Last week Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical Christian, published a morally confusing, anti-firearm piece in the Washington Post. Specifically, the article’s tenor held that Christians couldn’t be pro-life if they were pro-gun. He claimed that one couldn’t be both pro-life and pro-gun simultaneously.
For starters, Schenck’s position — that one can’t be both pro-life and pro-gun — is a false dichotomy. Many have argued, some quite persuasively, that there’s little tension between being pro-life and defending the Second Amendment. Even further, many have convincingly argued that owning a gun — for protection or being victimized by criminal activity — can be used to defend innocent people from (further) violence and evil. This position is an efficient example of being pro-life.
Schenck says he previously believed that “we had a God-given right to defend ourselves” and that he thought “the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, and that anyone should be able to obtain a gun.” After viewing “the after-effects of gun violence firsthand,” he believes differently, saying, “These experiences, followed by careful theological and moral reflection, left me convinced that my family of faith is wrong on guns.”
Here’s part of the moral confusion regarding Schenck’s conversion to gun ownership. Is he saying Christians don’t have the God-given right to defend themselves – period — or that Christians don’t have a God-given right to protect themselves with guns? And if it’s not a God-given right (again, why not?), can Christians engage in self-defense if it’s a government-granted right? More importantly, if the right to defend oneself, which includes acts of protecting oneself and other innocent people–isn’t granted by God and only by the government, the government can also take that right away. If this position is true, it will leave millions of people, including Christians, defenseless against a tyrannical government and civil criminal enterprise. Is Schenck morally, politically, and theologically okay with that potential outcome? Why or why not?
The effects of gun violence that Schenck says were instrumental in his transformation are the mass shootings in Pennsylvania that left five Amish schoolgirls dead and the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, where twelve people were killed and three others injured. It’s puzzling that he refers to these examples as evidence that Christians can’t be pro-life and pro-gun, considering the details of both incidents. In the first example, the mass murder of defenseless Amish schoolgirls wasn’t an act of self-defense whatsoever. The man responsible for that evil reportedly had unresolved grief over the death of his minutes-old daughter almost a decade earlier. His suicide note mentioned that he was still angry with God because of it.
In the second example of the Navy yard shooting, the murderer suffered from mental issues, saying he heard voices in his head. He also claimed to be the victim of low-frequency electromagnetic waves, which influenced him to commit this evil. Again, this is nowhere near what one would describe as self-defense. To use these two examples of mass murder as the foundation for the claim that Christians can’t be pro-life and pro-gun, or to undermine the defensive nature of gun ownership in general, is very shortsighted, profoundly misguided, and frankly, inexplicable.
Schenck then offers this,
“But I disagree with my community’s wholesale embrace of the idea that anyone should be able to buy a gun. For one thing, our commitment to the sanctity of human life demands that we err on the side of reducing threats to human life. And our belief in the basic sinfulness of humankind should make us skeptical of the NRA’s slogan, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” The Bible indicates that we are all bad guys sometimes.”
“Wholesale embrace?” Schenck doesn’t quantify this, nor does he provide examples to support this sweeping generalization; it’s simply true because he says it is. Where have well-known evangelical ministers, groups, denominations, or lay Christians claimed a “wholesale embrace of the idea that anyone should be able to buy a gun” with no restrictions? If this sentiment is as common as Schenck would have us believe, he should have no trouble specifying considerable support for such a tenuous declaration. Moreover, many people understand that criminals and those with mental illness should be exempt from owning guns. This position clearly and directly contradicts Schenck’s charges against an evangelical “wholesale embrace” that anyone should be able to buy a gun.
Schenck continues with his morally confused change of heart, saying, “our commitment to the sanctity of human life demands that we err on the side of reducing threats to human life,” but discounts using a gun to do just that. The Second Amendment allows citizens to legally own a firearm for protection when it mitigates the discrepancy between a criminal the size of a linebacker and a much smaller, weaker victim — man or woman. In the absence of a firearm, how would Schenck like to see Christians reduce threats to human life in a situation where the very threat(s) to human life have guns?
Having a gun to defend oneself and others actively demonstrates the sacredness of life. Willingly sacrificing oneself and not doing what one can to protect human life when one has the chance actively undermines his call to reduce threats that endanger life.
And aside from the obligatory demonizing of the NRA, Schenck ignores that many people have responsibly used guns to protect against, thwart and end the criminal activity of others who’re not so keen on valuing human life. People, especially Christians, have rescued the weak and needy and have delivered them from evil (Psalm 82:4) using the very thing Schenck condemns.
