The Modern Sacrament of Freedom

Having recently written on the god-like aspirations of contemporary technological development in relation to the problem of GM food, I was struck by Richard Bauckham’s critique of a far more prosaic manifestation of the same temptation—the car.  In chapter 2 of his wonderful God and the Crisis of Freedom, he has this to say about that infernal contraption:

“The modern dream of freeing humanity to be whatever we choose to be by transcending all limits has, of course, produced the ecological crisis.  This has exposed the myth as a dangerous fantasy.  The attempt to transcend all limits has brought us up against the undeniable finitude of the creation to which we belong.  We cannot reject limits without destroying the creation on which we depend.  We cannot make ourselves gods, independent of the rest of nature, supreme over it, molding it into whatever future we choose.  But the habit of trying is not easy to break.  Modern humanity is addicted to the freedom that rejects all limits.

There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car.  Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it.  We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons.  Some also navigate through picturesquely narrow streets.  Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible.  They give independence, freedom to be entirely one’s own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others.  They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road.  They give the feeling of control over one’s destiny.  This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one.  But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others.  The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances.  But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value.  Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic.  Motorways become car parks.  Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends.  Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys.  The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel.  Again typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community.   Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.”

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 1

Alison Joyce’s recently-published Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a landmark work in Hooker studies and promises to be a touchstone for discussions in years to come.  That said, this ringing endorsement is as much a criticism of the incomplete, scattered, and occasionally incoherent state of Hooker scholarship as it is a complement to Joyce, for this book is not without significant flaws.  It is, truth be told, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde of a book, with two quite distinct objectives tossed together between two covers, without much attempt to tie the two together within a single argument.  

The first of these objectives, which is to provide a systematic survey of the logic of Hooker’s moral theology, beginning with his account of human nature, progressing through his view of the relative authorities of Scripture and reason in moral reasoning, his account of how moral principles are discerned and operate, and his use of casuistry, is by and large effective.  It is not, on the whole, bold or groundbreaking, contenting itself instead with tracking very closely with Hooker’s text, from which Joyce quotes copiously.  Yet, as I am aware of no other book that provides this kind of systematic walk-through of the key pillars of Hooker’s moral theology, the survey is valuable.  There are, to be sure, several points of interpretation that warrant criticism, which I will flag as they arise.  

The second objective, hinted at in chs. 1-2, foregrounded in ch. 3, and making intermittent appearances thereafter, is to mount a polemic against Torrance Kirby and the school of interpretation that argues for a Reformed Hooker.  While occasionally helpful in identifying oversimplifications within this interpretation, Joyce’s arguments here consist by and large of straw men and non-sequiturs, as we shall have occasion to critique in detail throughout this review.  Moreover, her arguments in this regard usually do not follow clearly from her systematic survey—instead, we find arguments like this: “I’ve just shown that Hooker relies heavily on Thomistic categories in his account of the different varieties of law; therefore, Kirby is clearly wrong that he is aligning himself with the magisterial Reformers.”  This only follows if the magisterial Reformers rejected these Thomistic categories, which by and large, they didn’t.  

Over the next couple weeks, I hope to work through the eight chapters of this book in a series of posts, using this as an opportunity to elucidate both the structure of Hooker’s thought, and the problems with contemporary Hooker scholarship—some of which Joyce avoids, but some of which she exemplifies.  Here, I shall quite concisely cover chapter 1, “Introduction,” and chapter 2 “Hooker in Historical Context.”

In her introductory chapter, Joyce surveys briefly the place of Hooker within the development of Anglican moral theology as a whole, and the diverse ways he has been appropriated.  This is a balanced and useful section, on the whole, acknowledging the anachronism or imprecision of various concepts often attributed to Hooker, such as the famous Anglican “three-legged stool.”  However, while acknowledging that there may be some anachronism in the very concept of Anglicanism at this period as a via media and in Hooker as a formulator of it, Joyce appears oblivious to the extent to which her own determination of context—Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology—has set the terms of her interpretation in a way that a priori leaves key issues out of consideration.  By choosing to narrate Hooker as a distinctively Anglican thinker, within a distinctively Anglican tradition (one which he is taken to have essentially started), Joyce de facto accepts, despite her protestations, the old via media account, and also relieves herself of the responsibility to engage in any detail with Reformed moral theologians antecedent to and contemporary with Hooker.  

