I became a pacifist in 1968 as a result of reading the Sermon on the Mount. Naively I thought Jesus meant what he said. I took Jesus at his word and did not understand why all Christians were not pacifists. My ethical stance was sincere enough to convince a draft board to issue me Conscientious Objector status in 1971.
My youthful idealism moderated over the years as I came face to face with the horror of gun violence, especially the mass murder of three children in our church in Massachusetts. I knew immediately that if I had been present at the crime I would have done anything to stop the murder, including killing the shooter or die trying. While preparing the funeral for those children, I realized I was not the pacifist I thought I was.
Consequently I reread 20th century Christian theologians’ response to Fascism. I pondered anew Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism. I came to understood why Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to become part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. I embraced Just War theory. Yet I have always refused to explain away Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of the Sermon on the Mount with clever hermeneutics. I live in the tension between the words of Jesus and trying to stop evil.
In a similar fashion I have long advocated gun control. Not the banishment of all firearms but careful regulation of them. I learned to handle a firearm when I was ten years old, and I was a riflery instructor during my teen years at a summer camp in New Hampshire. I know how to use a gun. It was only a few years ago that I was deer-hunting in Pennsylvania.
I am a supporter of the second amendment. But I do not think that the second amendment was intended to allow mass murderers access to semi-automatic weapons so they could kill children more efficiently. I also believe that followers of Christ are called to a higher standard than the US Constitution – namely the New Testament teachings of Jesus.
I relate this personal history to explain why after more than fifty years I am reconsidering my position on gun control. The reason is the dramatic rise of anti-democracy forces that are gaining power in our country. They are threatening these United States of America and our freedoms.
The January 6 attack on Congress was a tipping point for me. I suddenly realized that the forces of tyranny could overthrow our democracy. We had a president who tried to overturn a legal election. He continues to speak against the legitimacy of our elections and courts. His followers are undermining voting rights in several states. At a QAnon convention over Memorial Day weekend they talked about a military coup to reinstate the former president.
It doesn’t help that I am presently watching the Hulu television series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in New England. It feels eerily prophetic. The fictional conservative Christian nation of Gilead was formed through orchestrated attacks on Congress, the White House and the Courts. In the light of the recent attack on the capitol, with participants calling for the execution of the Vice President and Speaker of the House, the Republic of Gilead does not seem so fictional.
For that reason I am reconsidering my stance on gun control. The Religious Right is well armed. They are strong advocates for the second amendment, interpreted to mean unfettered access to firearms. As much as I disagree with their politics, I am starting to agree that the rest of us need access to all types of firearms to protect ourselves from them!
If Christian Nationalism gains power, it is only a matter of time until they deny their enemies access to firearms in the name of “law and order” and national security. Those who seek to preserve freedom will need to be just as well armed. That does not mean I am buying an assault weapon anytime soon. I would not know how to use one anyway. But I am sure there are a lot of people who believe in our democratic form of government who do know how to use them.
Our nation is at a crossroads. Anti-democratic authoritarians could take over my country, just like they are taking over my party. If that happens, ordinary Americans will need to defend themselves against them. More importantly we will need to defend those who cannot defend themselves. True Christianity is more about defending others than self-defense. It is loving one’s neighbor as oneself, including neighbors who have been declared “sinners” by the culture warriors. Jesus, after all, embraced sinners.
I pray that the current situation does not degenerate into armed conflict. We need to do everything we can do to prevent that from happening. But it is certainly possible. It was not that long ago that regional differences in our country erupted into Civil War. It could happen again, especially if voting rights are denied and elections are overturned or rigged. That seems to be the present political strategy of the anti-democracy movement.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Advocates for freedom and human rights for all people need to be prepared. If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot be naïve about people’s willingness to lie and cheat and commit atrocities in the name of God and country. The debate about gun legislation is no longer just about stopping crime or mass shootings. It is about preventing our country from falling into the hands of domestic terrorists. May God help us.