As a classicist, I was privileged to lead groups of Americans on tours of Rome. When we visited the Colosseum, our participants would inevitably comment on the bloodthirsty appetites of the Romans and the depravity of their games. Early Christians certainly criticized the games, and many would not even attend as it was considered akin to idolatry. Each time I led a group to the Colosseum, someone would ask how these ancient people could celebrate such violence. In response, another in the group would ask questions about American culture, its movies, video games, and other forms of entertainment. It didn’t take long to recognize that we Americans celebrate violence just as much as the Romans did. But unfortunately, there is a significant difference, unimaginable to an ancient Roman.
Our condoning of violence extends beyond entertainment, to our homes and schools, with devastating effects on our young. Guns are the leading cause of death among children in the United States. We have higher gun death rates per capita than any other country on Earth. And for decades now, “guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.”
This is the expected result from a sustained effort of loosening or eliminating gun laws due to a muddled sense of rights. The Supreme Court has expanded the application of the second amendment, which says nothing about “personal ownership” or “guns” to mean that individuals have the right to possess, carry, and shoot semiautomatic weapons of war designed solely to kill, maim, and obliterate human life.
For those of us who grew up with the vaunted American custom of hunting, this relaxation of regulation is confounding. I owned a hunting rifle that was given to me by my grandfather. A single-shot .22, it was used by my grandfather for hunting rabbits on the North Dakota prairie. My sons and I enjoyed duck-hunting with my father-in-law, using a 12-gauge shotgun, outfitted with a plug so that it would hold only three shells rather than five, to conform to federal law. Each gun was more than satisfactory to enjoy hunting. We could not imagine hunting with an AR-15.
But now, a single-shot rifle on the plains of North Dakota seems quaint and perhaps only a faint recollection from a bygone era. No waterfowl hunter ever squawked loudly enough for the three-shell limit to be overturned, but now the law that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed banning high capacity magazines will likely find its way to the Supreme Court. Will we then be told that capacity restrictions on the idolized AR-15 are unconstitutional?
I am proud to live in a state that enacted sensible gun regulations and believe it should be a model for a national effort. As a Catholic, I endorse the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement after the Highland Park massacre, “We support a total ban on assault weapons and limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines.” But surprisingly, Christians, even those who call themselves pro-life, are against even limited gun control measures, so that the right to bear arms overshadows any right to life.
Today, some Christians seem to have been evangelized not so much by the gospel of Jesus Christ as by the catechism of the National Rifle Association. Shockingly, at least one congresswoman, a self-identified Christian, said that Jesus would have been able to defend himself from being crucified if only he had an AR-15. It’s not surprising that she glossed over a scene mentioned in each of the four gospels. Upon Jesus’ arrest, a jumpy Simon Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants (Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10). Jesus in turn healed the servant’s ear and reprimanded Peter with a curt, “put your sword away.” If only Peter had had an AR-15?
The early Christians were counter-cultural in dominant Rome. Violence was so anathema to the early Christians that few of them ever participated in the military. Even and especially in the face of the Colosseum, built as a monument to and for violence, Christians preached nonviolence and peace in Christ, who exhorted his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). As the games and violence were akin to idolatry in the ancient world, today, assault rifles seem to have become an idol for some Christians, competing with the divine as an object of worship. Elected congresspeople pose with assault rifles for Christmas cards, purportedly celebrating the birth of Jesus while asking Santa to “bring more ammo.” Perhaps it’s a sign of my age that I recall not only those memories on the prairie, but also a time when Christians believed salvation came from Christ, not from an AR-15. To them, Jesus says as he did to the arms-bearing Peter, “put that away.”
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