Her introductory chapter issues two prominent promissory notes about the method which she will follow, and we should take note of them here, so that we can trace throughout whether she makes good on them.  First, she tells us that

“the principle aim of this book is, therefore, to examine in detail the moral dimension of the writings of Richard Hooker in its own terms, and attempt to set this within the broader context of his theological thought.  It is this, rather than any attempt to argue for (or against) the continued relevance and lasting authority of his thought, that will provide the chief focus of its concerns, in an endeavor to avoid some of the more serious difficulties and distortions that have characterized certain earlier studies. . . . It is intended that this volume, which sets out to examine Hooker’s moral theology in its own terms, with no investment in claiming his perspectives for any particular theological, ecclesiological, or moral tradition, will provide a clearer and more informed understanding of Hooker’s work in general, as well as his specific contribution to Anglican moral theology.” (15)

In other words, Joyce is seeking to occupy a very Hookerian sort of high ground when it comes to interpreting Hooker—unlike other writers, she will be impartial, objective, interested only in the truth of the matter, without any eye to contemporary controversies.  In short, she will seek to be the sort of writer that Hooker has often been presented as, timeless, objective, and unruffled.  It is ironic, then, that her second methodological objective is to puncture this portrait of Hooker, to show that in fact his objective persona is a rhetorical construction, and he is in fact very polemically motivated:

“Fundamental to this entire enterprise will be a careful evaluation of the nature of Hooker’s prose style and mode of argumentation, including in particular his use of rhetoric and irony.  As we shall see in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, it is instructive to observe how often Hooker’s text has been misinterpreted by commentators who fail to take adequate account of this aspect of his writing.” (15)  

“One of the reasons why Hooker has been subject to such divergent interpretations throughout the history of his reception is that the tone of his work is often disputed, particularly in those instances where some commentators take his words at face value, while others discern an irony that, in effect, renders his meaning the precise opposite of that stated.” (17)  

As will become clear in the following chapters, by “some commentators” she has in mind primarily Torrance Kirby and his allies.  In other words, just as she thinks Hooker pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda, so her book pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in principle—part of what I will argue in response to her Chapter 3 is that the ideal of “objectivity” shorn of polemical objective is itself not merely anachronistic but absurd.  The question about her polemic, then, will be how well it hits home.

What about her objective of reading Hooker “in his own terms”?  This sounds like a laudable goal; however, it is rather unhelpful to try to interpret a historical thinker only with reference to himself, rather than with reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he is working and the thinkers he is responding to.  Thankfully, in chapter 2, Joyce declares that “the importance of reading Hooker in light of that context cannot be over-emphasized” and complains that “one of the problems that has bedeviled much Hooker scholarship in recent years is the extent to which his work has been lifted out of its historical setting and mined for insights or quotations that are deemed to be of relevance to the Church in the modern world, with inadequate reference to, or acknowledgement of, the original context of his writings.”  Given the importance of this historical context, it is notable, and troubling, that Joyce devotes a scant 25 pages to sketching the history of Elizabethan England and its theological controversies, introducing the puritan and conformist polemics that made up the background for and occasion of Hooker’s own writing, narrating the life of Richard Hooker and how the Lawes came to be written, and outlining the overall structure of the Lawes.  Were Joyce to engage in frequent asides later on in the text to relate Hooker to Cartwright or Calvin or Bancroft or Bullinger, this quick fly-by might be adequate, but as it is, this is pretty much all we get as far as historical and theological context.  

A fully adequate account of Hooker’s context would include at least the following: (1) a consideration of medieval scholasticism; (2) a consideration of other 16th-century English moral theologians; (3) a consideration of other 16th-century Protestant theologians, particularly the more scholastically-inclined, such as Melanchthon, Vermigli, and Zanchius, but also of course the Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger; (4) a consideration of 16th-century Catholic theologians, such as Suarez; (4) a consideration of the Elizabethan establishment and its controversies; (5) a close consideration of the theological commitments of both Puritans and conformists; (6) an account of Hooker’s own life, and the events that led up to the writing of the Lawes.  What Joyce offers us here is only a highly-condensed version of (4) and (5), with (5) in particular making little effort to investigate the theologies of the disputants, and a fairly adequate account of (6).  (1) appears in bits and pieces in the following chapters, as Hooker’s relation to Aquinas in particular is frequently discussed.  Now, it is probably asking too much for any one book to cover all six of these bases thoroughly, but given Joyce’s ambitious aim to provide a systematic overview of Hooker’s thought in the context of his own era, one would have hoped for a bit more.  The lack of (3), in particular, proves harmful at later points in the exposition.

Although the sins in this chapter are primarily those of omission, rather than commission, there are a two of the latter worth mentioning.  On page 23, she says that

“Many of those who had returned from exile [in 1559] brought with them hopes of a new life within a fully Protestant regime; in this context, Lake has noted the particular appeal of a presbyterianism based on the Geneva model.  Their frustration at finding in the Elizabethan Settlement an English Reformation that remained only partial and, in their view, awaiting its completion, fueled their calls for further reform.”  

This narrative manages to almost entirely remove the 1560s from the historical record—the events of this decade occupy only a single sentence before Joyce goes on to describe the aggressive promotion of Presbyterianism in the 1570s.  In point of fact, although a number of exiles did return from Geneva in 1559, there is little evidence of any real push for Presbyterianism at this time; unsurprising, since Calvin himself had no real problem with the English episcopate.  That came later, as a reaction against the bishops’ perceived role in the Vestiarian Controversy.  That is to say, it was as a response to the trials of conscience created by controversies over “things indifferent” that Puritanism initially emerged, not as a Genevan presbyterian colony in England.  Recognition of this could help provide at key points a fuller account of Hooker’s apologetic purpose than Joyce is able to offer.

