend to those things will be only to push back the violence a futile attempt to control the power of death, believing we can use the power of death to our advantage and to keep death at bay.   I believe what we are seeing is the consequence of that strategy, a strategy that human beings rarely question.  After all we still attempt to use war to bring peace, and then wonder why we continually have war.   We say keep us safe and death at bay, by threatening harm and death on those who deserve it, and then wonder at those who defy this threat,even embrace it, and then death overtakes us suddenly and without warning.

I wrestle with this: the logic of legitimate violence and the coercive power of the state does present a certain amount of safety, and can regulate this violence (to a degree).  Yet, it means some still will need to die for our safety.  Someone will be sacrificed to this system of violence and death held in reserve.  After all there are military weapons for sale because the State needs those weapons to act as a state, both to police its own citizenry and to wage war upon other states and “terrorists.”.  Sure we prefer the language of defense and safety, because it is always the other who wages war, we only defend ourselves, we never lash out.  Rarely will we admit that war and violence is ever our responsibility or initiative, but is caused by the other’s action. Yet, it is rare that violence is done without reason (even if we who, have the power to so judge, deem that reason invalid and illegitimate).  Whoever uses violence has a rational for that violence and a belief in its necessity.  This is what we need to face, and no amount of gun control will keep death at bay, and keep us free from violence, as long as we retain the right to our own legitimate violence, as individuals or as the state.