Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spirituality and Guns, part I

In the weeks following the shooting in Newtown, CT, I had intentionally chosen not to talk about guns.  I instead chose to wait, step back, and see how the conversation would unfold.  What I found more personally pressing was exposing and denouncing "Christians behaving badly", who were doing what amounted to victim-blaming in the service of cultural goals (example: the horrid "We took God out of schools" meme).

My social networks were a flurry of activity as the various sides on the issue of guns began sloganeering and editorializing (and continue to be now that Obama is rolling out gun control measures).  In the midst of the fury, the slogans, the bumper sticker mentality, the ultimatums, and lines drawn in the sand (more on these later), I retreated inward to start sifting through my own conflicting feelings about violence in general, guns in particular, and how we talk about these issues in the United States.  In essence I was following my own advice, taken from Diana Butler Bass in a blog post I wrote after the shooting in Tuscon in 2011 in which nineteen people were shot.  I began sorting through how I, and other Americans, allow our virtues to blind us to our vices; I started asking where fear was reigning in the national conversation and within myself.  I am looking for a true hope.

What follows is more of a theological reflection--a journal entry--than a closely argued case for one side or another. Often I find that I come to understand my own positions by exploring closely that with which I disagree. I'm trying to parse the reasonable from the rhetoric and explore how the conversation functions.

This will also take a few posts over a period of time instead of being one large post. Gun ownership in America is a complex topic--- and even though I am approaching it from a theological perspective, 'secular' ethics, civil rights, sociological studies, personal behavior of myself and others, and rhetoric intertwine and complicate the matter. 

My own history with gun ownership

From about 2005 until August 2010 I possessed a handgun.  As I struggled with my sense of vocation and becoming a priest, I was also re-evaluating why I had a gun...what it said about me as a person and my worldview.  I eventually came to the conclusion that, for some reason, I didn't need the gun anymore.  While Laura and I were in Mobile, on our way to Connecticut and seminary, I left the handgun boxed and with the extra magazines on dad's dresser without comment.  In my mind, I was pulling away from my militaristic past (now I realize it was always more of a front than a reality) to my pacifistic future.  While I am still quite comfortable around guns, and I find target shooting as enjoyable as I always have, the desire to own a gun or an identification with the martial meanings of guns hold no sway with me anymore.

The more difficult thing to admit is that I do not have a gun because I saw one night how I could have taken a sixteen year old boy's life  if I had been armed.  I didn't know him, he didn't know me, but he pointed an air-soft pistol at me in the dark.  If I had my handgun that night (it was a rare night that it wasn't with me), he might have died for his own stupidity before I noted it was an air-soft pistol, and I would be living with the guilt of killing him.  When he was arrested, he was told by the officer who arrested him that he was lucky to be alive.  Indeed, the officer drove an unmarked SUV as part of the drug unit; pointing a gun at that vehicle would have been a terrible idea.

Years later, and after leaving my gun in Mobile, I walked out of my apartment in New Haven to walk my dog, and discovered a teenage boy trying to steal my bicycle. Not having a gun forced me to react in a different way and to treat it as a small matter as we looked at each other and spoke, instead of me running to find the means to 'defend' myself or my bicycle, or reacting out of anger. 

But there are times when fear makes me wish I had a gun.  The noise in the apartment at 3am.  The shady gas station we stop at on our cross-country trips.  The walk home in the dark after reading about how a graduate student was robbed earlier in the day. But, within seconds, I recognize the fear for what it is and choose a different way to view the world, even as I maintain the now-instinctive methods of situational awareness I've learned. 

But the other thing I have learned is that, as fearful as I sometimes feel, it is nothing compared to the psychological pressure women or people of color feel on the same walks home.  Women are objectified as sexual objects and draw much more unwanted attention; and so have to worry if the man whose come-on they just ignored will turn violent.  People of color, particularly black men, find others paying attention to them and wondering if they "belong" in the same neighborhood or sidewalk.  And by our socio-economic status, Laura and I live in a relatively safe area, which makes walking our streets less risky than other areas of New Haven where violence is more common [New Haven received some press two years ago for being the fourth most dangerous city according to the FBI].  In a sense, I live with much less day-to-day danger than others because of the privilege I receive by being male and white.

My renunciation of guns as a means of protection has put me in strikingly uneasy place.  I get the arguments for gun ownership, but I'm also able to see how advertising and media are able to make weapons downright seductive, and the desire for guns leads to an over-consumption and demand for them.  And now, I see where such advertising works because it does not have the same influence over me.  I also see where the seduction and mystique of guns still has influence over people I know.

The mystique and seduction continues even as people claim that guns are simply a tool. But it is difficult to imagine that hammers and screwdrivers would be made to look as seductive or as "cool" as guns.  Imagine common tools in the hands of the actors in these pictures.

See alsoevery film made by John Woo.
Also, on Facebook you will notice that people pose with their new guns much more frequently than they do hammers and baseball bats.  Guns are of a different order.  We treat them differently than other tools.  We take pride in them and in our improving use of them in a way we do not with other tools.  Further, other tools are not designed for lethality, even if they could be used to kill.  A friend was recently bragging to me about how a particular shotgun round he had purchase increased lethality because of the design of the shell.  We do not talk about levels, levers, and pulleys this way. I can no longer look at guns as objects of desire, but I can see how they are advertized as such.

What has been occupying my thoughts lately is how our purposes for gun ownership or gun renunciation reflect a theological position for Christians (and an ethical worldview for everyone, religious or not).  The decision to own a gun speaks to an understanding of the Christian's role in Creation, fallenness of the world, relationship to God, relationship to neighbor, and the nature of sin.   The decision whether or not one owns a guns can also demarcate an area in which we do not allow our faith tradition to inform our actions, either intentionally or unintentionally.  But even this represents a theological position, as one may decide that gun ownership is properly the realm of civil law and rights without recourse to theology.  My next post will take up matters of worldview, and more about why I abandoned gun ownership.

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