Likewise, on p. 37, we have one of the strongest of Hooker’s polemicism, a hint of what is to follow in ch. 3:

“Interestingly, Knox is at pains to stress that the conflict between Hooker and Travers was not personal, stressing the mutual respect that, in his view, they appear to have had.  However, aside from the fact that it is questionable how far the tone of the recorded comments upon which Knox bases this judgment was anything other than purely politic, I shall be demonstrating in the following chapter that both Bauckham and Knox significantly underestimate the vitriol that Hooker was capable of directing against his opponents, thinly disguised as it was under a carefully constructed literary persona of cool, objective rationality. . . . It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the force that drove the specifically polemical aspects of his writing was, at some level, deeply personal.  Indeed, as MacCulloch has observed: ‘One of the major and admirable features of his work is that he was not out to please anyone: he was an unusually wealthy clergyman who had apparently turned away from the clerical career ladder, and he seems to have written to satisfy himself.'”

It is striking here how Joyce has managed to turn MacCulloch’s compliment into an insult. Where MacCulloch means that Hooker undertook the Lawes for the sake of his own intellectual satisfaction regarding the issues at stake, and out of genuine loyalty to the Church that was being impugned, Joyce manages to narrate it as if he wrote out of personal bitterness and vindictiveness against Walter Travers and other Puritans.  There is no evidence for this, even if the evidence to the contrary may be dismissed by saying that such remarks were “purely politic.”  It is worth observing here the prevalence of this hermeneutical method in contemporary scholarship—anything kind or generous that a writer says about an opponent must be read as “purely politic,” disguising their true feelings, and anything critical they say must be read as personal vindictiveness.  Whether the charge of vitriol—”cruel and bitter criticism”—can be sustained, we will decide in the following chapter.  However, for now it is worth noting Alexander Rosenthal’s helpful observation in this regard:

“Hooker regards the contentions of the extreme Calvinist party as involving dangers of the utmost gravity. . . .  At the same time he strives on a principle of charity to distinguish between the error and the personal sincerity of those who err. . . . A fair approach would be to accept that Hooker does not endeavor to judge the motives and intentions of his opponents (whose earnestness he is prepared to concede), but finds that the issues, which divide them, are pregnant with profound implications for the theology and indeed the polity of the English church and commonwealth.” (Crown Under Law, 4)

Rosenthal, I think, overstates his case a bit here—Hooker was human, like all of us, and quite able to fall prey to the temptation of insinuating evil motives of his adversaries at points.  But I think Rosenthal is right about his overall goal.  His polemic is directed at his adversaries’ dangerous ideas, rather than at his adversaries themselves.  We will have occasion to consider this much more closely in the review of Joyce’s third chapter.

Evils Must Be Cured by Their Contraries?

We theologians (yes, that includes me) are often tempted to justify a one-sided indulgence of our pet theological themes or rhetorical outbursts directed against one particular set of bogeymen by insisting that one cannot afford to be “balanced” when trying to correct an existing imbalance—one must lean hard in the opposite direction.  If you think your tradition is too word-centered, you go all-out sacramental and ignore the Word.  If it’s too sacerdotalist, you go all-out on preaching and faith and ignore the sacraments.  If it’s too antinomian, you talk up the Epistle of James and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  If it’s too legalistic, you only ever talk about free grace.  

While this might make sense as a temporary pastoral strategy for an individual minister seeking to rectify the imbalances of his particular congregation, it works less well as an overall theological policy, since it is more likely simply to engender even more radical one-sidedness, as Richard Hooker points out in a perceptive passage.  Addressing the Puritan claim that “evils must be cured by their contraries,” that an imbalanced repudiation of all traditional ritual is the best way to cure the temptation to popery, he declares,

“We are contrariwise of opinion, that he which will recover a sick and restore a diseased body unto health, must not endeavour so much to bring it to a state of simple contrariety, unto those evils which are to be cured.  He that will take away extreme heat by setting the body in extremity of cold, shall undoubtedly remove the disease, but together with it the diseased too.  The first thing therefore in skilful cures is the knowledge of the part affected; the next is of the evil which doth affect it; the last is not only of the kind but also of the measure of contrary things whereby to remove it. . . . 

“They reply, that to draw men from great excess, it is not amiss though we use them unto somewhat less than is competent; and that a crooked stick is not straightened unless it be bent as far on the clean contrary side, that so it may settle itself at the length in a middle estate of evenness between both.  But how can these comparisons stand them in any stead?  When they urge us to extreme opposition against the church of Rome, do they mean we should be drawn unto it only for a time, and afterwards return to a mediocrity? or was it the purpose of those reformed churches, which utterly abolished all popish ceremonies, to come in the end back again to the middle point of evenness and moderation.  Then have we conceived amiss of their meaning.  For we have always thought their opinion to be, that utter inconformity with the church of Rome was not an extremity whereunto we should be drawn for a time, but the very mediocrity itself wherein they meant we should ever continue.  Now by these comparisons it seemeth clean contrary, that howsoever they have bent themselves at first to an extreme contrariety against the Romish church, yet therein they will continue no longer than only till such time as some more moderate course for establishment of the Church may be concluded.  

