Christians, guns, and the myth of redemptive violence

“How many more daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, husbands, wives, friends—people created by and in the very image of God—have to die a horrific death before Americans will learn to lay down their guns?”

That was the Facebook status update my wife Kheresa posted following the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Her question succeeded in setting off a spirited week-long comment thread debate among Facebook friends from various dimensions of her life over the merits of gun control legislation.

The comments—some quite deeply reflected—spanned the spectrum of perspectives in the contemporary American debate over gun control and matched its heat (no pun intended). As a theologian who thinks that a lively debate within a contested tradition can be a sign of its health—and who thinks this is ultimately a theological issue—I jumped in. The following paragraphs are adapted from some of my comments.

Even if gun control legislation were ill-conceived or ineffective, as some argue, that shouldn’t mean we ought to reject gun control legislation; we ought to keep working to make it better-conceived and more effective. True, the assault weapons ban left legal a good number of similar-functioning weapons, but it did ban some, and some is better than none.

The bigger issue is the myth of redemptive violence that undergirds America’s love affair with guns.

Whether anyone else does or not, Christians should forsake that myth for the biblical story of the way of the suffering lamb. For me, one aspect of seeking to live that story rather than the myth of redemptive violence is choosing not to exercise my constitutional right to own a gun, while recognizing that many other Christians—among them some of my closest friends—have well-considered reasons for making other choices.

It could be argued that by choosing not to arm myself, I am leaving my family vulnerable to harm. I’m actually more worried about how our young son might be harmed by a weapon in our home, no matter how carefully stored, and about how he might be harmed in the homes of friends whose parents have decided to have guns, even when they have taken every precaution.

Even if our son were not physically harmed by a weapon kept in our home, my own conviction is that simply owning a weapon and keeping it in our home would do spiritual harm to him by reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. The world is going to try its hardest to teach him the latter story; I’m going to try my best to teach him another one.

Again, I recognize that others have good reasons for making other decisions about this, and I do not intend this post as a criticism of them. I also recognize that mine is a privileged perspective: if I had no choice but to live in a neighborhood in which violent crime is routine, I might think differently.

I don’t have fully satisfying answers to all the questions and thoughtful counter-arguments posed to me by other Christians who differ with me on this issue. I’m more and more convinced, though, that all justifications or allowances for violence are ultimately capitulations to the myth of redemptive violence as the reigning narrative of the world. We keep trying different variations on fighting violence with violence, which in the grand scheme of things only perpetuates violence.

Over the past few years I’ve come to the conviction that as a theologian I’m not contributing anything of value to the church or the world by offering theological rationales for the use of violence. I do think I’m offering the distinctively Christian thing I have to offer the church and world if I provide theological rationales for nonviolent responses to violence.

Some Christians—and some non-Christian critics of the faith—object that the Bible doesn’t consistently advocate a non-violent ethic. One can always point to this or that biblical text as a divinely-sanctioned allowance for violence. But the larger trajectory of the biblical story trends toward pacifism, which was in fact the mainstream perspective of the church after the New Testament era in the second, third, and early fourth centuries.

That is why the early Christian apologists kept having to explain why Christians seemed to be freeloaders in relation to the Roman Empire, enjoying the benefits of the Pax Romana but refusing to fight for it themselves. As the apologists explained, this refusal was not only because of the military’s demand of an idolatrous allegiance to the emperor but especially because killing in war is a violation of the law of Christ. It was because the preceding tradition was so overwhelmingly pacifist that Augustine had to advance a justification for violence—a “just war theory”—in the early fifth century.

“Realistic” rationales for the “just” use of violence make good sense in a violent world. The contrasting way of the suffering lamb doesn’t make much sense according to the wisdom of the present age. Indeed, it’s foolish by those standards.

Thus I’m not optimistic about winning this debate in the public square. But I am optimistic about the ultimate triumph of the suffering lamb and those who follow in his way. In fact, I’m convinced that we can count on it.

Editor’s note: This blog appeared previously as a Commentary on baptistnews.com.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • Jim Gallagher

    “Even if gun control legislation were ill-conceived
    or ineffective . . . that shouldn’t mean we ought to reject gun control
    legislation” really, even if it doesn’t work you want it anyway?  Gun control laws have been on the books for
    years and have been proven to do nothing to reduce violent crime and yet you
    want more.  The time, effort and money
    wasted on these proposals directly, adversely, affects police departments all
    across the country and lower the support for other government activities.  Gun control folks will not stop wanting more
    and more until they get all the firearms and still there would be no decrease
    in violent crime because only the law abiding gun owners would follow the law.  If you want to have a
    conversation about violent crime, you must start with the person, not the
    object.

  • Guest

    “my own conviction is that simply owning a weapon and keeping it in our
    home would do spiritual harm to him by reinforcing the myth of
    redemptive violence. The world is going to try its hardest to teach him
    the latter story; I’m going to try my best to teach him another one.”

    Then I would suggest that you keep the Bible away from him as well.  The thing is full of all kinds of violence.  I’d even say that’s its the leading proponent of redemptive violence.  Throughout the whole book, God rarely comes across a problem that can’t be fixed by killing a bunch of people.  He killed everyone on Earth except a few people on a boat, then he nuked two cities full of people from orbit, then he killed all of the first born children in Egypt, then he killed large numbers of Israelites because he kept losing his temper, then he commanded them to indiscriminately slaughter men, women, and children multiple times, and then, after a lot more of the same kind of stuff, he tops it off with a promise at the end of the book that he’s going to come back and slaughter most of the people on Earth.

    • Jim3

      Sometimes it seems like the Hebrew and Chrisitan Bibles seem to be describing two different Gods.  I suggest you read the some of the New text.

  • Jim3

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  Personally it seems clear to me that Jesus would not be returning fire in any situation.  http://www.freethought.mbdojo.com/guns.html has a very thoughtful discussion of the issue.