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on gun rights, Armistice Day, and pacifism

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

(This is me on cold-meds and less-than-optimal internet access. So if things seem a bit more unfocused than normal, please do bear with me!)

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These last few days, it seems I’ve had violence on my mind. Not actual violence but news stories about violence. Part of it is Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day as we call it here in the US. (I like the symbolism of Armistice Day more myself, which strikes me as more inclusive of everyone who worked for peace, even though it’s limited to a single war.) Over at Patheos, the blogger Tony Jones is hosting a discussion on whether the Christian God is a God of peace or of war. And at least two FB friends have been talking about a UN gun control treaty that would both gut the Second Amendment and threaten American sovereignty.

So, yeah, I’ve had violence on my mind lately. I’m a pacifist who grew up in an area of the country where that wasn’t exactly cool (and a current college instructor at a school where many students are veterans), so news stories like this got me thinking.

Let’s start with the first item. I said there were two friends sharing this particular nugget, though I suspect there may be more; between being sick and having trouble with my wireless router I’m not exactly on top of internet things this week. Of the two I’ve seen, one (Judy) shared a link with several bullet-holes shot through the UN logo with the text:

Read what the treaty does (it’s sickening) here:

http://www.capitalisminstitute.org/un-gun/treaty/

Once the UN is able to regulate gun ownership, all bets are off. This is possibly the most important issue of the next decade. Please, spread awareness and help your friends know what’s at stake.

The only thing worse than federal gun control is UN gun control, because they’re even more unaccountable than federal tyrants.

The other item was from Brian, who argued for caution. I looked into the issue since then and because of the headcold I’m having a hard time remembering what Brian said and what I later found out on fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact. But the gist of the situation as I understand it is: there’s not a treaty, signed or unsigned by anyone in the US, and the only treaty even in development would restrict international trade in guns, no domestic gun ownership. (Snopes has a good run-down.)

I actually had a good discussion with a gun rights advocate in the commnts on Brian’s post, and it was much more low-key than you usually see on this subject. But towards the end I saw the absolutist opinion I see so often: that any restriction on gun ownership simply is unacceptable, that it rises to an existential threat. It’s the same mindset I’ve seen in the abortion movement from the pro-choice side – that any restriction on abortion was unacceptable. With both issues, I believe that the best position is to be found somewhere in the middle. My preferred starting place? Ask what purpose gun ownership/abortion access is supposed to serve, and see how the proposed law would affect that.

With gun rights, I’ve heard several different justifications. Some people point to the desire to hunt. I’m actually in favor of this, because it’s such a visceral experience – if you’re going to enjoy pre-butchered meat you owe it to the animal to experience its suffering, so you’re not inflicting cruelty on an animal all too easily. But you don’t need a semiautomatic to take down a deer. Then there’s the thought that you need guns to protect you against criminals. But as someone who actually learned to fire a gun once, I know how scary it is under the best of circumstances. It takes a lot of training to use a gun in self-defense, especially for rapid-fire guns. More often than not, an untrained shooter with a high-power gun will just make more victims. And on the last reason, that we have to be ready to protect ourselves against the government? Do yu really believe having a semi-automatic gun against a country with drones and massive bombs would do any good? So, while I believe in the Second Amendment, I don’t think reasonable restrictions on gun ownership are a major problem here. (Though to be fair, I’m equally interested – if not more – in getting the U.S. to actually enforce its existing laws.)

Interestingly enough, the UN treaty being discussed – and we don’t even have a finished draft here, remember – isn’t about domestic ownership. Based on the capitalisminstitute.org link above, you’d think they were overturning the second amendment. But as far as I know (and anyone with actual legal experience here, please correct me) the US can’t enforce a treaty, even one we’ve signed, that violates the Constitution. If the rights you’re concerned about really are implied by the Second Amendment, there’s not a treaty that could take those away. This treaty would only have force in the US if we signed on to it in the normal ways (executive branch signs, legislative ratifies), and even then the treaty being proposed would just mean we couldn’t import guns. The US has a much greater ability to manufacture weapons domestically than other countries do, so I’d consider this treaty a win for foreign policy and at worst a draw for gun rights (it doesn’t restrict domestic gun rights).

Which brings me to the second item: Armistice Day. On days set aside to honor the military, a lot of people forward pictures and statuses honoring the armed forces. Some people who are uncomfortable with the militarism will do the same thing but for everyone who works for the public good – nurses, firemen, and the like. Both of these approaches make me uncomfortable. When I commented saying I felt conflicted by all this, one person said that one of the things those servicemen had fought and died for was my right to be conflicted. And in a way they did, no questions asked. That’s why I’m uncomfortable equating military service with any other kind of public service. What bothers me is this idea that the military option is the only way to defend freedom.