“. . . They have seen that experience of the former policy, which may cause the authors of it to hang down their heads.  When Germany had stricken off that which appeared corrupt in the doctrine of the church of Rome, but seemed nevertheless in discipline still to retain therewith very great uniformity; France by that rule of policy which hath been before-mentioned, took away the popish orders which Germany did retain.  But process of time hath brought more light into the world; whereby men perceiving that they of the religion in France have also retained some orders which were before in the church of Rome, and are not commanded in the word of God, there hath arisen a sect in England, which following still the very selfsame rule of policy, seeketh to reform even the French reformation, and purge out from thence also dregs of popery.  These have not taken as yet such root that they are able to establish any thing.  But if they had, what would spring out of their stock, and how far the unquiet wit of man might be carried with rules of such policy, God doth know.”

Leithart’s Eucharistic Politics

Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.”  The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts.  I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.

In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.”  Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences.  For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.  

However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally.  Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide.  But what exactly?

One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast  is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space.  But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics.  The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”).  Here’s what he says about it:

“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).

Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post.  In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one.  Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist.  This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics.  The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance.  First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice.  Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him.  In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom.  This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way).  But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting.  Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment.  In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power.  Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.  

But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now.  They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see.  The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness.  Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications.  On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book.  Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth.  But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this.  Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.”  In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world.  The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them.  (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.)  Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word.  This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding).  Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.  

Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up?  There are six, by my count.

First, page 40.

“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer.  It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain.  Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood.  With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest.  The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war.  It did not even end war for Christians.  But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence.  The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His.  Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted.  Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”

Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics.  Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare.  This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ.  But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue.  My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.

By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here

“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community.  It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ.  Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’  By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’  [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political [61] allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]

“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.  Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order.  Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order.  Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.  Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also.  By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”

In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.”  We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.”  “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance.  But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it.  We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.”  The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities.  Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean.  The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further.  To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.”  But that is precisely the point.  These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit.  Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word.  The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West.  But how?  Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”  

What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance.  But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding.  Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case.  Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post.  Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.

All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage: 

“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions.  At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end.  Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”

What does this language of “independent polity” mean?  In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic?  Or ain’t it?  And if so, how so?  The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?  

Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:

“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians.  The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.  No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.  It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians.  The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty.  Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)

“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America.  American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)

The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation.  But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation.  The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”?  On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation.  As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is.  In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence.  (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.”  If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this.  The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords.  Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind.  The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom.  The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching.  The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.

We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost.  A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia: 

“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium.  Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus.  When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”

Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life.  But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives.  That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.  

We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it.  But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology.  I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly.  Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that
Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice.  So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights.  If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.

The Gun Control Debate: Let’s Have a Cease-Fire

Since the Newtown tragedy last month, American public discourse, apparently feeling that it was at risk, after the election, of falling into a rut of humdrum agreeability—or still worse, rational debate—has fallen to new lows of backbiting, caricaturing, grandstanding, sloganeering, and demonizing.  Liberals rushed to capitalize on the tragedy to advance gun-control legislation, and conservatives responded by painting all this as some ploy to establish a liberal tyranny—to rob us all of our means for self-defense so that the government can establish a virtual dictatorship do whatever it wants.   A moment spent looking around at the other Western nations that have adopted substantial gun regulations should put our minds at ease on this front.  Most notably, in 1996, Australia enacted dramatic gun legislation that involved the government buying the majority of firearms from private citizens and destroying them.  Since then, Australia has shown no hint of degenerating into a Stalinist dictatorship.

Leaving its (rather large) conspiratorial fringe aside, the Right’s rhetoric over the past month has still been dominated by a substitution of sloganeering and fear-mongering for genuine reasoning.  Of course, so has the Left’s, but as a conservative, I find the failures on the Right more depressing, and I’d like to confine my remarks here primarily to addressing those.  There is liberal lunacy to be opposed on this issue, and I salute those who are doing their best to oppose it.  That’s just not my purpose in this post.  

What follows is not an attempt to tell you what to think about the gun control issue, or to engage in any detail with the concrete proposals Obama has advanced or with the complex and debated precedents of Second Amendment law, but only to provide a common-sense framework for how to think about the issue, a framework that seems to be sorely lacking in much of the recent discourse.   I apologize in advance for the length—to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I wrote a 5,000-word post because I didn’t have time to write a 500-word one.

Argument 1: Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People.

This is one of the most frequently-touted slogans on the Right’s side of the debate, and one encounters the basic reasoning in myriad forms:  
Guns are a neutral tool; it’s how they’re used that matters. You shouldn’t punish innocent gun owners for the moral failings of certain individuals.  
Gun violence is a result of a social breakdown, or widespread cultural degradation—the embrace of a culture of violence, the abandonment of Christian values, whatever; only by combatting that can we address the root problem.  
It’s lawless people who commit gun crimes, not law-abiding folks.  Passing laws will only ensure that good people don’t have guns; the bad guys won’t be deterred, and will be as well-armed as ever.

