Thursday, April 28, 2011

Garrett East on American Gun Ownership, Foreign Missions, and the Possibility of Martyrdom

Go check out my brother Garrett's post on the disconcerting attitudinal difference between American Christians' willingness to own guns "here at home" versus overseas in a missionary context, the implicit reasoning behind it, and the consequences for the church's witness. Garrett is a member of a team of families planning to move to Tanzania in two years, and at the moment he lives in west Texas where -- I can assure you! -- gun ownership on the part of Christians is both high and, shall we say, uncontested. In other words, this is an immediately relevant issue for him, but also more generally for all Christians in America. Here's a first set of questions he asks:
[H]ow many Christians in America live in such a way that martyrdom is impossible? That is, if a Christian owns a gun and believes that they are allowed to use it in self-defense, under what condition would they ever submit themselves to martyrdom? Or, would they always be unwilling to go down without a fight? Has Christian teaching about violence set up a situation in which the last thing any Christian would let happen to him or herself is to become a martyr? What if an outbreak of persecution took place today like that under Nero, Diocletian, or Galerius? Would Christians take up their crosses or their guns? Without arguing that all Christians should become pacifists, I do want to argue that all Christians should live in such a way that martyrdom is a live possibility for a life lived in faithfulness to God.
If you are interested in reading more, I wrote something similar a couple years ago, except as a critique of just war, called "'To No Good End': Requesting a Coherent Account of Martyrdom."

5 comments:

  1. An interesting issue. I suspect some of this is vocational: it does seem inappropriate for missionaries to have guns, whether in Africa or in America; whereas the more lay members of society, living the Great Commission seriously but not, as it were, professionally, might also include self-defense as part of their vocation. I think I would object to a missionary in America owning a firearm but not to a Christian businessman, say, who was bringing one with him to Tanzania. This is more or less what Aquinas implies, forbidding clerics but not all Christians from fighting.

    This doesn't get at the question of just war and martyrdom coexisting, nor at the point about gun owners' unreadiness for martyrdom, which is well made. It would be somewhat worrisome, for those who think that just war and martyrdom are logically consistent - and I am one - to find that the dispositions that produce good just warriors are inimical to the dispositions that produce good martyrs. At the very least we want them to be complementary. But then, if you'll allow me to question the ontological superiority of Texans, I suspect Texas gun ownership reflects the just war tradition less than it does a sort of visceral Americanism - and the two are by no means the same.

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  2. I went back and read your post from a year or two ago about the inability of just-war theorists to offer a coherent account of martyrdom. In many ways I agree with you, but I can't shake the voice of Bonhoeffer echoing in my ears. I wonder if motivation has something to do with defining a coherent account of martyrdom. Bonhoeffer himself offers an interesting case-study. He is often referred to in Christian (and even some non-Christian) circles as a martyr. And yet, he resorted to violence in his resistence to Hitler. I think we find in his life a caveat to the rule that the use of violence removes the possibility of martyrdom. Furthermore, Bonhoeffer's actions meet even the most stringent just-war criteria in that the bomb he helped plant endangered only those explicitly responsible for genocide. The overall point is that whenever our actions are motivated by self-preservation, its hard to make a claim of just-war, or beyond that martyrdom. To again use Bonhoeffer as an example, he was safe in New York when he decided to return to Germany and take up the fight against Hitler. As a write this, I also willingly acknowledge that Bonhoeffer is perhaps the exception that proves the rule you suggest. Most of the time we take up our weapons to defend ourselves against a perceived threat to ourselves, those we love, or our nation. As you said, this does seem to quietly nudge out any possibility of martyrdom. My only fear is that in embracing an entirely pacifist theology, we sometimes make martyrs of others who are entirely incapable of defending themselves, which begs a related and yet different question. Must one consciously choose martyrdom through the rejection of violence, or can we involuntarily become martyrs because the resort to violence was never possible, and thus never an option?

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  3. Ross: Do you know where your comment went? I'm re-posting it here since I'd like to respond to it.

    - - - - - - -

    An interesting issue. I suspect some of this is vocational: it does seem inappropriate for missionaries to have guns, whether in Africa or in America; whereas the more lay members of society, living the Great Commission seriously but not, as it were, professionally, might also include self-defense as part of their vocation. I think I would object to a missionary in America owning a firearm but not to a Christian businessman, say, who was bringing one with him to Tanzania. This is more or less what Aquinas implies, forbidding clerics but not all Christians from fighting.

    This doesn't get at the question of just war and martyrdom coexisting, nor at the point about gun owners' unreadiness for martyrdom, which is well made. It would be somewhat worrisome, for those who think that just war and martyrdom are logically consistent - and I am one - to find that the dispositions that produce good just warriors are inimical to the dispositions that produce good martyrs. At the very least we want them to be complementary. But then, if you'll allow me to question the ontological superiority of Texans, I suspect Texas gun ownership reflects the just war tradition less than it does a sort of visceral Americanism - and the two are by no means the same.

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  4. Justin: It seems that, in order to argue your position, you need to follow Augustine and say that martyrdom is a legitimate possibility because Christians are unwilling to defend themselves, but are willing to do so on behalf of others. I still think, per my original post, that it remains problematic to think through martyrdom in conjunction with just war, insofar as the very reasons in play for a war could involve religious reasons -- like, say, Christian Americans being responsible for profound injustice in another part of the world. What does it mean to defend oneself or one's society in response to that?

    Ross: Our divide is likely ecclesiological here, since I see no fundamental difference between formal missionaries and informal ones, or persons who live "at home" versus overseas. A Christian businessman living in the same city in which he grew up is, on my reading of the New Testament, a disciple of Christ sent to that place to be and to share God's good news -- i.e., a missionary. And part of that good news is the way of peace, and the willingness to lay down his life for the sake of others, even enemies.

    I appreciate your point in the second paragraph, and I laughed out loud at your last sentence. Thank you sir!

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  5. Brad, what about this as a working definition of the distinction between formal and informal missionaries (and ministers more broadly): formal ministers are "those who proclaim the gospel [and] should get their living by the gospel" (1Cor 9) - though, like Paul, they need not exercise that right - whereas informal ministers proclaim the gospel as part of a separate, remunerative profession?

    I don't necessarily want to make this ecclesiological, as I might on a stricter adherence to Aquinas, since I would consider your brother an ecclesiological layman but I agree that he shouldn't go armed.

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