An Interview With Michael Austin on "God and Guns in America"

An Interview with Michael Austin

by Ethel M. Gould

Mike Austin recently shared with me about his new book God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020). Instead of advocating for either side, Austin charitably discusses the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the gun debate. In the process, he also explains the history behind gun ownership in America, describes logical fallacies employed in the debate, challenges Christians to consider their motive for owning a gun, and engages Biblical passages that both sides use to promote their view for or against gun ownership. At the end, Austin suggests positive legislation and other steps we can take to limit gun violence in America.

Michael W. Austin is a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, senior fellow at The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, and a national advocate for gun violence prevention alongside many of today’s most prominent interfaith leaders through Everytown for Gun Safety. You can learn more about him and his work at michaelwaustin.com.

Ethel Gould: When did Christians believe gun ownership was such an essential right? How did this view begin?

Mike Austin: I’m not sure when Christians in particular began to see it that way. Historians debate this of course, but I think there are several historical threads that have helped produce the contemporary gun culture in America. As I note in the book, the need for guns during life on the frontier in early America, a reliance on guns for the purpose of self-defense, and the marketing strategies of gun manufacturers all played a role. As gun rights have become more identified with conservative politics, many Christians with other conservative political commitments accepted them as part of the conservative political package. I think there is a unique mix in the United States of faith, patriotism, self-sufficiency, family, and sometimes regional traditions that have led to many thinking gun ownership is an essential right.

Gould: In God and Guns in America, you say that proponents of gun rights claim that the constitutional right to own a gun cannot be limited by the government (23). Gun rights proponents believe the right to own a gun stems from the right to life. Yet Christians follow a God who asks them to lay down their lives for others as He did (John 15:12, 1 John 3:16). How should Christ’s example impact the conversation about gun ownership?

Austin: Not all proponents of gun rights hold the strong view that gun ownership are absolute rights, but some do. And many hold views very close to this, in my experience. Christ’s teachings and example should of course inform everything we believe, desire, say, and do. This is an area of particular concern to me. Many, across the political spectrum, have not really even tried to think about these issues in a way that is shaped by Christ and faith in him. They throw out a proof-text or two, and act as if that settles it.

When Christians brag on social media about the stopping power of their new handgun, or how their wife packs heat and is ready to kill, something is wrong. Our pro-life commitments must span across all of life, and include every single human life. Even the worst criminal is a human being made in the image of God. So the flippancy with which many think and talk about killing is out of place. After thinking and interacting with others about this over the past several years, I believe that the views of many American Christians are shaped more by the media they consume, rather than the word of God and the Spirit of Christ.

We all have blind spots; I’m starting to see more and more that the fact that God hates violence should shape my character in deeper ways than it does. Finally, there are times when God may ask us to lay down our lives for the sake of another. I agree we have a right to defend ourselves and others, but God’s will can supersede that right.

Gould: You suggest peace building as an alternative theory to pacifism or defense of just war. Why does the issue of gun control necessitate a new theory about violence (66)?

Austin: The view I defend, peacebuilding, is not necessarily a new theory. It rejects pacifism and avoids the common practical abuses of just war theory. For instance, we often use just war theory to justify violence we want to commit for other reasons, at the international and interpersonal levels. Peacebuilding takes the claim that we should only engage in violence as a last resort and makes it a central moral principle for how we ought to live as followers of the Prince of Peace.

One problem with guns in America is that in many places, no demonstration of competence with a gun is required to own and operate one. Firearms are powerful and deadly. Combine that with a lack of training, both tactical and psychological, along with a culture that often promotes violence as the solution to our problems, and the result is that many will use violence, even lethal violence, carelessly or unnecessarily. So I develop the view as a corrective to much of the unchristian thought and practice that is present in the American church with respect to violence in general, and gun violence in particular.

Gould: You describe gun ownership as forming a person’s character (86–87). Yet you also own a gun, and your father shoots competitively for sport. How have you observed gun ownership forming others or yourself for good and bad? Why is humility a necessary character trait for someone who carries a gun for protection?

Austin: One helpful distinction to note here is Gun Culture 1.0 versus Gun Culture 2.0. The primary point of gun ownership and use in the former is recreation. The primary point in the latter is self-defense/defending others. My experience growing up was with guns as recreation. I rarely use my gun now, only because I have other interests that I pursue in my free time. Given that, I haven’t thought about [how owning a gun might form my character] in my own case as [recreational shooting] isn’t really a part of my life any longer. Though I do recall having a sense of pride over the years that I knew how to handle and use guns. Whether there was vice or not in this, I’m not sure.

My current concern is primarily related to some aspects of Gun Culture 2.0. As I describe in the book, some of the training and ways of viewing others present in and fostered by that culture include the dehumanization of others, which undermines empathy for them. I’ve witnessed attitudes and words that reveal this in some people who are a part of Gun Culture 2.0. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t train and become proficient at using a gun for self-defense, if that’s something we are convinced God would have us do. I wish all gun owners were sufficiently trained. But it does mean that we should avoid aspects of that training that undermine our love for others, by undermining our empathy for them. When this happens, we struggle to see them as having inherent dignity and worth as image-bearers of God. A lack of empathy makes it much more difficult to exemplify Christian virtues like love, compassion, and humility.