Let me address the slogan itself before tackling each of these related variants.  We might just as well say “Cars don’t kill people; drivers kill people.”  “Alcohol doesn’t harm people; drunkards harm people.”  “Darkness doesn’t rape people or steal stuff; rapists and thieves do.”  Yet none of these facts prevent us from taking measures, often legal ones, to make it more difficult for the potential perpetrators to inflict harm on others.  We make traffic laws and speed limits to reduce the risk of car accidents.  We make laws about where and when alcohol can be consumed to reduce the risk that intoxicated individuals will become a public menace (or perhaps to reduce the risk that they will become intoxicated in the first place).  We install night-lights and surveillance cameras in shops and alleyways so that criminals will be deterred from stealing and raping.  This is how societies operate.  We hope for well-formed, rational, peace-loving citizens, and do our best to cultivate such, but we also take practical measures to mitigate the risks arising from the fact that not all citizens we always be rational and peace-loving.  Of course, the fact that we are dealing with unpredictable, resourceful, and sometimes reckless, sometimes cunning individuals means that any such measures may have limited effectiveness, and may be either badly designed or well-designed.  A universal speed limit of 30 mph might, if actually followed, mean no fatal accidents, but instead it would simply guarantee that no one took speed limits seriously.  Complete prohibition of alcohol was obviously a bad idea.  A society of complete surveillance might reduce crime, but at too great a moral and social cost.  So a great deal of prudence is needed, and it may be that particular gun control policies being touted will be ineffective, or too repressive, or what have you.  And that’s a debate that needs to be had.  But let’s not short-circuit it by pretending that governments have no right to ever regulate behavior for the sake of public safety.

To the “guns are a neutral tool” claim, we should ask “really?”  This is the oldest trick in the book for any defender of any technological invention, but as George Grant effectively argued in “Thinking About Technology,” this is a vacuous claim that avoids the serious task of moral assessment.  Technologies come to be in a particular social context, and are designed to fulfill certain purposes.  When we ask about the moral status of some invention, obviously we are not asking about the moral status of the object as an inert bundle of rods, screws, etc., but as an instrument geared toward the achievement of certain ends within certain practices.  Are those practices good ones?  Are those ends good ones?  To be sure, many technologies prove remarkably adaptable, capable of uses quite different from their original purpose, and thus needing new moral evaluation.  But the gun, unfortunately, is a pretty unambiguous one.  Its purpose is to kill, and that’s about it.  When we move beyond a relatively narrow class of single shot rifles and such to consider handguns, assault weapons, automatics, etc., the purpose is more precisely to kill human beings.  “Neutral” is much too bland a word to use in this context.  The gun is an instrument of evil, although sometimes a necessary evil—killing in self-defense.  To this extent, it is not an intrinsically immoral tool to use, since there are morally licit uses, but it is, we might say, a morally compromised tool, one that warrants society’s careful and suspicious scrutiny.  Are we really prepared to say that a society and government does not have an interest in carefully evaluating the distribution and use of instruments whose chief purpose is the taking of human life?

As far as “punishing” innocent gun owners, we come back to my point above about cars, alcohol, surveillance cameras.  Living in community, in society, imposes certain limitations on one’s behavior.  If you live alone on a ranch in the Yukon territory, then you’re basically free to barrel down the wrong side of the road at 100 mph.  But once you live among other people, such pure freedom is not an option.  Even if you’re a perfectly safe and careful driver, you have to obey traffic laws.  Why?  Because the law, by its very nature as law, has to bind all impartially.  Which means that laws will sometimes need to be passed in order to restrain the actions of a few which thereby impose an inconvenience on all.  This is regrettable, but it is less regrettable than the alternative—in which no one was restrained and peace-loving citizens, instead of bearing the inconvenient burden of regulations, lived in perpetual fear of violence.  Again, both justice and prudence will be necessary to determine when such regulations are appropriate and effective, and sometimes, they will be foolish.  But there is no a priori reason why “innocent” members of society cannot be inconvenienced by laws intended to reduce the risk of public harm.

What about the claim the the root causes of gun violence are much deeper than mere access to guns, so we should be addressing the root of the sin, not the instrument that it happens to use?  This presents us with a simple false dichotomy.  Obviously, we should to reduce the root causes of all evil behaviors, at every level.  To the extent that mental health is an issue, we should work to make sure treatment is available.  To the extent social or family breakdown is an issue, we should find ways to build stronger communities and networks of support.  To the extent, violence in the media is an issue, perhaps we should work to reduce that (although this might involve considerably more government interference than gun control would).  Where general spiritual decay and the loss of the gospel is to blame, we should seek to re-evangelize our nation.  By all means, do all these things (some of which will involve purely private initiative, while others may involve government action as well).  None of these needs to be pursued to the exclusion of one of the others, and certainly, none of them need exclude concrete action in the present to make access to lethal weapons more difficult for the violently-inclined.  Again, to apply the same logic elsewhere reveals its vacuousness—just because the root causes that lead to drunk driving are not cars themselves, this doesn’t mean that we don’t sensibly take measures to restrict alcoholics’ ability to drive. 

