Within a few weeks, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is to receive the final report of a Justice Department task force charged with outlining options for a national gun-control policy. He will study the options and in November recommend to Congress a plan to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Meanwhile, this summer Congress has been working on its own plan. Last month a Senate panel narrowly approved a measure that would ban certain types of U.S.-made semiautomatic “assault” weapons. Earlier in July, the Bush administration announced a ban on importing such weapons.
With violent crime escalating, more and more are calling for political intervention. Yet the issue has proven to be divisive, with competing proposals receiving varying political and public support (see chart at right).
Christians have also taken both sides of the issue, although advocates and opponents of gun control both charge that too many believers are staying in the ambivalent, undecided middle.
As executive director of the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt believes gun ownership is not only constitutional, but biblical. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He opposes gun restrictions of any kind.
Pratt cites several Scripture references that he believes make his case. These include Exodus 22:2, where no guilt is to be assumed for the fatal wounding of a thief who comes during the night; 2 Chronicles 17, where the good king Jehoshaphat maintains peace by building up Israel’s defense; and the New Testament reference where Jesus instructs his disciples to carry a sword.
Pratt expressed the view that firearms “are very much part of the administration of justice in God’s economy of protecting life,” both “at the corporate level through the state and at the individual level, which Christ spoke to.”
In Pratt’s view, to restrict ownership of any type of gun would be an “implicit, illegal changing of the Second Amendment” without going through the prescribed process for constitutional change. (The Second Amendment states, “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.”) Pratt believes this would set a dangerous legal precedent and threaten other liberties, such as freedom of religion.
On the other side of the issue, Evangelicals for Social Action executive director Ron Sider is a strong proponent of gun-control measures. Sider believes “there is no simple biblical answer which says that it is appropriate or right in 1989 in American democracy for citizens to own guns or not to.” However, Sider added that this does not mean there are no “relevant, biblical principles that would suggest one thing rather than the other.”
In Sider’s view, a key biblical principle is respect for the sanctity of human life. “If all life is sacred,” he said, “then this surely is a prolife issue.”
While Sider said he does not oppose owning a gun for hunting, he does object to owning one for the protection of property. “People matter more than property,” he said. Sider said he believes it is “immoral” to kill a person attempting to steal property, but he conceded it would be a different case if a person is “fundamentally threatened.”
Apart from a pacifist argument for gun control, Sider said, “the evidence is compelling that you are more likely to shoot a member of the family or a friend than you are an intruder.”
In addition, Sider believes Romans 13 teaches that it is the responsibility of the government, not the individual, to bear the sword. And by Sider’s reading of the Constitution, the Second Amendment applies to a state’s right to have a militia, not to an unlimited, personal right to own a gun.
To Pratt, owning a gun is a prolife statement. “For us to say that weapons are inherently antilife is to misunderstand the nature of man and what God has ordained that we do in this fallen world,” he said. Pratt added that he believes gun-control measures do not actually stop violence and reduce deaths.
But to Sider, owning a gun is incompatible with a prolife philosophy. “To vigorously object to abortion because human life is sacred and then at the same time object to very modest hand-gun-control measures that would reduce the killing of innocent people looks like strange inconsistency to the larger community,” he said.
Both Sider and Pratt say they are frustrated by what they see as ambivalence within the Christian community on this issue. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) does not take an official position on gun control, but Robert Dugan, director of the group’s Washington Office of Public Affairs, said this is not because the NAE thinks the issue is unimportant.
“NAE is a mixed body that includes pacifists as well as those who believe in a strong defense,” Dugan said. “Our evangelical leadership considers [gun control] among the things that are optional, not necessary interpretations. The case can be made on both sides; therefore, there ought to be sensitivity to both sides.” Dugan said he believes there is room in the debate for “a middle position.”
But as politicians pick up the debate this fall, observers agree there is likely to be more divergence than harmony in the effort to hammer out a final policy.
