I am Not a Gun-Virgin (and Other Responses to my Critics)

Like everyone, I sometimes get into tit-for-tats online, but on those rare occasions in which I am being the better version of myself, I keep in mind that online discussions tend to generate more heat than light. The nastier the critics, the less likely they are to change their minds, and the more frustrated I am going to feel. So it is best to stay out of it.

But yesterday I received a “pingback” that led me to a couple of rather civil criticisms (here and here) of my latest piece in the Huffington Post. So I wanted to offer a brief response to a few points the authors make, which I have also seen reflected in other comments on my article. Perhaps this can be one of those rare internet moments when dialogue leads to mutual understanding.

I think this one is my favorite.
My favorite! (So that’s how I look after work…?) 

First, I know what a semiautomatic weapon is. Some readers took the following sentence to mean I am ignorant about guns. To quote myself, “Let’s ban weapons than can fire a dozen shots before a fallen deer even hits the ground.” For the record, that was hyperbole. I own two rifles and a .38 Special (currently stored with a family member). I am not a gun “enthusiast,” but my grandfather was. He taught me how to handle weapons, and I fired many of his (as well as a bunch of guns owned by my roommate’s dad – a local sheriff). I have not been to the range in a year, but there was a time in my life when I was going a couple of times a week. During my young and impressionable (stupid) years, I seriously contemplated joining the NRA.

Second, my article was not a policy proposal. Some readers have noted that “assault weapon” is an ambiguous term and have asked me to define it. I have thoughts on this, but they are beside the point. I was doing public theology, using oikonomia to suggest that focusing on the long-term often means attending to the near-term. Let’s not get distracted.

Third, oikonomia is not about freedom. Both bloggers I mentioned above said that I am not using the concept of oikonomia rightly because it is about not enforcing a regulation rather than imposing a regulation. But that is to confuse the form of oikonomia with its substance – compassion for the individual, governed by the recognition that sometimes we cannot get to the root of the problem without attending to the immediate need.

The debate over gun-control seems to boil down to a lot of assumptions both sides make about the other, and about what a safe society looks like. For instance, the NRA says an armed society deters criminals. I say that a gun makes it too easy to kill, both on purpose and on accident; weapons in the home are more dangerous to the people who live there than to any hypothetical invader (which is why I typically exhaust all my ammo at the range). I am also uncomfortable with living in a way that presumes mistrust and danger. I do not think that is consistent with a Christian witness, nor is it a sound basis for a civil society. (I will say more about this in an upcoming post and Things Not Seen broadcast). But that raises other assumptions, which I do not have time to address. My point is that there are many ideological divisions in our land, which our 24 hour news cycle tends to exacerbate. The only way to bridge these divides is to have a polite, but frank, conversation, which I am grateful to have engaged in. Mission accomplished.

Addendum: It occurred to me that some might think I implied that NRA members are stupid. To be clear, my comment about the stupid years referred only to my own stupidity.

27 thoughts on “I am Not a Gun-Virgin (and Other Responses to my Critics)”

  1. How far do you take your pacifism? If rough men show up at your doorstep and demand entry, because they want to have their way with your wife/daughter, do you let them in? If they force their way in, do you stand aside? Should you even call the police, who will use force — lethal force if it comes to it — in your aid?

    Or are you off the hook because the rough men you called to your aid fired their guns, not you? Or do you argue that the state has a unique "monopoly" when it comes to the use of force?

    1. P.s. Please leave my family out of this discussion, even hypothetically. I love my wife and daughter, and I didn't need that image in my head. Thank you.

    2. Fair enough, David, I will respect your request. Although the "you" in my post was really meant to be taken more in the sense of "How far should one — anyone — take their pacifism/pledge to non-violence?" The "royal you".

    3. OK. Then in a nutshell, when you the believe violence/use of force justified, and by what actor(s)?

  2. David,

    Thank you for your very civil and irenic response to my post on Acton! For the record, even in disagreement your words are among the kindest I have ever received in an online forum.
    I take your point about hyperbole and not making a policy statement and I ask your forgiveness if I have offended.

    Dylan has I think captured well the substance of my own argument against your use of the term economia. Let me simply add to his argument that I think economia applied to the civil order is really closer to the act of a judge in a criminal or civil trial who can set aside a verdict in the interest of justice. This is something neither the plaintiff nor the defendant can do; economia is restricted to those who have the authority and responsibility to enforce the law and not those who are responsible for obeying the law.

