Lesson 18: How Do You Stop a Bad Guy With A Gun?

Jesus with a gunLet’s use Christian ethics to examine Wayne LaPierre’s claim, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I think the first observation would be this goes far beyond gun control, as it exposes perhaps the basic problem in our culture, the belief our salvation depends on retributive violence. This is certainly the greatest challenge to Christianity that bases salvation on the words and actions of Christ Jesus.

Certainly the critical word is “only.” It reduces the issue to the choice between passively allowing violence or using more violence to resist it. It argues in a violent world you either fight violence with violence or give up. When you reduce the choices in this way, violence wins the argument, because defense of self and others becomes the telling argument. Weapons become our “only” response to violence.

Christian ethics offer a third way based on our biblical story. That narrative begins with Lamech’s boasting in Genesis 4: 23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” His statement is used to illustrate how deep human depravity has gone in corrupting God’s good creation. Our response begins with God’s promise in Genesis 12 to bless Abraham’s family, so it can bless every other family in the world. God and humans will use redemptive action to redeem the world the Lamechs have debased. Moses shows this mean no more killing when only struck, but “an eye for an eye.” However, Jesus reveals even this continues rather than overcomes violence. He teaches return good for evil, love and forgive your enemies; be a healing, redemptive agent. And his death and resurrection show that living this way leads to new life. The narrative concludes with the promise that in the future God will overcome all violence.

A possible summary of Christianity’s third way could be “In the evil world in which we live our priorities should always be to act in a redemptive manner, a way that would redeem the situation. That could involve defending yourself and others but also responding in realistic ways to overcome violence. These involve using personal contact, education, compassionate actions, and even self- denial in an attempt to make our enemies ultimately our friends. Because a stranger can wield great power in our technological society, this takes the faith that God is with us in this redemptive action.

Official governmental statements and policies appear increasingly to regard this third Christian way as unrealistic. In a society overcome with fear, the words of education and religion sound nice but seem irrelevant to our survival. You worry when LaPierre uses his statement to argue for arming teachers, he distorts the very relevance of teaching.

Christianity, on the other hand, judges society’s reliance on retributive violence as a naive and unrealistic position. To claim we are eliminating the world’s evil by killing terrorists, threatening preemptive war, employing torture, crossing international borders with drones, turning international relations over to the military while cutting funds for traditional diplomacy, preventing speaking to our enemies until they agree with us, and making governmental action secret is to return to Lamech’s logic, responding to a group of thugs by declaring war on entire nations. It not only denies our own involvement in evil but also ignores the data indicating all these actions fail to overcome terrorism but really creates more terrorists. The logic of the redemptive violence argument leads ultimately to self destruction or genocide.

This is not to claim there is a Christian political position. Again we should stay within our narrative. Jesus presented no political program before Pilate. He simply spoke the truth that exposed the failure of the retributive violence behind Rome’s power and the potential of his kind of love to redeem, save, and make all things new.

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7 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Anne Crawford says:

    I did not “bite” on this question earlier precisely because I find it so disturbing. My thoughts are all over the place on it. In the abstract I absolutely agree that LaPierre’s statement is ludicrous and wrong, but it also doesn’t make sense to me to not defend myself if attacked – but what form that defense takes I don’t know. I don’t own a gun, I don’t want to own a gun, but if someone with a gun attacked me, I’d like to think maybe someone who had a gun (e.g., a policeman) might use one to stop my attacker (or at least use the threat of one or some other form of physical attack/restraint to stop him/her. But then, all I’ve done is ‘transfer’ my desire for ‘retribution’ (except I’d call it desire for survival) to someone else (someone officially allowed to respond violently) and that seems a chicken thing to do.

    I also believe we do need to address underlying societal problems that promote violence (poverty, lack of education, etc.). But again, all that flies out of the window if I’m being personally attacked or assaulted. I’m not going to stop to say, “I understand you’re a product of your environment and that returning violence for violence solves nothing.” I’m going to scream bloody murder and do what I can (which may not be much) to defend myself.

    If I ‘love’ my enemy but he/she doesn’t ‘love’ me – maybe I’ll sleep better at night – but I may be doing it in the hospital or in captivity. I just have a really hard time understanding on a practical level how to love my enemy without making myself a passive doormat for violence and abuse. Bottom line is – I don’t know how to respond well to this question.

  2. Bob Nordvall says:

    I agree with Ann. We have to distinguish between a personal incident of violent danger and the best policies and practices to reduce such violence within society. Problem is that people inflate the “law of the gun” for an individual who is threatened to “the law of the gun” as the best societal policy. By the way, if you forcefully resist a crime aimed at you, two things are true (1) you are more likely to frustrate the crime and (2) you are more likely to be seriously injured or killed. In short, the idea that a good guy with a gun wins over a bad guy with a gun always works in movies but not in life.

  3. Rita Yeasted says:

    Dear Fritz and Onliners: I have not ignored this question, but I have spent a great deal of thought on how I would respond. I guess I don’t honestly know. I do know I would not carry a gun and shoot first, but reacting to anger and violence often brings out the worst in us.

    Then a few moments ago, I read an essay by Frida Berrigan (Phil and Elizabeth’s daughter) who writes about non-violence all the time. Her story about bullying contained such a personal response to a violent act when she was younger that I thought it might add a little light to the conversation. Here’s the link: http://readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/72-72/17908-disarming-bullies-from-schoolyards-to-the-white-house.

  4. Myron Hoffman says:

    So, turn the other cheek…and then call a good lawyer, if you survive.

