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What is the Christian position on gun control?

I receive regular emails from a number of Christian organizations and denominations advocating that I take particular political actions or support specific policies. Last week I was inundated with messages regarding gun control, nearly all of which sought to persuade me that my Christian faith requires me to support a particular policy or political stance.

From Sojourners, Evangelical Jim Wallis argued that people seek guns in reaction to their separation from one another. He noted that while we all want to tell our children they are safe, we cannot, until … Until we improve our gun control laws. Then, apparently, we could decisively tell our children they are safe. For Wallis, America would do the right thing here if only we would allow our faith to overcome our politics:

… if people of faith respond differently just because they are people of faith — that our faith overcomes our politics here, and that gun owners and gun advocates who are people of faith will act in this situation as people of faith, distinctively and differently.

Wallis offers thoughtful theological reasons for his position, and then tells us that he agrees with the judgment of his nine year old son:

“I think that they ought to let people who, like licensed hunters, have guns if they use them to hunt. And people who need guns — who need guns for their job like policemen and army. But I don’t think that we should just let anybody have any kind of gun and any kind of bullets that they want. That’s pretty crazy.”

Not a word on the constitution in this appeal, nor the faintest recognition that inscribed in the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for the purpose – not of hunting, or of serving in government – but of securing the rights of a free people. Faith must not simply overcome our politics, apparently. It must also overcome our constitutional obligations to one another.

The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society likewise calls me to yield to the “moral imperative” of stronger gun control laws, noting that 47 religious leaders have signed a document declaring their support for legislation that would 1) require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun, 2) prohibit civilians from purchasing “high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines”, and 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime. This statement, thankfully, addressed the question of the constitution, though only to state that the signers believe that the steps for which they are calling are compatible with the right to bear arms. Fair enough, though more on this would be helpful. But aside from appealing to safety and common sense, the Methodist Church gives me no biblical or theological reason why I should support this policy, nor does the letter signed by the 47 religious leaders do so.

That might be fine if I wasn’t receiving mail from advocacy arm of an even larger Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggesting a slightly different response. The ERLC sends me Richard Land’s letter to President Obama, calling for caution. Land declares first that “we [i.e., Southern Baptists] affirm and uphold the Second Amendment’s ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms.'” In contrast to Wallis, Land declares that “no set of policies or gun restrictions can inoculate us from future Newtown-like killing sprees.”

Yet Land says that Southern Baptists “believe our nation can and should take some preemptive actions to quell gun violence in ways that do not infringe on the Second Amendment.” Among these actions Land identifies numbers 1 and 3 from the letter signed by the 47 leaders, but he notably leaves out the proposed prohibition of high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines. Land also calls President Obama to respect local authorities and states rights, asks him to consider taking action to constrain graphic violence in video games and other entertainment and urges consideration of stricter measures to contain potential violence on the part of the mentally unhealthy. Yet like the statement of the 47 leaders, Land gives little theological reason for his positions.

So what is the “Christian” position here? Wallis offers the deepest theological analysis of the appropriate Christian response to the problem of gun violence, but he is most dismissive of constitutional concerns. Land is most sensitive to constitutional constraints, but it’s hard to see how his position is distinctively Christian. There does seem to be a consensus among all three groups that there need to be criminal background checks on gun-purchasers and that gun trafficking needs to be a crime.

But what if our “faith” demands more than the constitution allows, as Wallis’s rhetoric might suggest? On the other hand, what if our faith requires us to submit to a constitution that prevents us from legislating policies we might otherwise have good reason to support? At the same time, what if the positions of the United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches owe more to their political convictions (and respective constitutional interpretations) than to any sort of substantive Christian teaching. What if there is no “Christian” position on gun control?

Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all of this ecclesiastical advocacy is a loss of credibility on the part of the churches. We all know that Wallis and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society lean left, and that Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention lean right. We know their respective attitudes toward gun control. And so we take their statements on these matters worth a grain of salt. Nothing has changed except that we all ignore the churches just a little bit more.

In a sense Wallis does hold more credibility because he does not speak for a church. And we do want Christians to reflect on the potential insights of their theology for difficult political problems. Removing religion from political arguments may seem ideal, but in reality it simply obscures the reasons why people support the positions they do, impoverishing public debate. But Wallis’s enormous confidence in the degree to which his own political judgments are the demands of the faith is unwarranted. Unless you already agree with him, he’s probably not going to convince you.

