A Nuanced Take on a Divisive Issue
A Review of
God and Guns in America
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2020
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
As an American with Canadian in-laws, I frequently receive earnest questions around the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table about the place of guns in American culture. This questioning has become a bit of a running joke in the family, as they have come to understand that I know next to nothing about guns and will likely never own one myself. Nevertheless, I continue to receive questions that range from genuine curiosity to outright bafflement at what seems to be a distinctly-American obsession with owning guns and defending the legal right to do so. Indeed, it seems that the intersection of religious identity, civic loyalty, and individual rights finds a unique expression in the contentious conversation about guns in American culture, and this is just as true within the evangelical church as it is outside of it. Michael Austin’s new book, God and Guns in America, offers a balanced and nuanced voice that is geared towards Christians but that could be appreciated by anyone sincerely interested in how we might move forward.
Austin’s short book (about 150 pages) covers a wide range of topics, including American history, legislation of rights, logic, scripture, distinctly Christian ethics, and public policy. These elements combine into what is essentially an argument for pursuing specific, sensible increased restrictions in gun ownership for the increased health and safety of all. Two elements set Austin’s work apart from the many pieces that have already been written on various sides of the debate: the first is the amount of nuance he confidently brings to the discussion; the second is the overall comprehensive-yet-succinct nature of the writing, which may be both its greatest strength and its greatest limitation.
In what may be a curious move to Christian readers, Austin begins the book with a discussion of American history and the Second Amendment (with a brief excursus on the specific history of guns in American-Christian culture) before any discussion of scripture or Christian ethics. I actually found this refreshing, as it provides an easy entry point for a wider range of readers who may care about the issue. His concise discussion of the Second Amendment in this chapter, especially, is informed, balanced, lucid and quite approachable for those who have not yet examined the text of this much-debated piece of legislation.
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Austin then builds on the historical background with a helpful and straightforward discussion on the “nature of rights” in a legal and ethical sense. He breaks down the crucial difference between “legal rights” and “moral rights,” before unpacking the implications of this distinction on what it means to allow for recreational use of guns, as well as “stand your ground” laws, which have been put into law in places like Florida. This chapter particularly sheds light on the sloppy and imprecise use of the language of “rights” in the gun debate.
Having these pieces in place, Austin turns to the strongest section of the book, titled, “Guns, Lies and Bad Arguments.” This chapter addresses ten of the most common talking points, including, “The NRA is to blame,” “It’s not a gun problem, it’s a heart problem,” and “The only thing that stops a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun.” Each response is succinct and clear, addressing faulty logic and misguided interpretations of statistics, and maintains a healthy amount of nuance, as Austin even responds to phrases like, “Violence never solves anything.” This chapter is a clarifying breath of fresh air that elevates the conversation beyond tired talking points.
With all this significant groundwork laid, Austin finally turns to the issues that many Christian readers will be the most interested in: pacifism, Christian ethics, and the much-debated interpretation of certain biblical passages. In this section, Austin proposes an ethical “middle ground” between outright pacifism and justified violence that he labels “peace building.” His reluctance to fully embrace pacifism may rankle some readers, but his reasons for doing so are well-argued and deserve consideration. This is yet another example of informed balance that he brings to a polarized issue.
Those interested in how someone should read texts like “the one who has no sword” (Luke 22), “a cheerful acceptance of theft” (Hebrews 10), and yes, Jesus’ own cleansing of the temple (John 2) will appreciate their inclusion in this section (chapter 5), but may also long for a deeper dive. Austin’s primary task, however, is not deep exegesis, but is rather to provide plausible responses to the ways these texts are used to simplistically validate a Christian’s use of guns. He also includes a sharp discussion of the nature of “character” and “virtue” as it relates to the Christian life and the prospect of gun ownership.
The final chapter (titled “More Than Thoughts and Prayers”) includes specific proposals for gun legislation, which Austin urges Christians to consider. Some may find this a less-than-rousing way to conclude a book on such a charged issue, but I applaud the practical, positive and forward-looking nature of it. So many arguments of this sort reside in the purely abstract-theoretical space, that there is something refreshing about Austin’s straightforward, reasonable proposals for legal reform.
On the one hand, Austin has penned a remarkable synthesis of a wide range of issues in a very short and approachable package. On the other, those who want deeper engagement on any one subject (history, ethics, scriptural interpretation) may be frustrated at the brevity of each. Overall, this is a wonderful introduction for those who haven’t intentionally reflected on the multi-layered nature of the question of guns in America. It is also a text that appropriately challenges those who may focus solely on one element of the debate, who may be disarmed by Austin’s careful nuance, or even for those curious onlookers who simply want to learn more in an easy-to-read, comprehensive, and short book.
I may bring a few copies of it to my next family gathering.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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