Monday, February 25, 2013

Christian Faith and American Gun Control

           Consider the following scenario:  a man breaks into the house of another man, a Christian.  The Christian whose house is broken into is afraid, and gets the gun that he keeps in his house.  After shouting at the intruder, he takes aim and shoots him, killing him so that the intruder is pronounced dead on arrival when the police cart off the intruder’s body to the hospital.  A number of people in America and elsewhere would applaud the man with the gun for protecting his family, and would possibly argue that this is why gun control in America is problematic.  But what would the historic Christian Faith say?
            We know what St. Basil would say.  In his canonical epistle to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, he said, “He that wilfully commits murder and afterwards repents shall for twenty years remain without communicating in the Holy Mysteries.  Four years he must mourn outside the door of the church and beg that prayer be offered for him by the communicants that go in.  Then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers [who hear the Liturgy without receiving Holy Communion].  For seven years he shall be among those who prostrate [in church, without receiving Communion].  For four years he shall stand with the communicants but shall not partake of the Holy Communion.  When these years are completed [i.e. 20 years] he shall partake of the Holy Communion.”  Or, if one defines the act of shooting the intruder as involuntary homicide (i.e. the Christians householder did not actually mean to kill the intruder), then St. Basil has this to say:  “The involuntary murderer for two years shall be a mourner; for three years a hearer; four years a prostrator; one year stander; and then [after 10 years] shall receive be permitted to receive Holy Communion”.  In other words, in the opinion of St. Basil, the difference between voluntarily killing someone and involuntarily killing him is that the voluntary homicide is penanced by going 20 years without Holy Communion, and the one guilty of involuntary manslaughter only 10 years.  This was not too out of line with the patristic thought of his age:  the Council of Ancyra, meeting about 314 A.D., penanced voluntary homicides by making them prostrators (i.e. going without Holy Communion) until the end of their life, receiving the sacrament only on their death bed.  Involuntary homicide was penanced by the Council by saying that the offender should go without receiving Holy Communion for five years.
            From this one can see that the Fathers of that time took violence and the shedding of blood very seriously.  Admittedly in those early days there was a spectrum of opinion.  Some Fathers said that Christians could not shed blood ever, for any reason, including serving as soldiers in time of war.  Others later said that Christians could serve as soldiers and shed blood in the commission of their military duty—although even then they were subject to penance and abstinence from Holy Communion for a time.
Thus, for example, Arnobius, in his tract Against the Gentiles, wrote “We have learned from Christ’s teaching that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with the blood of another”.  The North African writer Tertullian wrote in his Apology “According to our teaching, it is more permissible to be killed than to kill.”   Even St. Augustine, who acknowledged the possibility of Christians being soldiers, wrote “As to killing others in order to defend one’s own life, I do not approve of this unless one happens to be a soldier acting not for himself but in defense of others, if he act according to the commission given to him.”  The consensus is clear:  historic Orthodox Christianity considered shedding blood to be an evil—sometimes a necessary evil, but always an evil.  It was never consistent with and expressive of the Christian Faith, and when it occurred it needed to be dealt with and healed by repentance and canonical abstinence from Holy Communion for a time as expressing this repentance.
Back to the original scenario:  what to do if an intruder invades one’s home.   For some people in America, the question is clear and admits of no moral ambiguity:  shoot the intruder with a clear conscience and with no regret.  Mr. Alex Jones, for example, boasts that he has more than 55 guns in his home and will sleep comfortably knowing that he can defend his family with them.  But voices as diverse as Tertullian and St. Augustine (who shared a North African provenance, but little else) give a different counsel:  “It is more permissible to be killed than to kill.”  “As to killing others in order to defend one’s own life, I do not approve of this.”  Admittedly they didn’t say much about killing to defend the life of others such as one’s wife and children.  But it seems clear enough that for them the homicide was fraught with moral ambiguity nonetheless. 
If America did not claim a Christian heritage and spiritual lineage, its enthusiasm for guns would present nothing exceptional.  Fallen man is a violent animal, and there is nothing surprising in his using violence against his fellows, either in criminal acts or in self-defense against such criminal acts.  From the days of Cain and Abel, violence is what we do, and all history has been lived out in the shadow of that primordial homicide.  We have, as a race, never lived as if we were our brother’s keeper.  The dilemma and puzzle comes with a Christian America.  The Christian Faith, as expressed by the Fathers, is committed to non-violence.  How is such a commitment consistent with a culture that delights in guns and in the serene willingness to use them against others?  As disciples of Jesus and citizens of the age to come, our fundamental charter is not the American Constitution with any of its amendments; it is the Kingdom of God and its Beatitudes.  To substitute the former for the latter as the supreme factor in our decision making is to render to Caesar the things which belong to God.  For secular Americans there can be no moral ambivalence in shooting an intruder to death.  But for Christian Americans the ambivalence remains.  The question is not primarily political, but spiritual.  And let us be clear:  when America and the whole world will have vanished in fire at the Second Coming of the Lord (2 Pt. 3:10), the spiritual dimensions of the question will stand revealed.  Our Lord does not care ultimately about America’s Second Amendment.  He cares about the people He created and loves.  As His children and disciples, this must be our primary concern too.


  1. Thank you for addressing this, father. I spoke with my priest about this very thing last week. It has been on my mind a lot as of late.

  2. Father,
    I enjoy your coffee cup commentaries very much. Thanks for all you do.

    Some of your words in this column are hard for me to hear. I consider myself a 'patriotic American' and love our constitution dearly (every amendment). Our founding strikes me as 'miraculous' in the context of other prior and current tyrannical systems of government. Then again our country is far from perfect and our moral decay troubles me greatly.

    Respectfully, I do not see moral ambiguity in protecting ones own family from an evildoer. If a man came into my home and threatened my beautiful and beloved wife and 5 year old daughters, I would have no qualms about pulling the trigger. I daresay God would understand and forgive whatever 'sin' there is in that.

    Doesn't God want us to protect the innocents? Wouldn't it have been justified to shoot Adam Lanza as he was murdering those children? Why should the church burden Christians with doubt or guilt over such a decision in these seemingly unambiguous circumstances?

    I know I could be wrong, but this is how I feel about it. Please pray for me that my understanding would mature.

  3. Thank you for your heartfelt comments. I agree that we have a moral duty to protect our families, and I agree that, in the hypothetical scenario I mentioned, it would perhaps be necessary to pull the trigger. But any shedding of blood involves some moral ambiguity and should be mourned, if only for the heartbreak caused to the family of the person shot. It is very easy, especially in such an emotionally-charged environment as that surrounding the debate on American gun control, to see things only in terms of “black” or “white”, “sinful” or “not sinful”. Our Orthodox tradition however offers us a more nuanced approach, allowing also for the category of “necessary evil”. Killing in war falls into this category: soldiers are required to kill on the field of battle, and yet are still subject to canonical penance for it. The penance is not meant to condemn them absolutely for their acts (which are acknowledged to be necessary); instead it functions to proclaim that the taking of human life is always tragic, even when it is necessary. It also serves to help keep the penanced soldier from hardening his heart, which taking a life could sometimes push him to do. I regard the regrettable necessity of shooting one who threatens one's family in the category of “necessary evil”--it perhaps must be done, but the necessity of doing it should still be mourned.
    Once again, thank you for your thoughtful comments!

  4. One anomaly that I find disturbing was recently brought to my attention by a correspondent in Texas; to the effect that the states with the greatest numbers of members of the NRA are in most cases also the states which have 'active' death penalties, and yet (curiously) are most vociferously in favour of reversing "Roe v. Wade" - the pro-abortion judgement.


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