I am not a political person. I do not follow, say, political campaigns, or the ins and outs of various pieces of legislation, as closely as some of my friends do. But I am a religious person. Many of my political opinions, then, are formed by my religious ideals: for example, a commitment to help the poor and marginalized, a desire for a peaceful world, and a respect for the sanctity of life from natural conception to natural death.
That is why I believe that gun control is a religious issue. It is as much of a “life issue” or a “pro-life issue,” as some religious people say, as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I am against), and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy (which I am for). There is a “consistent ethic of life” that views all these issues as linked, because they are.
All of these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who that person is, no matter at what stage of life that person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is “deserving” of life. The issues just mentioned of course are very different. To take the most obvious example, the agonizing decisions surrounding euthanasia, with which loving families are sometimes confronted, are not to be equated with the twisted decisions of a mass murderer. But they are all, in one way or another, actions that impinge on the sanctity of human life. God gives life to every person, and that life is holy.
In the wake of last week’s tragedy in Colorado many were moved to prayer. With them I mourn the loss of all who died in the shootings. I pray for the victims, that they may rest with God; for the victims’ families and friends, that they may feel God’s consolation; and for the perpetrator, that he have true remorse and somehow be reconciled with God and with those to whom he brought such misery.
But our revulsion over these crimes, and our sympathy for victims, may be more than an invitation to prayer. Such deep emotions may be one way that God encourages us to act. Simply praying, “God, never let this happen again” is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change. It would be as if one passed a homeless person and said to oneself, “God, please help that poor man,” when all along you could have helped him yourself.
These shootings would not have happened if the shooter did not have such easy access to firearms and ammunition. So religious people need to be invited to meditate on the connection between the more traditional “life issues” and the overdue need for stricter gun control. The oft-cited argument, “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” seems unconvincing. Of course people kill people; as people also procure abortions, decide on euthanasia and administer the death penalty. Human beings are agents in all these matters. The question is not so much how lives are ended, but how to make it more difficult to end lives.
Pro-life religious people need to consider how it might be made more difficult for people to procure weapons that are not designed for sport or hunting or self-defense. Why would anyone be opposed to firmer gun control, or, to put it more plainly, laws that would make it more difficult for mass murders to occur? If one protests against abortions clinics because they facilitate the taking of human life, why not protest against largely unregulated suppliers of firearms because they facilitate the taking of human life as well?
There are some cogent arguments against restricting access to firearms. People enjoy guns for sport and hunting. The Second Amendment permits the private ownership of guns (though I doubt that the need for a “well-regulated militia” envisioned by the framers of the Constitution translates into easy access to assault weapons.) But there is nothing to say that more stringent gun control laws that could prevent such horrible crimes cannot be judiciously balanced with constitutional rights.
The Christian outlook on this of course has less to do with self-defense and more to do with the defense of the other person. Jesus asks us to love our enemies, not to murder them; to pray for them, not to take vengeance; and he commends the peacemakers among us, not those advocating for more and more and more weapons.
Was Jesus naïve? I wonder about that. I often marvel how some Christians can say that in one breath, and proclaim him as the Son of God in the next. Apparently, some believe that the Second Person of the Trinity didn’t know what he was talking about. But Jesus lived in a violent time himself, under the heel of Roman rule in an occupied land, when human life was seen as cheap. Jesus witnessed violence and was himself the victim of violence—the most famous person to suffer the death penalty. It was not only divine inspiration but also human experience that led him to say: Blessed are the peacemakers.
Why am I saying this now? Not because I want to score political points. But because this week’s shootings horrified me, and reminded me of the need for religious people who stand for life, and for churches who stand for life, to stand for life at all times. Why haven’t I written as much on other life issues? Because the Catholic church’s stance on most of those issues is well known. By contrast, religious leaders have seemed relatively silent on this other life issue. Perhaps it is the kairos, as Jesus said: the right time, in this case for religious people to pray about these issues in a new light.
This stance will most likely be unpopular politically. Some on the political right will object my stance on firmer gun control. Some of the political left will object to my stance on abortion. But that doesn’t bother me, because I am not political. I am religious. And so I am for the sanctity of life. Therefore, I am for stricter gun-control laws that will protect lives, not end them.
James Martin, SJ | Jul 22 2012