The last claim—”only those disposed to be law-abiding will obey the laws, so they’re useless in restraining evil”—is perhaps the most plausible in the current situation, but if broadened into a general principle, would destroy the basis for all laws.  If it were in fact true that laws only serve as guidelines for the virtuous, and have no effect in restraining the vicious, then there would be no point in passing them.  No point in outlawing theft or rape or assault, because those disposed to thieve and rape and assail would ignore the laws.  But in fact, the very opposite is the case.  The existence of vicious dispositions is the reason why we have positive law in the first place.  Richard Hooker puts it well:

“Laws politic, ordained for external order and regiment amongst men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be in regard of his depraved mind little better than a wild beast, they do accordingly provide notwithstanding so to frame his outward actions, that they be no hinderance unto the common good for which societies are instituted: unless they do this, they are not perfect.”  

In other words, the purpose of coercive laws is precisely to restrain the outward actions of those who are otherwise not restrained by inward compunction to do good.  Of course, there are bad and good ways to do this, and often less is more.  Hyperactive attempts to police outward actions in Prohibition and in the war on drugs had little effect in restraining the evils it meant to, and led to a host of other evils.  Perhaps guns are another such area.  (Although I will note just in passing that the analogy with both of these fails at one key point: alcohol, and especially drugs, are considerably easier to smuggle, suggesting that restrictions on guns would be at least somewhat easier to enforce.)  But let’s decide this by evaluating the concrete policies that are proposed, not by proclaiming a priori that the law is useless in restraining evildoers.

Argument 2: The Only Thing that Can Stop a Bad Guy with a Gun is a Good Guy with a Gun

This argument does not rest content with defensively shooting down the idea of gun control, but takes the offensive, contending that in fact gun proliferation is the only way to a safe society.  What has surprised me most about this argument is how often I have found it on the lips of Christians, whose faith consists in the conviction that it was in fact  a single man’s non-violent act of self-sacrifice that constituted the most effective “stopping of bad guys” in the history of the world; that indeed, in this sacrifice is the power to overcome evil altogether in the end.  Now, I don’t want to go all woolly and pacifist on you.  I don’t in the end believe that Scripture teaches that just because Christ overcame his enemies by the sacrifice of the Cross, violence is never justified. But what Scripture certainly teaches us is to reject any form of an ontology of violence, an account of the world that understands violence as inescapable and supreme, such that only more violence can overcome it.  Because we live in a world of sin, there will be times when force must be used to restrain force—indeed, government regulation of guns is itself founded upon coercive authority—but this is not something to be gloried in, and we should look for ways for the force to achieve its end without bloodshed or taking a life.  Certainly, therefore, the rhetoric of this claim is out of line, and not something that should attract Christians.  The mindset it represents is reminiscent of the Cold War era political realism, which still infects so many American conservatives—the idea that the only way to ensure world peace was to make sure that you wielded a bigger stick, or a bigger hydrogen bomb.  If we ever find ourselves automatically prone to think that more lethal weaponry and more violence is the best solution to a problem, we should stop and examine whether we truly have the mind of Christ.

Now, rhetorical overreach aside, what if you’ve got a guy on a shooting rampage—wouldn’t you rather have a good guy with a gun nearby?  To be sure, if we focus myopically on the moment of the violent shooting rampage, then of course it may seem a truism that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  But this is to short-circuit the whole debate, which is about whether there are ways of preventing the shooting rampage in the first place.  It’s worth noting, for starters, that this argument runs counter to the conservative argument above, which asserted that we must fight violence at its root—sin, mental illness, social isolation, etc.  Looking at the broader context, sometimes it will take a pastor or a psychiatrist or a mother to stop a bad guy with a gun.  Or maybe it will take a government-mandated background check.  The problem with this argument, then, is it takes it as proven that no gun control legislation could possibly succeed in curtailing gun violence, and on this basis jumps to the conclusion that, if you’re going to still have gun violence either way, you’d be better off having as many deterrents in place as possible.  But again, this is to beg the question.  

