Guns and Killing (Part 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


This article is the third in Robin’s ongoing series about guns and killing. To read the earlier articles in the series, click on the following links:

Killing Wounds the Soul

A friend recently told me about an experience her daughter recounted upon her return from an Eastern Orthodox youth retreat. In response to a question about violent video games, a priest shared the experience of an Orthodox military chaplain who had served in one of our country’s recent military actions overseas.

Given the fact that there were numerous chaplains available from other Christian groups and very few Eastern Orthodox soldiers, it was a surprise to learn how popular the Orthodox chaplain had been among the soldiers stationed there.

These soldiers were gripped by the horror of taking human life, and the Orthodox chaplain was the only one who met the men where they were at and affirmed that grief was an appropriate reaction for what they had done. Though the soldiers were serving their country with honor, and though they were not sinning to kill enemy combatants, the Orthodox chaplain understood that taking another life still leaves a wound on the soul.

By contrast, I am told that the other Christian chaplains were content to merely assuage the soldiers by repeating they had done nothing wrong, reminding them that they were doing their duty and encouraging them not let be troubled by their experiences. Only the Orthodox priest had a clear understanding of the tragedy of our human condition together with an appreciation of the pain that death properly brings. By facing and identifying with the sorrow the soldiers felt, he able to help them grapple with the reality of our fallen humanity and experience the healing and redemption Christ brings.

Killing Is Never Unambiguously Good

I opened with that story because it highlights an important point that has tended to be overlooked in all the recent debate about guns and killing, namely that taking another life wounds the soul.

Speaking as a supporter of America’s gun lobby, I find that it is sometimes easy to get so swept up in defending the right to bear arms that we forget what a tragic thing it is to kill another human being. In situations where homicide is legitimate, and even in situations where it would be a sin not to kill someone (for example, if I have to kill in order to defend my family), the tragedy of taking another human life still leaves a spiritual scar on the soul and should never be taken lightly. This spiritual scaring is in addition to the psychological damage such as shock and trauma.

Again, this is something that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has generally understood, though sadly Eastern Orthodox lay people have not always put this teaching into practice throughout history (indeed, the history of Eastern Christianity is just as bloodthirsty as Western Christianity).

In his article ‘Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,’ Father Philip LeMasters writes that Orthodox canon law has maintained “the recognition of the spiritual gravity of taking life in war. St Basil the Great recommended that those who kill in war should abstain from taking communion for three years. Soldiers were not sanctioned with nearly the same severity as murderers, but were given time to repair the damage done to their souls by killing through a period of repentance before communing. This canon may never have been applied strictly, and clearly has often been ignored in the practice of the church. Still, it stands as a reminder that war is not unambiguously good; the taking of the life of a fellow human being is a grave matter that threatens to impair one’s relationship with the Lord, the church and one’s neighbours.”

We might legitimately question Saint Basil’s recommendations, since those Christians who have had to kill are probably in great need of the Eucharist to help facilitate spiritual cleansing. This may be why the church has never strictly applied this canon. Nevertheless, it stands as a reminder that all killing, even when it is ethically justified, leaves behind spiritual scar tissue.

Father Philip LeMasters went on to explain how the Biblical doctrine of deification (theosis) lay behind the Orthodox understanding that killing is never unambiguously good:

“The vocation of humanity is for deification, participation in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Human beings are to become by grace all that God is by nature. A common image for theosis is an iron left in a fire until it takes on the qualities of the fire. It then glows red hot and transmits heat to anything that it touches. Likewise, human beings are called to shine with the light and life of God, to participate fully in the healing and fulfillment that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world. All are called to embrace and be transformed by the holiness of God, to become saints.

“In this light, it is not hard to see why warfare, and any taking of human life, is fraught with spiritual peril. Death comes into the world as the result of sin. Christ has come to conquer death, to raise humanity to the eternal life for which humanity was created. To kill a human being is to do the work of death, to involve oneself in a paradigmatic act of spiritual brokenness and of estrangement from God and neighbour. Granted, some instances of killing may be tragically necessary, such as the actions of a soldier in defending his or her nation from invasion by a conquering power. Killing in such circumstances may be understood in light of the Orthodox category of ‘involuntary sin’, which includes actions that damage the soul despite the fact that they are done without malice and out of necessity. The church knows that killing does not have to be murder for it to be spiritually damaging.”

Trivializing Violence

To affirm the damage that killing does to the soul is separate to the issue of whether killing is justified or sinful in any given situation.

