A sculpture outside the U.N. headquarters in New York Credit: Island Nimbus/Flickr
In the days following the murderous rampage in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, I was hopeful when I heard that the National Rifle Association was going to break with its standard policy of not commenting on such events of gun violence.
Finally, I thought, this immensely powerful organization that has done so much to re-define the Second Amendment and to politicize any and all attempts to rationally limit gun sales and ownership has had its conscience awakened. The murder of so many children has shaken even the NRA. Finally, even they cannot stand it. They will say, “No more,” or “We repent,” or “This isn’t working.”
I should have known better.
Instead, National Rifle Association President, Wayne LaPierre said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The answer — why didn’t I see this coming? — is more guns. The answer is arm the good guys.
LaPierre only puts bluntly, and succinctly, a world view that is now commonplace in American culture: that the world can be divided into the good guys and bad guys. This is stock-in-trade of the movie industry and the genre of film made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and countless others. After 9/11 it became the framing rhetoric of then President Bush who spoke often of Americans as “good and compassionate.”
I want to try to think about this framework from a faith perspective, that is, from a theological perspective and as a Christian. I understand that this is not everyone’s moral framework, but it is mine and it is framework that still plays a significant role in American society — however misunderstood.
For Christians the world does not divide between the good guys and the bad guys. The Apostle Paul in his great summa of the Christian faith, his Letter to the Romans, insisted — quoting the Old Testament — that, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” And that, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Note the key words, “no one” and “all.”
As a moral system Christianity is built around the idea of human sinfulness — the conviction that not just some people, but all people, have a built-in tendency toward evasion, corrosive self-interest and self-deception. And not just some, but all people are violent — at least potentially.
I understand that Paul’s theology, which is really that of the entire Bible, will come as a surprise and shock to many, not least self-proclaimed Christians who understand themselves as the good guys. It will also be unwelcome by many of today’s positive thinkers who are convinced of what David Brooks called, “our inner wonderfulness” as human beings.
But older traditions of faith were deeper; deeper and more honest. Citing such doctrines as “original sin,” they taught that all people, not just some, were capable of and vulnerable to self-deception. Those assured of their own righteousness and goodness were, in such ways of thinking, most at risk — which is why Jesus said the prostitutes and tax-collectors (legally sanctioned swindlers in that culture) would enter heaven before “the good people.” Such classical Christian thought, now largely forgotten in the general dumbing down, knew that all human beings are at least potentially violent, potentially murderous.
The world does not divide into “good guys” and “bad guys.” We wish that it did. If it did, it would be easy. For everyone thinks they are the good guys.
A latter day Christian, who understood and conveyed this faith with its hard truths was the Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the following from the Russian gulag:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart . . . This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of goodness is retained. And even in the best of all hearts there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil.
The line between good and evil passes right through every human heart.
Perhaps we think, “Well, that’s theology or philosophy. It has nothing to do with real life or guns or all this violence plaguing American life.” Actually, it has everything to do with all these things and more.
Instead of assuring us that we are the good guys, who should have guns, this hard faith and moral tradition would caution us to be very, very careful about claiming to be the good guys and very, very cautious about taking the power of life and death into our own hands and homes. We are all — at least potentially — violent people.
Given this, you don’t sprinkle fantastically lethal weapons around — as our society now does — nearly as freely as candy. You don’t encourage ordinary people to stockpile weapons, as we now do, in private homes. You limit access to those who have been given a particular role and responsibility, like police and military, and you hold them legally accountable for the use of such lethal power.
The real world is not like a B movie, divided clear as day between the good guys and the bad guys. Rather, the world is divided between the people who know their own sinfulness and potential for violence — and who therefore treat guns with great respect and severe limits — and people who imagine that because they are good guys it’s OK — even imperative — that they are armed to the teeth.
After nearly ever shooting rampage we hear the puzzled lament from neighbors or acquaintances of the shooter, “Yes, he was a bit of a loner, but he seemed nice enough, he was courteous, friendly. He seemed like a good guy.”
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