In any case, though, considering how prominent this argument is, let’s assess for a moment its plausibility.  We have lots of school shootings, we are told, because schools are “gun-free zones”—would-be killers know that this is the place to go.  You don’t see mass murders at gun shows now, do you?  I must say that I’m quite skeptical that this empirical claim will hold up once we move beyond slogans to careful reasoning.  At the broadest level, the claim that a more thoroughly-armed populace translates into greater public security does not seem to stand scrutiny.  After all, the US has the world’s highest rate of gun ownership and the world’s highest homicide rate.  Not that one can draw a very clear correlation in that direction either, as gun control advocates would like to; a glance at worldwide statistics shows that there are clearly many factors involved.  In any case, though, declining homicide rates throughout the developed world over the past few centuries seem to owe primarily to a more thoroughgoing imposition of the rule of law, expansion of police forces, etc., not to any proliferation of weapons ownership.  More concretely, we should ask how effective a more widely-armed populace would have been in preventing recent mass shootings.  As for the Colorado cinema shooting in July, it strains credulity to argue that a handful of moviegoers, reflecting beforehand on the wisdom of carrying along a weapon to their midnight showing, would have had the skill and the presence of mind, not to mention the night vision, to whip out their weapons and take down the shooter when he lobbed smoke grenades and opened fire during the film.  A more likely scenario is that additional bystanders would’ve been shot in the frenzy.  Even in a society where a large proportion of citizens bore arms, there will be times and places that present a high concentration of unarmed or unprepared victims, and would-be killers will hone in on those places.  In the absence of a concerted attempt to arm teachers, schools will be another such place.  

It should also be obvious that it does little good merely to have a weapon—you need to be thoroughly-trained in its use, or you are likely to do more harm than good.  Given that even highly-trained soldiers and police officers usually take a few moments to gain their composure when they are fired upon, it seems clear that we would need not merely to arm teachers and other would-be civilian guardians of the peace, but offer them thorough training in firearm use and combat situations.  Such a thought experiment quickly veers into the realm of the absurd, as we contemplate schools where teachers are no longer hired on the basis of their ability to teach and to mentor young children, but by their resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Advocates might respond that this is a caricature—the mere fact that some teachers might be armed would act as a powerful deterrent against potential shooters.  But given that many of these shooters are deranged and even suicidal, it is hard to see why we should be so confident in their rational response to potential deterrents.  In any case, regardless of whether an armed and trained populace were a viable proposition, we should pause and consider for a moment if that is really the sort of society we would want to live in.  As a powerful article in The New Yorker  put it, “When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.”

In any case, there are many reasons for believing that the proliferation of weapons would reduce violence on the whole.  The good Christian doctrine of total depravity should caution us against such optimism.  It might be going a bit far to say that each of us is a potential killer, but more of us are than we’d like to admit.  Anyone who has a serious anger problem, or who, liable to become unhinged by sudden grief or a broken, is not really a the sort of person you want to be carrying a deadly weapon around town.  There are relatively few people who are liable to commit mass murder, but there are plenty who, under the right circumstances, and with a weapon ready to hand, might commit a crime of passion, or might use lethal force in “self-defense” when the situation did not call for it.  Even if every armed teacher or cinema-goer could be completely trusted only to use their weapon in self-defense, could we assume that they could all be trusted to ensure that no one else ever got access to their weapons?  Fill schools with armed teachers, and you’re inviting any deranged and violent young male to sneak over to his teacher’s desk when she’s not looking and pilfer the weapon.  Again, perhaps there are certain concrete measures we could take to ensure more deterrents to aggressors in high-risk areas, but these should be carefully and specifically argued for, not defended by recourse to the principle that more guns always equals more safety.

Argument 3: But the Second Amendment says…

The fact that the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, guarantees the right to bear arms certainly circumscribes this discussion somewhat.  We are not free to deliberate in a vacuum about what would be the most ideal or prudent policy in the abstract.  Or rather, we can so deliberate if we wish, but sooner or later we will have to consider not merely what is ideal but what is legal.  Not, of course, that the Constitution is un-amendable.  Although practically speaking, it is hard to imagine a repeal of the Second Amendment, it’s worth pausing on this point for a moment to ask whether such a repeal could possibly be just.  Many conservatives, it seems, are liable to confuse constitutional rights with natural rights, and to number the right to bear arms along with those inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This, however, is problematic.  I’m uncomfortable with “rights” language to begin with, but adopting it for the sake of argument, it is generally understood that natural rights must undergo a certain conditioning and limitation when they are translated into political rights.  That is to say, I always have a right to life, but once I go from being a solitary nomad to a member of a political society, the terms under which I can pursue this right are limited.  I can’t in ordinary circumstances just kill and eat my neighbor’s cow when I’m hungry, for instance.  Moreover, in the forming of political society, we delegate the exercise of certain liberties to our representatives and rulers.  Rather than pursuing life, liberty, and happiness as individuals, we exercise a corporate agency; national defense is perhaps the preeminent example.  Here, rather than attempting to each defend ourselves individually against the threat of external aggression, we pool our resources and authorize certain people to fight on our behalf.  That doesn’t mean that if an enemy combatant somehow made it into our backyard, we couldn’t do our best to fight him on our own, but we wouldn’t prepare for that eventuality.  There is no reason in principle why internal security should be different.  If a society decides that it wants to exercise the right of self-defense against criminals through its police forces, and not through an armed citizenry, such a law would not, it seems to be, violate the law of nature.

The Second Amendment, therefore, is a human law, and as such in principle changeable.  In considering its applicability today, we should keep in mind two dictums from Richard Hooker.  First,

“Whether God bee the author of lawes by authorizing that power of men whereby they are made, or by delivering them made immediatly from him selfe, by word onely, or in writing also, or howsoever; notwithstanding the authoritie of their maker, the mutabilitie of that end for which they are made doth also make them chaungeable” (LEP III.10.2).  