It’s time for American churches (and theologians) to reconsider their claims to authority on matters of politics and policy. The church is charged with the proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God to a suffering and sinful world. The more we waste our “ecclesiastical capital” advocating policies that have little obvious relation with that mission, the more we undermine our own cause.

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Conservatives are wrong to say government has no obligation to care for the poor

I am not a fan of Jim Wallis’s understanding of the relation between Christianity and politics. In the name of fidelity to Jesus and to Scripture, Wallis often does little more than justify a hard left economic and political agenda. Though he is able to provide legitimate criticism of the Christian Right, his own program amounts to little more than a Christian Left.

Matt Hamilton points out some of the fallacies in Wallis’s understanding of the responsibility of government toward the poor. Responding to Wallis’s claim that “A budget shows who’s important, who’s not, what’s important, what’s not,” he writes,

At face value, this assertion may ring with the sound of truth, but it is very subtly deceptive….  [T]he responsibility of the government is limited and therefore there are things that are important to us not included in government budgets. For example, the government does not fund religious institutions like churches, mosques, or synagogues. That does not mean that religion is not important to Americans, it simply means that it is not the government’s responsibility to be funding religious institutions.

Amen to that. But then Hamilton goes on to make a claim that I think is downright dangerous.

Jesus gave the church the responsibility to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, not the government. To prioritize the government’s coercive role in welfare is ultimately to support the government’s usurpation of a God-given responsibility to the church. If for no other reason why this distinction of roles exists, it is because only one being can be glorified when the poor and the needy are taken care of. Either that being will be God, or that being will be the government. If it is the latter, it can only lead to idolatry.

In contrast [to Wallis], here’s what I want pastors to say: “I will take the responsibility to lead my congregation in providing for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, rather than shirk that responsibility by passing it on to the impersonal idol of Big Government.” That would be following Jesus’ commands.

Now to be sure, Hamilton is correct to call out Wallis and others like him for pretending that everything Jesus said about care for the poor should be applied directly to the obligations of government. A healthy, classic, two kingdoms distinction would help to remind us that Jesus was proclaiming an ethic for the kingdom of God, an ethic attainable only in the community of disciples where the Spirit is at work, and an ethic only secondarily relevant to our understanding of the role of government.

That said, Hamilton’s argument goes a step forward. It argues not only that the church should care for the poor, but that it is the church’s unique role to care for the poor, and that government usurps that role when it takes steps to ensure the care of the poor. In other words, Hamilton is writing as if Jesus’ words apply exclusively to the church, such that whatever they command Christians to do by definition cannot apply to government. Consider this a version of the two kingdoms doctrine taken to the extreme. Hamilton seems to want to completely separate the ethics of the people of God from the ethics of human beings generally.

But is not the very purpose of Jesus’ teaching to demonstrate to human beings the way God would have us live? Is the church not to be a light to the world in order that the world might in some sense imitate that light? Is it really the case that Christians should take care of the poor – and all of the poor – while nonbelievers should not? And do political communities – political communities made up to a significant extent of Christians – have no obligations to their weakest members?

To be sure, we will never make our political communities into the kingdom of God. The church is indeed empowered to attain a greater level of righteousness than is the sword-bearing state. But that does not mean that the obligations of justice or of care for the poor and the weak have no relevance to the state. The state is also appointed by God, responsible to defend the weak against those who would do evil – including the evil of refusing the poor their God-given rights. Christians who know that they will be judged based on how they care for the poor cannot imagine that they are permitted to leave that responsibility out of their minds when they enter into political office and consider how a community ought to be structured. Government is not outside the scope of morality or the authority of God’s law.

Even natural law, as Calvin argued, teaches us that all human beings are brothers and are therefore obligated to care for one another. As Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech last night, “That America, that united America, will uphold the constellation of rights that were endowed by our Creator, and codified in our Constitution. That united America will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need.”

Conservatives are right to point out the abuse to which many in the Left put Scripture. They are right to insist that fulfilling our responsibilities toward the poor does not equate supporting Marxism, socialism, or the modern welfare state. And they do us all a service by emphasizing that government best helps the poor when it promotes economic growth, rather than redistribution of wealth.

But conservatives must be careful not to abuse Scripture in service of the agenda of the Right either. Scripture clearly calls government to enforce basic justice for the poor, and nothing that Jesus said suggests this obligation is restricted to the church, or that it is somehow made the church’s unique responsibility. Let’s not let our politics cloud our faithfulness to Scripture.

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