As I talk to Christians about various ethical issues, one of the things I find frustrating (and which I wrote about last year) is that people are often unable to talk about the right ordering of human behavior outside the narrow categories of right and wrong or sin. The standard assumption is often that if a thing is not explicitly sinful, then it is fitting in every sense and can be unambiguously embraced.

When this simplistic approach to ethics is applied to the question of killing, this often results in Christian gun activists feeling justified in trivializing, and sometimes even glorifying, the tragedy of killing.  In the rest of this article I wish to examine three areas where I see this happening.

“Go ahead, make my day”

One area where individuals within the pro-gun lobby have been guilty of encouraging a culture of violence can be seen in the “make my day” bravado that I briefly touched upon towards the end of my previous article.

Ever since President Obama began discussing tighter gun control laws, numerous individuals have been threatening the government with a “come and get me” attitude, as epitomized by the slogan “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

If this type of approach is not sufficiently balanced with a proper understanding about the tragedy of killing, then it gives the gun lobby a bad name, for it suggests they are trigger-happy and rearing for a fight.

Sadly, I have personal experience with gun activists who adopt this trigger happy approach. Just last month I was at a meeting about guns and afterwards a friend told me that he had come within an inch of shooting a man he considered a threat, even though the man hadn’t actually pulled a gun on him or even reached for it. When I questioned my friend further about it, he said he would have been perfectly justified to kill this person because of a threatening email he had sent. I wish I could say that this trigger-happy approach is an anomaly, but sadly it is not.

Pacifism vs. non-violence

Earlier I made it clear that I am not a pacifist. But that doesn’t mean I am against non-violent solutions to problems. Just as a person need not be a vegetarian to recognize that it is sometimes preferable to abstain from meet, so a person does not need to be a pacifist to recognize that sometimes non-violence is the preferable option. This is because there is a difference between pacifism as an ideology and strategic non-violence.

In the early church, non-violence was widely practiced. Martyrs like Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin Martyr and many others looked upon it as an honor to die for Christ and they even turned down opportunities to escape or defend themselves. However, the early church never crystalized the practice of non-violence into a rigid ideology. If they had, then we would expect to see men like Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul telling Roman soldiers to forsake the army. Instead, these teachers instructed soldiers to serve God within the army.

In American society, the opportunities to testify for Christ through non-violence will obviously be less than in the early church. This is because our society expects citizens to help keep our communities safe, and everyone has a statutory duty to intervene to protect law and order. While this is a blessing, it can make it easy to overlook the fact that sometimes the most powerful way to submit to Christ is to endure violence without resistance. At the heart of our faith stands the cross, where Jesus Himself willingly surrendered to his attackers instead of engaged in accts of self-defense.

Again, as I talk to different Christians within the pro-gun lobby, I find a reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-violence. This perspective was encapsulated by one Christian teacher who wrote on the internet that failure to defend oneself makes a person complicit in his own suicide. By that standard, Jesus Himself was a murderer.

Violent Entertainment Technologies

A final area where individuals within the gun lobby perpetuate a culture of violence is in the approach they take to violent entertainment, especially computer games.

I realize I am generalizing here, but in North Idaho where I live, being pro-gun often goes hand in hand with an ambivalence concerning the damage caused by violent computer games. Some Christian parents even encourage their sons to play violent first-person shooters in order to help toughen them up. But violent computer games do not simply make children tough: it makes them hardened, desensitized to the tragedy of death, and sometimes even brutal.

Kiku Adatto, author of the book Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op, recounted an intriguing incident that underscores this concern. In an interview with Ken Myers for the Mars Hill Audio Journal 96, Adatto related the following:

“Another very troubling point is a story that one of my students told me, somebody in their mid-twenties who was fighting in Iraq and he was leading a group of troops and he was very concerned that they would be afraid maybe to fire their guns, the horror of war. And he discovered just the opposite, that everybody was quite trigger-happy and quite eager to shoot. And he attributed that to the pervasive use of video games, and playing video games for this generation, watching these increasingly violent movies as well as violent video games.”

In a future article I will explore some of the specific evidence linking violent computer games to desensitization. For now, I’d like to simply suggest that the solution to all three of the problems I have explored (the “make my day” mentality, the rejection of strategic non-violence, and the uncritical embrace of violent computer games) is a recovery of the Orthodox teaching that killing is never unambiguously good and inevitably scars the human soul.