NORTH AMERICAN SCENE
Gay Couples as Family
Homosexual couples took a step toward mainstream acceptance last month when the New York State Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples should be included in the legal definition of a family.
In a four-to-two decision, New York’s highest court ruled that a gay man could inherit his deceased partner’s rent-controlled apartment, even though state regulations stipulate that only “surviving spouses and family members” who lived in the apartment can inherit a rent-controlled lease. Writing for the majority, Judge Vito Titone asserted that the term family “should not be rigidly restricted to those people who have formalized their relationship by obtaining, for instance, a marriage certificate or an adoption order.”
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a protest by local clergy has stalled implementation of an ordinance allowing unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples to register at city hall as “domestic partners.” Clergy presented the city with more than 27,000 signatures asking that the measure be placed on the ballot in the November elections.
Boost for Black Pride
The 8 million-member National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., America’s largest black denomination, recently dedicated its new $10 million world headquarters and announced plans for a cable-TV show highlighting the achievements of blacks. The Baptist World Center, located in Nashville, Tennessee, is the first headquarters built by a black American denomination.
In announcing the TV show, to be called “Black World Today,” denominational president T. J. Jemison said, “Our Baptist World Center will be the origination point for the many positive stories of black people, which can instill in them a sense of pride and accomplishment. This program will be the good news regarding the black community that is too often replaced by reports of drugs, crime, and violence on the nightly news.”
There He Goes Again
Retired NASA engineer Edgar Whisenant, who last year attracted widespread attention with his book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, has come out with a new work in which he sets September 1 of this year as the date of the Rapture. Whisenant told Religious News Service he was off last year because he failed to consider that contemporary Gregorian calendars count only 99 years for the first century since they begin calculating at the year 1 A.D. instead of at zero.
The Nashville-based World Bible Sociey (WBS) will again help Whisenant get his word out. Last year WBS made $200,000 while selling or giving away some 4.5 million copies of Whisenant’s book, WBS’s Norvall Olive said all the profits went to Christian charities, and that any profits from this year’s book would also be given away.
Bill Gordon of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board’s interfaith witness department said he is advising constituents to ignore Whisenant. Gordon expressed the hope that Christians would not jump on the Whisenant bandwagon as many did a year ago.
Deciding Vote Cast
In a May 17 speech to the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) Governing Board, NCC general secretary Arie Brouwer accused his critics of “ideological warfare” and “character assassination.” The speech resulted in a vote on Brouwer’s leadership; the outcome was a 50–50 split. Brouwer cast the deciding vote by resigning as the NCC’s top executive, effective June 30. He had held the post since January 1985.
Earlier in June, Brouwer told a meeting of the Reformed Church in America, in which he is ordained, that “when there is a 50–50 chance of losing one’s job there may well be more than a 50–50 reason for leaving one’s job.”
Close observers of the NCC agree that disapproval of Brouwer revolved essentially around his leadership style and had nothing to do with his theology or politics.
In recent years the council has been plagued by financial problems, due in part to steady decline in membership in NCC-member denominations. Also, the organization’s structure, currently undergoing redesign, is widely cited as having contributed to inefficiency and staff tensions.
PEOPLE AND EVENTS
Appointed: As minister-at-large for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), Glandion Carney. Carney’s past positions include director of Urban Ministry for Youth for Christ and director of Christian Leadership Development for World Vision.
Died: At age 60 of a heart attack, Walter Martin, founder of the Southern California—based Christian Research Institute and host of the radio call-in program “The Bible Answer Man.” An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Martin specialized in the study of cults and religious sects. His book The Kingdom of the Cults has been a best seller in Christian bookstores for several years.
Cyrus N. Nelson, chairman of the Ventura, California—based Gospel Light Publications, a major producer of church-school curriculum, at the age of 80.
Scholar and author Klaus Bockmuehl, most recently professor of theology and ethics at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, of cancer at age 58. He was a resource scholar for CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and for several years a contributing editor.
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