Acton Institute Powerblog

Canons and Guns: An Eastern Orthodox Response to a HuffPo Writer

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Several of my friends on Facebook pages posted a link to David Dunn’s Huffington Post essay on gun control (An Eastern Orthodox Case for Banning Assault Weapons). As Dylan Pahman posted earlier today, Dunn, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, is to be commended for bringing the tradition of the Orthodox Church into conversation with contemporary issues such as gun control. As a technical matter, to say nothing for the credibility of his argument, it would be helpful if he understood the weapons he wants to ban. Contrary to what he thinks, semi-automatic weapons can’t “fire a dozen shots before a fallen deer even hits the ground.” Like many he confuses machine guns (which are illegal anyway) and semi-automatic weapons (not “assault weapons”). Putting this aside I have a couple of objections to his application of a principle from the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, economia, to the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms.

Dunn is correct in his assertion that economia says that the “letter of the law is subordinate to the needs of the soul.” But (and again, Dylan pointed this out) Dunn is a more than bit off when he says that a priest “might choose to ignore” the canonical tradition if “enforcing a canon is going to make someone feel ashamed, despair, or leave the church.” While there are times when a priest might tolerate a sin, what Dunn describes in his essay seems closer to moral expedience than pastoral prudence. Sin is still sin and while a priest might at times take a more indirect or a lenient approach to a person struggling with a particular sin, this is a matter of pastoral prudence in the case of an individual.  Dunn fundamentally misunderstands, and so misapplies, the canonical tradition to his topic. And he does so because he blurs the difference between pastoral prudence and public policy. Contrary to what radical feminism would have us believe, the personal is not political and this is evidently something that Dunn fails to realize.

Putting aside the difference between the personal and the political, Dunn makes a number  of substantive anthropological errors.  First of all economia is always exercised in the service of personal freedom. It is about lifting a restriction or dispensing from what is ordinarily required, so that the person is better able to respond to the prompting of divine grace. What economia doesn’t do is impose new restrictions on the person.  So, a defensible “economical” reading of the Second Amendment could, I think, argue that we need to make gun ownership easier not harder. Rather than the new restrictions that Dunn wants, the application of economia might lead us to expand the pool of gun owners, the circumstances where and when they could carry and use their weapons and maybe even the weapons that people could own.

(So there’s no mistake, I’m not making an argument for either less or more restrictive gun laws. I’m only pointing out that Dunn’s understanding of the canonical principle of economia is one-sided at best and flawed at worse.)

As I said above, I am very sympathetic with Dunn’s desire to apply the tradition of the Orthodox Church to contemporary social problems. He should be commended for this because the Christian tradition in general, including the tradition of the Orthodox Church, has something valuable and essential to say to us today as we struggle to build a just society. Unfortunately, I think Dunn has misunderstood and misapplied the tradition. His argument is not theological but ideological. This is clearest when, contrary to the tradition of the Church, he says that “the root problem is not the one that needs fixing.” If there is an Eastern Orthodox case to be made for stricter gun control laws, Dunn hasn’t made it. Far worse, however, is his failure to consider human sinfulness. Failing to do so is a disservice to the Church’s moral witness.

Yes, we live in a violent culture and while Dunn is right to condemn such violence it is disappointing that he fails to consider that in a fallen world human violence is a constant.  This is why practically and theologically he is simply wrong when he say that we will “need decades to fix the root causes” of the culture of death. We don’t need decades, we need the Eschaton; we need Jesus to return in glory as “the Judge of the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). This doesn’t mean that we can do nothing to minimize human violence but even just laws, crafted by wise legislators and applied by good (and even wiser) judges can only go so far. The Orthodox response to violence, dare I say the truly “economical” response, is personal repentance and ascetical effort. While among Orthodox Christians there is certainly, and rightly, a diversity of policy opinions about gun violence and a wide range of social problems, there is no diversity on personal repentance and ascetical struggle as essential to human flourishing and as the necessary first step to a more just, and so less violent, society.

Rev. Gregory Jensen The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a psychologist of religion and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He also blogs at Koinonia and The American Orthodox Institute. Fr. Gregory was a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) during the summer of 2013.