Friendship, Love, and Mass Shootings: Toward a Theological Response for Gun Control

By Shakespeare, Lyndon | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Friendship, Love, and Mass Shootings: Toward a Theological Response for Gun Control


Shakespeare, Lyndon, Anglican Theological Review


This essay explores the place of assault weapons in a theology concerned to emphasize human well-being and community. Current debates and recent tragedies that have included assault weapons raise questions beyond the usual appeals to political rights and individual freedoms. Drawing on the analysis of community in Aristotle and particularly Aquinas, this work seeks to promote a Christian vision of human action and friendship grounded in the church's confession of the crucified Christ. The essay concludes with a section on the role of the church in a society that includes the use and advocacy of assault weapons.

In the aftermath of a mass shooting like that at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, a number of questions were pressed upon us: why did it happen, who is to blame, and can something like this be avoided? But there are other questions that are also worth considering, such as, how does an event like this fit within our understanding of what constitutes appropriate human activity, and are there any conceptual tools to help discern where such an event falls within traditions of thought and practice that privilege something like friendship and love over conflict and combat? These later questions are a different kind to the more journalistic questions of who, what, and why, yet they are no less important in providing a path of response to the horror of such an event.

On the questions of why and who, we might look for answers to this kind of an event via the analysis of the psychological state of the perpetrator. Other tools from the social sciences might be equally deployed to describe the historical and sociological details of the perpetrator, and his or her (of course, it is generally a him) family and even immediate community. Such analysis can construct an individual "map" that gestures toward certain conclusions: it was mental illness; it was family dysfunction; it was a cruel community; or, simply, it was all of the above.

Alternatively, we might be led to believe that such events are part of a larger problem, namely, the availability of guns. Whereas the psychological approach reveals something personal about the perpetrator, the ability to buy and own guns is a personal and a political piece of information. I am using political in the broad sense of belonging to a particular community that is shaped by a certain understanding of the world.1 In the case of gun ownership, an individual might be a hunter, or collector, or someone invested in personal projection (or again, all of the above). They might even carry NRA membership. There are many reasons that people give for gun ownership, and most of them display a politics of one form or another.

To attend to the politics associated with mass shootings is a matter of attending to the function and shape of the human community. "Human community" might seem too broad a term when considering specific events at specific times. What I have in mind is using this term is an analysis of the way we organize ourselves as people, that is, the general reasons and purposes that we might provide if asked: why community, and what's important to humans that we would form communities in the first place? Addressing these questions will provide a basis for addressing the more specific issues associated with a response to mass shootings and the use of militarized, civilian semiautomatic weapons.2

The Human Community

The conventional wisdom is that it is no business of society to interfere with or influence anybody's values-this is a matter purely for the individual conscience. Society, says the conventional wisdom, exists to protect us from each other, to keep the peace between people with quite divergent views of what it would mean to live humanly well. This is the theoretical foundation or credo of the secular or liberal society: society is a peaceful coexistence of potential or real enemies. Even when liberal society is reimagined by a political liberal such as John Rawls and his "liberalism of reasoned respect," political cooperation remains a matter of ordering society by means of "public reason" that is reached by avoiding the conflict inherent to specific communities that are shaped by normative traditions. …

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