    That aside, I think your argument would be better served if you spoke not of economia but of kenosis. While we can acknowledge that citizens have a right to bear arms (leaving aside for a moment the flux of Constitutional jurisprudence on the conditions under which that right can be exercised), we can challenge people to voluntary surrender that right, or limit the exercise of that right, in imitation of Jesus Christ who, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-8). Further this call to self-emptying humility is one gun owners can undertake not only because they are mindful of the dangers guns pose to others but also in reparation for the real and substantive harm done caused by irresponsible gun owners and criminals. For the Christian gun owner especially (though not exclusively), this would broaden his or her understanding of gun ownership beyond simply the question of a Constitutional right and include his or her responsibility for creating, if even in a small way, a culture of death.

    This second point was made eloquently by Dan Baum in his essay in this weekend’s WSJ (Why Our Gun Debate is Off Target, subscribers only). He writes “Gun guys are right to object to government officials who propose sweeping gun controls without understanding guns. But until [gun owners] take responsibility for the gun violence that so frightens their fellow citizens, they’re setting themselves up for more regulation. Taking collective responsibility for social problems is not the same thing as knuckling under to a tyrannical government. In fact, it’s the opposite.” This doesn’t seem to me to be much different than the argument you made in your original post.

    Shifting gears I want to re-affirm what I said in my original post. You are to be commended for using the tradition of the Orthodox Church to tackle an issue like gun control. The real problem I have with your post is not your post itself but that this and other social issues are NOT being addressed in our seminaries much less by our bishops. These issues are being addressed by bloggers, by those of us NOT on seminary faculties or Church committees. It is detrimental to the life of the Church in America that our intellectual agenda has been set by the needs of educating priests and by the interest of the faculties at St Vladimir’s and Holy Cross. While I value the work the seminaries do, they have become the de facto voice of Orthodox scholarship in America.

    So again what you’re doing at Huffington Post is incredibly valuable work. It is likely that you reach more people in a month than most seminary faculty, priests or even bishop reach in a year! So good for you I say and God bless your work!

    A word if I may about Acton and AOI both of which I write for on at least an occasional basis.
    While both groups are socially conservative, I would not describe either as libertarian. Acton is concerned with defending the free market within the context of natural law in general and Catholic Social Teaching in particular. As I understand what they do, their argument is not that government is evil or even that limited government is in and of itself a good thing. Rather they are interested in exploring the conditions necessary for human flourishing in both its personal and social dimensions and who the free market and public policy both contributes and harms the person.

    Where Acton tends to focus on issues of economics and public policy, AOI’s focus is more on cultural issues. In this I think AOI has anticipated some of the work being done by the Orthodox Assembly of Bishops’ committee on social issues. But again, while conservative—or maybe better, traditional—in outlook, I don’t think I would describe AOI as libertarian (and for the record, my friends who are libertarians are often very critical of Acton).

    While I enjoy working with both Acton and AOI, I’m more than open to working with and writing for other groups—even left of center groups! The problem is that a religious voice in defense of the tradition isn’t always welcome on the left, this is especially so among progressives And while I can’t speak for either Acton or AOI, I do think that you would receive a critical but charitable response from most of the folks involved formally and informally with both. This would be especially the case with Acton.

    Finally, the fact is bring the Orthodox Church and the Church’s tradition to the public square is too important (and big) a job to leave to anyone group within the Church. The more the merry I say and good for you for undertaking what is often a thankless task!

    Thanks again for your kindness!

    In Christ,

    +Fr Gregory

    1. Father Bless! Thank you for your kind words. For the same of balance, I must say that, much of the time, my tone is not nearly as kind as I would like it to be. And thank you for the clarity on the mission of Acton and AOI. I am afraid that my limited interactions on the latter left a sour taste in my mouth; I did not think my critics were being very fair or charitable. Plus the culture wars rhetoric I have encountered from time to time sounds a bit too familiar to me. But perhaps I judged too quickly.

      Thank you again.

  3. As a fellow orthodox Christian I have a few issues with your article.
    1. You are aiding in the medias misrepresentation of ar-15s. An ar-15 is a semi automatic weapon that is designed for CIVILIAN use. It’s rate of fire is no higher than any other semi automatic rifle, pistol or handgun. You statement that it can get off dozens of rounds before a fallen deer hits the ground is obviously misleading. Don’t think that people don’t believe it. They unfortunately do. As an orthodox Christian you have an obligation to tell the truth.
    2. You speak of the need for economia in the gun debate. Wayne lapierre is in his position to be a stonewall against more ineffective gun laws. He must stand up against people who want to take away all guns, one law at a time. Almost every politician currently involved with new gun legislation has stated their desire ban all guns. This is not the time for economia.
    3. You have failed in a huge way to recognize the real facts about gun laws and their failures to do what they are supposedly designed to do. If you are going to do a piece on gun control please do your research first.

