Gambling, Guns and Jesus: An American Paradox

Why are many Christians morally suspicious of gambling, but not of carrying a handgun?

Perhaps they get their moral attitudes on gambling from a mistaken association of gambling with casting lots in the Old and New Testaments. If so they miss the big difference: casting lots leaves the outcome to a higher authority, not chance; and nothing is wagered.

Likewise many Christians mistakenly get their moral attitudes about handgun carry laws and permits from the Bible. Sometimes through genuine confusion, but often through clever interpretive gymnastics. For example, when Jesus commands his disciples in Luke 22, "And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one," many take this as the first personal carry permit.

If you think this reading of scripture is nonsense, listen to prominent Christian public figures after the Umpqua Community College killings. For example, Lt. Gov. of Tennessee Ron Ramsey "encouraged fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to consider getting a gun." Channel Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee.

One might suggest these folks get some perspective, look at Jesus' body of teaching, understand Jesus as the "lawless one" a few verses later. Jesus needs swords in his party to secure his own death, not to protect it!

Churches recognize that gambling is technically permitted in scripture. Even so, they base their moral stances on the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 13. There he makes it abundantly clear that what the law permits is not always beneficial and good. Most churches discourage or prohibit gambling because of the harm it does to those who gamble, their families, and their communities. A lust for the thrill of risk, a loss of perspective, preoccupation with the game, concealment and lying, guilt, borrowing, and harm to family and friends--all signs of addiction--are never only an individual issue.

The consequences of gambling make it morally questionable while being legally tolerable. For this reason gambling is permitted but regulated.

But here lies the paradox when it comes to guns. Christian attitudes about personal carry stem from moral (scripture) and legal (2nd Amendment) permissions. Gun laws and the guns they legislate are not only beneficial for communities, they argue, but create moral duties for all. Incredibly, many hold the perception that those who do not carry a weapon are deeply immoral. Personal carry is now a moral obligation, not simply a permission, according to the Christian right's narrative. They are the new guarantor of freedom. Guns are, so to speak, the new American "gospel," the new hope.

This narrative must be sustained in order to keep Jesus and Paul out of the hands of well-meaning Christians. The last thing the gun lobby wants is for Christians to question this narrative, to really dig deep into whether the permissions of U.S. law are actually good for churches, families, communities and society in general. They must counter an emerging and overwhelming narrative--a total social narrative of gun ownership, concealed carry, gun laws, the gun lobby, the gun industry, gun safety and gun deaths--with one making the 2nd Amendment the open door to moral behavior.

To be sure, this diverges from the story of Jesus. Jesus confronted those things destructive to individuals, families, communities, and the general social welfare. Jesus consistently disrupted the status quo--including the requirements of the law--to restore wellbeing to ordinary life in ordinary community. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, empowered those living as social outcasts, challenged laws and traditions of shame and honor that privileged some and exclude most others.

Jesus saw the kingdom of God thriving in the good of ordinary human life. Yet, ordinary life in the United States is continually threatened and consistently harmed by the prevalence of guns in our homes, on our streets, and in our public spaces. This includes legally and illegally-owned and carried guns.

It must be noted that gun advocates dispute these claims, attributing instead the 49 percent decrease in gun homicides over the last 20 years to personal carry laws. Scientists question this narrative, instead pointing out that violent crime in general has decreased during this period, and gun homicides have followed suit for all of the same sociological reasons. Furthermore, a direct link still exists between localized gun statistics and homicide rates.

The counter-narrative told by the gun lobby and industry is that consequences matter, except when they don't. Guns don't kill people; people do (except when guns kill bad people that couldn't have been killed by people without guns). At least this is the logic of Donald Trump. Referring to the Umpqua shootings, he said, "I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than the [shooter's], fewer people would have died."

Perhaps he hasn't seen the research that shows that guns kill people even when people don't want them to. This is why law enforcement trainers and officers themselves advise that not pulling a weapon is often the wisest course of action in active-shooter situations.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) believes that gun laws and the gun lobby behind them have helped create a "public health epidemic," a claim backed-up by research. Her point, I believe, speaks to the narrative of an armament culture that impedes the flourishing of ordinary life.

What are some of the tragic plotlines of this narrative?

* Most gun deaths in the United States are suicides.
* Women are 5 times more likely to be killed by her abuser if he has a gun.
* Children in the US are 17 times more likely to die from guns than in other industrialized nations.
* Drivers who carry guns are 44 percent to 77 percent more likely to exhibit road rage.

Equally important are the infuriating and confounding plotlines:

* 39 percent of White households possess firearms, only 18 percent of Black and 15 percent of Hispanic households have them.
* There are a few more than 50,000 retail gun stores in America. So, there are perhaps 50 private arsenal-owners for every licensed retail gun store.
* Gun ownership is declining in the US, but it's also concentrating to more than 9 guns per owning household.

While this data is an incomplete picture of the American gun narrative, it offers a portrait of a society dismissive of the kind of just relationships required of people of faith, where the vulnerable are protected, people like children, abused women, troubled adolescents, and the mentally ill.

It's a portrait of the great gamble.