In other words, simply to appeal to the Constitution doesn’t settle the discussion.  If God himself had declared the Second Amendment, it might still be changeable, if the end for which it was made no longer pertains.  What is that end?

Well, it depends whom you ask.  From my position high up in the cheap seats, it looks like there’s room for disagreement even among legal scholars on the question, but that it’s hard to deny that the main objective of the amendment was tied in with the affirmation of local militias.  The grammar of the amendment makes this fairly hard to argue with—”A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  Early American militias served two potential purposes.  The first was to provide protection, not primarily against internal threats (criminals) as against external threats (attacks by natives, primarily), though in some places, the threat of slave insurrection may also have been part of the picture.  The second, certainly around the time of the Revolutionary War, was to start insurrections, against governments perceived to be tyrannical—militias were there to hold rulers to account with the threat of armed insurgency.  The first purpose seems to be essentially irrelevant now, and if this were all the Second Amendment was about, then on Hooker’s principle, it would be essentially a dead letter.  What about the second?  Given that it was precisely the potential for such insurrections as Shay’s Rebellion that led to the Constitutional Convention, we may safely assume that many founding fathers were not too keen on this function of militias.  Aside from that, however, should be we keen on them today?  Remarkably, an awful lot of conservatives are; in recent gun-control debates, one hears this rationale for gun ownership explicitly invoked.  The ethics of rebellion is complex subject that I couldn’t possibly go into now, but suffice to say that historically those calling themselves “conservative” have been highly suspicious of armed revolution, as have, all the more so, those calling themselves Christians.  Christian political theory has always found it extremely difficult to find a Biblical justification for popular revolt, and Christians today should be wary of breaking with that tradition.  

Perhaps, though, the Second Amendment was framed also to the end of ensuring private means of self-defense against ordinary criminal threats.  Well then, that end remains unchanged, so the law must as well.  Right?  Hooker’s second principle interjects here:

“lawes are instruments to rule by, and instruments are not only to bee framed according unto the generall ende for which they are provided, but even according unto that very particular, which riseth out of the matter wheron they have to work.  The end wherefore lawes were made may bee permanent, and those lawes neverthelesse require some alteration, if there bee anye unfitnes in the meanes which they prescribe as tending unto that end and purpose (Ibid.).”

In other words, it could be a perfectly just law for a perfectly just end, an end that still applies, and yet the law may need to be changed?  Why?  Well, subsequent experience might demonstrate that the law was in fact ill-suited to achieve its purpose, that it has done more harm than good.  Or, it might be that although once well-suited, society has since changed to the extent that the law no longer effectively serves its purpose.  Weapons today are not what they were in 1790.  Back then, a mass shooting was unthinkable—you could fire one shot, and while you laboriously reloaded, there would be time for a dozen unarmed bystanders to tackle you.  The conditions of modern life have changed dramatically.  For one thing, we have a much more sophisticated and effective system of public law enforcement than back then, and so have less need to rely on private self-defense.  The vast majority of us today will go through our entire lives without any need to draw weapon in our own defense.

None of this is to contend that the Second Amendment is necessarily obsolete.  In certain respects, it will have enduring relevance.  But these need to be carefully parsed out and argued for—we get nowhere merely by invoking the amendment like a magic word and pretending that gun-control advocates have no respect for law.  Of course, even if we did deem the Amendment mostly obsolete, it would still impose constraints on how far gun control legislation could go, and this is an important point to make.  There are certainly some in the current debate who might like to see all guns banned, and would like to do so without repealing the amendment.  To these, it is the duty of true conservatives to point out that the laws of our ancestors still bind us, whether we like them or not, until they can be undone by proper authority.  Good old Hooker can be relied upon to remind us of this principle too.  Nonetheless, we are not left with the alternatives “No guns” or “unrestricted guns.”  The language of the amendment itself presupposes the existence of careful regulation in this area, so it is regulation does not ipso facto constitute an infringement of the right. 

Our task, then, is to determine, within the constraints provided by legal precedent, under what conditions the right to bear arms may most prudently be exercised today.  This will require careful legal scholarship; it will require careful empirical investigation of the nature and causes of gun violence, of the effectiveness that various preventative measures have had in different times and places; it will require thoughtful political consideration of the unforeseen consequences of gun legislation, of the extent to which it will reduce civil liberties as a whole or encourage the growth of bureaucratic law enforcement behemoth.  All of these considerations need to be weighed in the balance, and from different judgments regarding them, a variety of plausible proposals, some quite conservative, others more liberal, may be advanced.  A careful debate needs to be had about these proposals, for a great deal may hinge on them.  But let’s not short-circuit that debate by ignoring both common sense and the basic principles of political theory and jurisprudence.  And above all, let’s not shame the name of Christ by identifying the “Christian” cause in the public debate with a commitment to individual rights and to violent solutions to violence.