    1. Dear Abe,

      Thanks for your thoughts. You are correct that no weapon can fire a dozen rounds before a deer hits the ground. Hyperbole. As for my research, please see point two. Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. Your title “an eastern orthodox case for banning assault weapons” would obviously imply that you not only support the awb currently being discussed but also that the orthodox church would see it that way. Since the orthodox church has not and will not ever take any official stance on a pollitical policy such as this, i would apreciate you leaving the church out it rather than making your own assumptions.

    3. To a certain extent, that is unavoidable. Some people will never read to the end of the article, where I make it clear that my opinion reflects the diversity of political views within the Orthodox Church. I don’t know. I guess I just tend to give readers more credit than that.

      I am curious, Abe, do you feel the same way about OrthodoxyToday, the AOI, or the libertarian Acton Institute? If you Google “Eastern Orthodox Politics,” I’m pretty far down on the list. Let’s say you think those groups are too political, too. Assuming they are not going away, do you think it is alright for my tiny voice to offer some balance?

    4. I must point out that the gun you are holding in the picture (marlin camp 9?) would fall under the currently proposed ban just by having a different stock or a muzzle break. Do you feel like that same gun would pose more of a threat and justify being banned if it had a black thumbhole stock instead of the wooden one? The point i wanted to make is that ar-15’s and the like are not special. They simply look scary and are easilly misrepresented as being somehow more dangerous than another gun. All guns are dangerous in the wrong hands, but a welcome tool to defend the innocent in the right hands.

    5. That is very interesting, Abe. Can you provide me with a link to the proposed ban so I can look at it? Thanks!

      P.s. I am curious on your thoughts about my last question. What is the difference between me and AOI or Acton? Not trying to win a fight here, just to understand.

  4. David, thank you for bringing to light something that has falsely tangled the gun debate: The accusations so quickly put forth that anyone asking for a ban on certain kinds of weapons is ignorant about guns and certainly has never owned one. That must be aired as a blatantly evasive rhetorical maneuver to create the illusion that the decision on weapons is simply guns or no guns, in which the latter violates the 2nd amendment. I think we all know that an assault weapons ban, which we had in place for 10 years, was well within everyone's constitutional rights. Thank you for fighting against that illusion of black and white and calling it out for what it is.

  5. David, thank you for bringing to light something that has falsely tangled the gun debate: The accusations so quickly put forth that anyone asking for a ban on certain kinds of weapons is ignorant about guns and certainly has never owned one. That must be aired as a blatantly evasive rhetorical maneuver to create the illusion that the decision on weapons is simply guns or no guns, in which the latter violates the 2nd amendment. I think we all know that an assault weapons ban, which we had in place for 10 years, was well within everyone's constitutional rights. Thank you for fighting against that illusion of black and white and calling it out for what it is.

  6. I am enjoying this discussion. If I may, please do not allow the Huff/Po to become part of it. I don’t feel their overall mission is sympathetic to the Orthodox Church. God bless!

    1. I am glad you are enjoying the discussion. I am not sure what you mean about the Huff not being sympathetic to the Orthodox Church. If you mean it does not like the church, want to here what we have to say, or does not care about the kingdom of God (the only goal of the church I can think of), I see that as all the more reason for an Orthodox voice (I am not the only one) to be present in it. This is especially so considering the fact that the OC bears witness to Christ to the world, and not just to other Orthodox Christians. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. A helpful response. Thank you.

    For the sake of further mutual understanding, however, I'm not so sure that this gets at my point:

    "But that is to confuse the form of oikonomia with its substance – compassion for the individual, governed by the recognition that sometimes we cannot get to the root of the problem without attending to the immediate need."

    It would appear that you might be confusing "substance" with "ethos" (or possibly even "pathos"). My point was precisely that one must understand what oikonomia is (i.e. its substance) in its own context before applying it to any other. You're point seems to be that when a priest acts out of oikonomia, they are doing so with compassion, overlooking the letter of the law for the sake of the person. That is true, but it does not get at precisely when, how, and why one overlooks the letter of the law in oikonomia—essential to the substance of the principle—which was precisely the concern of my post.

    1. Dylan, help me understand what you are saying. Would not the "why" be concern for the soul of the individual, the "when" be a matter of pastoral discretion, and the "how" (as you state) mean not applying the course of action a canon calls for?