Humility is a central virtue for all of us, as we seek to follow Christ’s example in the gospels and as described by Paul in Philippians 2:1-11. Humility helps us put the interests of others before ourselves. It is an especially important virtue for anyone who carries a gun, because it helps us focus on more than just ourselves, and only use a that gun when it is absolutely necessary. Even when our own lives are threatened, there will be situations in which we are called to nonviolently accept whatever God’s will is for us, including our death. This is clear from Scripture and the history of the Church. We may be asked to lay our lives down for someone else, even those who would kill us, following the pattern and teaching of Jesus.

Gould: Can you tease out for us what you mean by the courage of the martyr versus the courage of someone who allows fear to dictate their fears and actions (107)?

Austin: There is an excellent chapter on this by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in a book I co-edited, Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, which I rely upon in God and Guns in America. The paradigm case for the courage of the martyr is Jesus himself. He laid down his very life out of love for us, making life with him and in his kingdom available to us. The motive of the courageous martyr is love. The martyr is willing to endure suffering, without retaliation, for the sake of love. In America, we are all familiar with the courage of the action hero, and of the warrior. This courage can also be grounded in love, a love for one’s family, others, or one’s country. But many people purchase guns out of fear, and we know that perfect love casts out fear. When fear is the motive for my actions, I’m not actually exemplifying courage, but cowardice. We need to look inward and let the Spirit shine a light on our inner lives, so that we are letting love, rather than fear, guide how we live.

Gould: You talk about guns becoming an idol for some people when guns make them feel in control or more secure (109). How do you think feelings of security or control turn guns into an idol for Christians?

Austin: Idolatry can happen with anything. Perhaps the power inherent in guns makes them more susceptible to taking the form of an idol in our lives. But consider an analogy related to money. The wise person will be a good steward of her money, including savings for a rainy day (or a global pandemic) or perhaps retirement. This doesn’t entail that money is an idol for her. A wise person may choose to own a gun, for safety and security. This doesn’t entail that the gun is an idol. But both money and guns can become idols, if we are not careful. If God asked you to give away all of your retirement savings, and his guidance is clear, would you do it? I hope I would. Do you trust the numbers in your bank account to provide for you, or is your ultimate trust in God and his provision? Similar questions can be asked about guns. If God asked you to get rid of your gun, or refuse to use it in a certain situation, would you? Do you trust in your gun, rather than, or more than, God (Psalm 20:7)? Our answers to these questions can be revealing in any realm of life, and are essential for us to ask and answer.

Gould: You say that the church in America has been more focused on getting people in the door instead of getting Christ into people (136). How would getting Christ into people impact the gun debate? How would a better understanding of the Gospel change people’s view of gun ownership?

Austin: These are difficult questions because Christ-followers of sound mind and good heart have very different views about guns and gun ownership. Getting Christ into people would help us to actually discuss guns and gun violence in the church. The issue is, like many issues these days, so politically charged that many pastors are afraid to touch it. But whether it is from the pulpit, Sunday school, or small group settings, we need to allow the gospel to shape our views here. One thing that has frustrated me is seeing Christians simply parrot the views of their favorite pundits. There are bad arguments and weak cliché’s used by people across the spectrum. We should be formed by God, his word, the Holy Spirit, and the best Christian thought that is available, rather than MSNBC, Fox, Cenk Uygur, or Ben Shapiro. The gospel can shape our views of gun ownership in similar ways, so that whatever decision we make is grounded in our faith, and not or favorite television or internet personality. When we do come to different conclusions, we must realize that this doesn’t mean those we disagree with are betraying the gospel. We need to learn to disagree well, and in love. We all struggle at times to do this, but the more we allow Christ to form our character, the better we’ll be at doing so. Imagine if Christians today were known for their ability to disagree but maintain a deep love for each other!

Gould: What prompted you to write God and Guns in America?

Austin: I saw people, including many Christians, who were very confident about their views, but many of the arguments they offered seemed shallow to me, or at least not strong enough to justify that confidence. This is true for people at both ends of the ideological spectrum. That motivated me to write a few blog posts at my blog at Psychology Today, Ethics for Everyone. I was then invited to take part in a debate in the Christian Research Journal. From there, my interest and involvement in the issue grew. Eerdmans was interested in publishing a book for the general reader, not just other scholars, and I jumped at the chance. I wanted to work through the relevant biblical material for myself and consider the strongest arguments offered by people for the different perspectives on this issue. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with my positions, my aim is to help people think and pray through their views with care and excellence, as this is another realm of life where we need to learn to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I am confident enough in the views I defend in the book, that I’ve become involved in the political process. Working with NRA members, members of Moms Demand Action, and The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, I’ve met with the staff of several United States Senators to offer solutions that can reduce gun violence, while protecting the right to bear arms. I’ve also recently started working with Everytown for Gun Safety on gun violence prevention.

Whatever your view about guns, violence, and self-defense, all Christians can agree that with rights come responsibilities. That can sometimes get lost in the gun debates, but it is something I believe all followers of Christ can and should agree upon as we do what we can to reduce violence in all of its forms.

— Ethel M. Gould is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. The Evangelical Press Association awarded her The Mel Larson Scholarship, and she was the recipient of The Roy B. Zuck Award in Media Arts in Worship. Ethel lives in Jupiter, Florida, with her husband and four kids.