    It seems to me that the challenges that violence presents to an individual is of quite a different nature from that which a nation must face in it own defense. the two guys with guns represents only a very small example of a kind of violence,. While violence against an individual can take many forms, perhaps immediate in the form of a direct threat by an armed, threatening individual, or longer-term violence in the form of encroachments on property, unfair financial dealing, steaking, corporate chicanery and the like. Not all such attacks need be answered with physical violence, but through recourse to man-made institutions, as imperfect as they may be, created and maintained by governments for the wellfare of the nation, and the individual as well. Eschew violence if you can, but resort to it if you must. Figuring out where that line lies is the great ethical conundrum we all face.

    In pursuing a country’s national interest and defending it against threat from abroad, a whole host of instruments short of violence are available. Diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, international opprobrium and even the threat of violence are used. When attact from a foreign entity is imminent, or appears to be imminent, consideration of a violent response, or even a preemptive attack are legitimate responses. Then the question is “Just what is the appropriate response, what level of violence?” What can be done to safeguard our nation (community) while causing the least damage interntionally to other countries’ interests? There is no absolute answer: much depends on how “national interest” is defined, and that, unfortunately, is generally determined by the judgment of the leadership, with all the idiosyncracies, prejudices and personal emotions that then play a role. A leader inculcated with a strong Christ-centered ethic and sense of moral responsibility, at least gives hope of a wise and just solution. There are, of course, no guarantees.

  5. Derek says:

    I can see the argument for complete denial of self-defense on the part of Christians. If you take a very high level view of the New Testament the message seems to be that the only possessions you should have are the clothes on your back and your life and you shouldn’t care much about losing any of those either.

    So perhaps my first mistake was not listening to Paul about celibacy. I got married and even worse had children, putting me in the position where my love for them wouldn’t allow me to just sit back and pray if a predator were to attack one of them. I have further erred by having a home that can be broken into, and possessions that someone might harm us to take. I also have a deficit in the not caring about pain and death department.

    Now there are those who say that the Bible endorses self-defense. A common verse to quote is Luke 22:36 “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” This is reconciled with the idea of turning the other check in that a slap is an insult, not an imminent threat on your life and considering that martyrdom is different than letting a random criminal kill you thus ending ones ministry. Some point out that Jesus, Paul, and others occasionally had interactions with soldiers, but while they were known for pointing out sin when they saw it they did not tell the soldiers to quit their professions but instead commented on their faith and performed miracles. This is used to make the argument that Christianity supports soldiers and police. Of course there is plenty to quote if one is willing to go into the Old Testament.

    But you can argue for a lot of things if you’re hunting through the Bible to support a given position.

    I’m not so sure. Still, for some reason it doesn’t strike me as especially Christian to just sit back and let a madman kill kids until they feel like stopping nor to create laws to require that a homeowner or teacher to be unable to do anything effective against a killer. Instead I feel the Christian difference would be in always looking for alternatives as a situation develops and failing that in providing first aid once the attacker is stopped and trying to forgive and redeem them afterwards.

  6. Don Motaka says:

    What kind of bad guy? Like Hitler? Saddam Hussein? Or that f..n’ n… that just broke into your house and you’re lying there in bed soiling your sheets? Answer: in any case, you can’t. Or like almost all Christians I’ve ever been exposed to, they won’t or don’t or run the other way (of course, they’re praying as they run – “please God, don’t let ‘im shoot my ass!”).

    And those with guns? What have they stopped lately? There was a man with a handgun at the scene of the Gabby Giffords shooting; he said he didn’t draw his gun because there was so much chaos he was afraid of shooting an innocent bystander. The school shooting in Conn.? The dude’s mother had a whole house full of guns – lot’a good that did her, huh? Oh yeah, Trevon Martin – he had a bag of Doritos and a can of soda, but George Zimmerman had a gun, killed him with it and is claiming self-defense.

    Why not ask a better question: what can Christians do (besides sitting there doing nothing) to stop bad men from getting guns? Or better yet, to stop men from becoming bad in the first place.

    • Derek says:

      I figured I should get a reply in here so you know someone is reading these and maybe get discussion going.

      This first bit is also in reply to the terrorist comment in Fritz’s lesson and Bob’s comment about resisting crime. I think it is risky and can muddy the arguments to attempt to bring utility type points into discussions of morality.

      For example in regards to resisting crime, that might be the case if you’re talking about charging down the stairs to start a fight with someone trying to make off with your DVD player. But I remember being told at various “stay safe” things during college that if someone is trying to kidnap you you’re better off resisting or running, even if they have a gun, than getting into their van or going into the woods etc. And if their intent is to cause harm you’re obviously better off trying to frustrate the crime. Those sorts of situations are what people are referring to when discussing self defense.

      In the case of mass shootings, there are instances of a “good guy with a gun” being on the scene and intervening. However they don’t get nearly the press because of the low body counts and lack of entertaining tears to telecast for an eager viewing audience. What you hear about is almost always when someone brings a gun into a “gun free zone” so that they can kill a bunch of people before a “good guy with a gun” arrives in the form of the police.

      In the case of terrorism, that’s a murkier issue. However one could say that we ought to leave it to the generals or the CIA who have more information than anyone else that might claim to do a study.

      Actually I think it might be helpful to the strength of making a moral argument to say that it might be a riskier choice, but its still the one we’d rather out politicians made, and we aren’t going to kick them out of office if a terrorist attack occurs and it turns out our leadership passed up on a chance to waterboard a guy that knew it was going to happen.

      In regards to Christians doing something about “bad men getting guns,” there might be specific measures that might get broad support (like not waiving the extra charges for committing a crime with a gun as many places regularly do, or maybe certain flavors of universal background checks). However at least in the US one stereotype of Christians is that they are “clinging to their God and their guns,” and in any case I believe a majority are generally supportive of the second amendment.

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