      The analogy, I think, is something like the following

      NRA:Second Amendment::Legalistic Orthodox:Canons.

      An uncompromising position toward the canons (i.e. their legalistic application in every situation) would indicate a lack of pastoral judgment, lack of compassion, or both. My post was intended to suggest that the operative principle of oikonomia – concern for the other – is inimical to an uncompromising stance toward the Second Amendment (or a particular interpretation of it).

      I have a radio piece, that I will also post here and/or on the Huff that may help clarify where I am coming from.

      Thank you for challenging my thinking and for your civility.

    2. The key, I think, is that the guide for pastoral discretion, as I mentioned, is specifically the good behavior of a penitent person. A pastor cannot lighten a canon for an unpenitent adulterer who intends to continue in unfaithfulness to his/her spouse. Such a person is making him/herself anathema, and the most pastoral thing to do is to formalize that in the hope that the person would then repent. The "when" is not simply "pastoral discretion" but "pastoral discretion in the case of earnest repentance." So a canon that says a person who commits adultery must abstain from the Eucharist for seven years could be lightened if it is clear that the penitent has truly had a change of heart and has fully reformed his/her life after, say, two years—historically, that's oikonomia. That is where I think you may be misapplying the principle, and why personally I would be hesitant to apply it outside of the context of the Church in general. The best alternate context, perhaps, would be the granting of parole to a criminal who shows significant progress and reform after serving part of his/her sentence.

      In the case of the second amendment, it is a constitutional right, not simply a civil law. Indeed, it is importantly distinct from civil law in that it contains no specific sanction (e.g. violators receiving a $100 fine). It is meant to be a principle to guide more particular civil law, which would be a much more fitting analogue to canon law. For example, if lifelong, monogamous marriage is the principle by which canons governing the discipline of adultery are governed, the second amendment is the principle by which laws concerning access to firearms are governed. The NRA understands the principle to prohibit any laws that would regulate firearms but to favor any laws that protect access to them. Thus, the analogy of NRA:Second Amendment::Legalistic Orthodox:Canons would somewhat confuse the general with the specific.

      Now, to be clear, that does not necessarily invalidate your point. Civil rights do not exist in a vacuum but, I would argue, follow a certain priority: life, then liberty, then the pursuit of happiness. Protecting life would seem to trump freedom of ownership of assault weapons. So if, in fact, it can be shown that banning assault weapons would save lives without violating a natural or civil right or without any other serious, unintended consequences, then the NRA truly ought to value the lives of those persons more than their ideology. However, the operative principles there would be much more basic than oikonomia: prudence, grace, and mercy, even justice perhaps, all of which are certainly Orthodox, of course.

    3. I agree with this: The "when" is not simply "pastoral discretion" but "pastoral discretion in the case of earnest repentance.

      I would say "prudence, grace, and mercy, even justice" are the operative principles the pastor draws upon when applying oikonomia.

      I think a lot of this debate boils down to a couple or three points:

      1. How do you interpret the Second Amendment? Until a recent decision of the Roberts' Court, legal precedent established it as a collective right to bear arms – the right of a state to maintain a trained militia.
      2. Why do you think the founders established the Second Amendment? The NRA maintains that it is to make the federal government afraid of oppressing its own citizens. I think this is a misreading and highly impractical.
      3. How sacrosanct is the Second Amendment? The willingness to consider a Constitutional Amendment that would modernize the language of the Second Amendment depends on 1 and 2.
      4. Does the data offer any rationale for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. I think it does. For instance, on the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, some of my friends posted an article about a man in China who attacked the school with a knife. The difference is that nobody died. Had he had a pistol or something like my carbine, that can hold 12 rounds, children still would have died, but not as many. Changing a clip means a pause in the fire, which gives individuals a chance to act.

      I think individuals within the NRA genuinely value life. I worry the ideology of the group arrests our natural sense of compassion, sympathy, and reason, leading those individuals to be guided more by their fears than by their values.

    4. I think I would like to submit this post to the Huffington Post as well because some of the points you raise were also raised by readers who commented on my article. As you know, the conversation on the Huffington Post is not always that civil, and I am enjoying the tone of this discussion. That said, I find that readers of the Huffington Post rarely comment on my blog, and I can delete their comments if they do. But I wanted to give you veto power. I will not submit this post if you object.

    5. Sure, it wouldn't bother me. Let me know if you do, and I'll link to it on Acton's blog as well.


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