Schenck then engages in an outright appeal to moral equivalence that nullifies the obligation to do good and fight evil when taken to its logical conclusion. He says, “The Bible indicates that we are all bad guys sometimes.” And? So, we’re “all bad guys sometimes,” means what, exactly? Christians can be good and do good. Apart from moral equivalence, some people are more than just “bad” sometimes; they’re evil. Within the moral spectrum, there are gradations of good and evil. To ignore that and our part in trying and overcoming it is dangerous.
As a Christian, Schenck knows Christians must fight against evil within themselves and in the world. In other words, Christians have a moral obligation to combat evil. But if Christians are “bad guys sometimes,” why engage in any acts of charity, mercy, and goodness, including defending innocent lives with guns? What would happen if Christians used Schenck’s mindset and applied it to protecting preborn lives from abortion? Should Christians stop trying to save these lives because sometimes Christians can be “bad guys?” This position simply makes no sense.
Schenck then says,
“…anyone using a gun for defense must be ready to kill. Such a posture is antithetical to the term “evangelical,” which refers to the “evangel,” or gospel. The gospel begins with God’s love for every human and calls on Christians to be more Christ-like. At no time did Jesus use deadly force. Although he once allowed his disciples to defend themselves with “a sword,” that permission came with a limitation on the number of weapons they could possess numerous Bible passages, such as Exodus 22:2-3, strictly limit the use of deadly force.”
Schenck conflates the moral implications of killing and murdering. The Bible gives clear instructions for the punishment of murder — death, which differs from the penalty for killing — time served in sanctuary cities. Killing while defending innocent human life is acceptable; murdering innocent life isn’t. It’s precisely why the proper translation of the Sixth Commandment is “thou shalt not murder” rather than” thou shalt not kill”: God makes a clear moral distinction between killing and murder.
How making a moral distinction between killing and murder — being prepared to use a gun to do the former and not the latter in an attempt to save lives — is antithetical to the gospel is anyone’s guess. Differentiating between killing and murder gives credibility to the gospel rather than detracting from it.
To appeal to Jesus’ lack of doing or saying something as a model to follow can be theologically tricky. It’s applicable in some areas, not in others, like gun ownership. Just because Jesus didn’t mention a specific topic or didn’t engage in a particular activity doesn’t mean we should automatically apply that omission to our current situation. Jesus didn’t specifically mention abortion; should Christians ignore that issue, allowing even more lives to perish because of our passivity — and thereby becoming less pro-life? He also didn’t mention homosexuality; should Christians simply ignore the seriousness of this issue and its far-reaching moral, cultural, and physical consequences?
Yet Jesus did encourage his disciples to carry swords (Luke 22:36, 38), plural, for protection and self-defense. But Schenck diminishes this example, which is applied to gun ownership, by changing the subject from self-defense to the actual number of weapons one should (or shouldn’t) have for self-defense. So, is Schenck against using guns for self-defense in total, or is he simply against the number of guns one might have for self-defense?
Additionally, Schenck cites Exodus 22:2-3a to defend the idea of limiting deadly force, but these verses also permit one to protect one’s family and property. Verse two allows for striking and killing a person if he breaks in during the night–the time when a family is most vulnerable to theft or worse. Appealing to this passage undermines- and further confuses- Schenck’s position rather than bolsters it.
I disagree with Schenck’s position — I think people can and should own guns. They have a moral obligation to learn how to use them safely and legally to protect themselves and other innocent people from criminal intent and other forms of evil. He’s wrong to advocate and defend a false dichotomy between supporting the right to own guns and being pro-life. These two issues aren’t mutually exclusive, as he and those who share his view would have Christians believe. Many Christians would exercise their legal rights to own a gun for protection but can’t because of prohibitive laws and a lack of financial resources. Would Schenck tell Christians that don’t own guns, that live in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, and elsewhere that are terrorized and killed by criminals with guns, that all is well? That their position is ‘pro-life’ even as they lose theirs?
Schenck’s position on gun ownership needs considerable clarification. He confidently proclaims that he’s against fellow Christians maintaining a defensive, anti-life position because they own guns. Is Schenck then saying he’s against using that gun to deter crime and other evil? After all, that’s what the defensive position he laments defends against using firearms for protection.
If Schenck can’t be pro-life and pro-gun, that’s fine — for him, it’s his personal decision. He’d still be misguided, but his morally and theologically confused position would only apply to him. It should exclude the slandering and mischaracterization of responsible, sober-minded gun owners — the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.
I’m not condemning Schenck. He seems to be a good and decent man. Yet on this issue, he seems emotionally confused and unwilling to acknowledge the nuances, realities, and moral requirements to protect life. It appears as if he is using his faith to justify his anti-gun ownership transformation.