Whatever you think about American exceptionalism, we’re an exceptional target in one important way: we attract terrorist attacks, and not just from our immediate neighbors but from halfway around the globe. Canada is almost never the object of terrorist attack. Nor is Germany or France or the U.K. (I’m discounting the July 2007 subway bombings, not because they’re insignificant but because they were domestic attacks rather than international ones. American troops haven’t been the only ones fighting in the Middle East this last year, but we’ve certainly been the most common target of terrorist blowback. And in nearly every way, I feel less secure, not more, than I did twelve years ago. When you teach injured vets (injured psychologically and physically), when you know – no matter how distantly – people who have actually died in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking off your shoes at the airport seems a small price to pay. But it’s not insignificant. Nor is the mounting deficit driven by the cost of these unpaid-for wars, and the way that poisons today’s politics.

I want to honor the unique sacrifice the veterans I know have made. And as odd as this will sound, the best way I know to do this is to make them redundant – or at least as redundant as possible. That means not only fighting wars but using the messier, softer diplomacy that makes them unnecessary. It means not letting the more industrialized countries produce and sell guns to societies that aren’t really ready for them, like Syria and Lebanon. It means being very, very conscious of the damage weapons can do and having a damned good reason not to regulate their sale. A reason that can’t be satisfied any other way. It means ratcheting down the fear and focusing instead on facts. While I don’t think the UN weapons-sale ban would be the death-toll for Second Amendment rights, I do wholeheartedly believe it would help save American soldiers’ lives. And I know that talking about it not from a position of fear but more rationally is the best way I know to make sure those soldiers’ sacrifice mean something.

Which leaves me with the last question: as a Christian, do I serve a god of peace or a god of war? If I’m being completely honest with myself, I have to admit it’s a bit of both. The same Christ who told Peter to put away his sword, the same God who foresaw a time when the nations would beat their swords into ploughshares, is also the God who commanded the Israelites to make vicious, horrible war against the Canaanites and other peoples. You can find military metaphors in the New Testament as well, like where Paul describes the Christian as “having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel pof peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” (Eph 6:14-16, NKJV) He also writes about the “helmet of salvation, the Sword of the Spirit” – and these are military metaphors. As much as it goads me, I can’t help wondering why I claim to be so much more committed to peace than the God I claim to serve.

I could explain away these verses, maybe using a strategy along the same lines as the one employed by Muslims who say “jihad” really means struggle including a kind of inner struggle. But I don’t think that would really be honest. This world is imperfect, and there are people who will try to use power to oppress the weak. We must be ready to defend those people and, when there’s no other way, I can see war being justified on some small scale. The thing is, unlike with ancient warfare, modern warfare just doesn’t happen on a small scale, and it never ends. That is the real motivating factor behind my pacifism. When people are more willing to bomb a community (even target-bomb as with drones) than they are to examine their own behavior, that war is almost always going to be unjust.

Being a pacifist doesn’t really mean I have to be weak. In my case it comes from a conviction that physical violence, like profanity, is about as effective as physical, corporal punishment as a way to raise your kids right. It may be necessary in extreme cases to shock us out of bad habit, but as a long-term tool? I wouldn’t depend on it. And that’s the hardest, scariest thing about my kind of pacifism: while I would rather die than fire a gun myself, I can’t claim with 100% certainty that someone else’s firing that gun isn’t necessary. There’s a funny relationship between peace and war, and I do believe that in some circumstances a little bit of war is the best catalyst for peace you could ask for.

Does this make me a hypocrite? I don’t think so. It just means I recognize the… complexity going on here. It’s also why I insist that any just war must must MUST have an exit strategy – a way to minimize the use of force and shift to other, better methods of persuasion like diplomacy, trade relations, education, and other methods of building a world more driven by peace.

Btw, there’s of course the theodicy elephant in the room to this whole question. How can I worship a God that would command the slaughter of women and children? I won’t insult anyone by giving a hard-and-fast answer while on cold meds; I’m simply not up to that challenge right now, physically But I didn’t want to act like it’s not a problem, because it is. I’m hoping that owning up to the seriousness there is better than just passing it by unmentioned.

Anyway – what are your thoughts on Veterans/Armistice Day? Should we honor our military troops specially? If so, how?

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