What is a Gun?
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | March 1, 2018Hi friends, last week I wrote about considerations Christians ought to have in the midst of conversations about guns. This week, I’d like to take a step further and focus specifically on what guns are. Like last week’s post, none of what follows offers an interpretation of American law, nor am I offering policy solutions to any societal problems. I am unsure of what our response(s) as a nation should be, nor am I equipped to answer those questions. If we are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, however, then the Christian theological tradition must inform our participation in these discussions. So, what is a gun?
Guns are manmade objects. Therefore, before we say anything else about guns, it might be helpful to begin with the two parts of that word, “manmade.” What is a man (i.e. human being), and what does it mean to make something?
Since God was making things way before human beings were, I’ll start with the second question: what does it mean to make something? In the creation story, we read again and again that God makes things with purpose. One examples is the sky, which God creates as a “dome” to separate the waters above from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-8). Another example is the “dry land” which God says should “put forth vegetation” (Gen. 1:9-11). The sun and moon are “the two great lights” to rule the day and the night (Gen. 1:6).
In these examples, God makes the sky with the purpose of separating the waters above from the waters below. God makes the dry land with the purpose of putting forth vegetation. God makes the two great lights with the purpose of ruling day and night. To make something, then, implies purpose. That purpose tells us about the object in question. For example, Christians believe like everybody else that the sun is a ball of nuclear gas that burns incredibly hot and shines and has lots of gravity. But because Christians believe God created the sun, we don’t understand its shiny, fiery qualities as purely random: they have a kind of purpose. The sun and its light are gifts from God.
In Genesis, we also read that God created “humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26). So, if the sky and earth and stars are invested with God’s purposes for them, then what is God’s purpose for human beings? Genesis gives us two answers: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing” (1:28). In Genesis 2, we read that “the Lord God…put [Adam] into the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15). We might add to these Jesus’ statement on the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). It seems reasonable to conclude that God’s purpose for human beings is three fold: love God, love each other, rule over and care for the earth.
Thus, we’ve already begun to answer our other question, “What is a human being?” For starters, a human being is a creature made by God for the purpose of loving God, loving our neighbors, and ruling over and caring for the rest of the earth. We know also that we are made in God’s image. Being made in God’s image means that God has given us the ability to make things of our own and to invest them with our purposes. Just as God creates with purpose, so, too, do human beings invent and design and build with purpose. God said, “Let there be light;” likewise, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
A brief tour around your kitchen will demonstrate the simple truth that we invent things with purposes. What is a blender? A thing that blends. What is a toaster? A thing that toasts. What is a cheese grater? You get the idea. We have made these objects with purposes in mind. There was a time when none of these objects were regular, mundane artifacts of human culture. But somewhere along the way we noticed that we desired to accomplish certain tasks, and so we put our made-in-God’s-image ingenuity to work and invented objects to facilitate those tasks.
With all this in mind, we can begin to answer the question, “What is a gun?” A gun is an object humanity has invented in order to end the lives of creatures. There was a time when guns did not exist, and then somewhere along the way we desired to end the lives of creatures. Thus, we invented spears, swords, bows and arrows, and eventually guns to accomplish that task. If a toaster is an object invented with the purpose of toasting, a gun is an object invented with the purpose of ending the life of a creature, whether that creature is a duck or an enemy soldier or a deranged criminal breaking into our homes.
Because the objects human beings invent are invested with our purposes, manmade objects are not morally neutral. You have heard it said, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That is true. But it’s no different than saying, “Microwaves don’t microwave; people microwave.” That is also true. But the microwave, like a gun, is invested with the purpose we gave it. A more honest sentence would read, “This life-ender doesn’t end lives; people end lives.”
In the bible, the ending of creaturely lives does not begin until after the fall: God makes clothes for Adam and Eve from the skin of an animal (which God has presumably killed) because Adam and Eve are ashamed of their nakedness (Genesis 3:21). Cain kills Abel not long after (4:8). It is not until Genesis 9:3 that God permits human beings (Noah and his family) to eat meat. One need not be a biblical literalist to conclude from these stories that the deliberate ending of creaturely lives is symptomatic of a fallen world, one that does not work as God intended it to work, and that we, not God, are responsible for this fact. Given that guns are intended to end the lives of creatures, it follows that guns exist because the world does not work as it should. And if this is true, it doesn’t make sense for Christians to claim a “God-given right” to own guns: guns are a symptom of human rebellion, not a divine institution. This is true on a corporate, humanity-wide level; none of us is innocent.
In my experience, gun owners like Russell and his dad, about whom I wrote last week, speak with honesty and seriousness about the world in which we find ourselves, a world in which lives are regularly taken and threatened, a world in which innocence is hard to come by. Their use and ownership of guns is not divorced from their sense of responsibility in, for, and to that world; it is part of their honesty about that world. The transmission of this responsibility and honesty across generations is what I witnessed in Russell’s living room when his dad was teaching him to take apart, clean, and reassemble his shotgun. It’s an honesty about, and a responsibility to own, the role we have created for ourselves.
A gun is a life-ender. That is its purpose. Given that our purpose as human beings is to love God, to love each other, and to rule over and care for the earth, it seems reasonable to suggest that Christians should begin with skepticism about the appropriateness of introducing guns into an environment simply because the situations in which human beings could fulfill our purpose by picking up a life-ender must be few. Furthermore, we should expect those situations to be ones in which the death of a creature is always an immediate possibility. It does not necessarily follow from all of this that guns never have a place; it does follow, however, that Christians cannot begin by claiming a ‘God-given right’ to guns and must therefore have other reasons for owning and using them.
I will try to address these other reasons next week. I’ll try to offer Christian language about the three places where guns as life-enders seem to be most frequently called upon: hunting, military and law enforcement, and self-defense. I’ll also try to address the non-lethal purposes we’ve learned to give guns, things like shooting clay targets (which, if you’ve never done, is quite a lot of fun).