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

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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.


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  • RogerMcKinney

    Nicely done! Thanks!

    On the issue of oikonomia, it seems that it would be important to take into consideration that it speaks of household administration. The church applies it to the “household” of a congregation. But does it apply to an entire nation?

    Hayek makes the distinction between family/tribal rules (roughly equivalent to oikonomia) and national rules. The household can operate on grace, wealth redistribution and charity because the members of the household know each other intimately. A “household” of complete strangers will need different rules because attempting to apply household rules to strangers can be disastrous.

    At the national level, rules need to be much more general principles and must be applied without favor. For example, Moses instructed judges in Israel to show no favor to the poor in their enforcement of justice. Such an attitude would be disastrous for a household, but necessary for a nation of strangers.

    Continuing with principles, banning any weapon is group punishment, which is immoral. Less than 1% of people who own assault rifles cause any problems, so why punish them?

    Of course, the left will ask why anyone needs an assault rifle. But that changes the subject. No one needs an assault rifle, especially one that isn’t automatic. But that’s not the point. The point is that people have a right to defend themselves and they have a right to assault rifles. Why should they give up that right if they have done nothing wrong?

    Changing to practical matters, one economist estimates that gun ownership prevents about one million crimes per year. The debate should take that into consideration. Are we willing to endure more crime to prevent the very rare mass killings at schools? That is a poor trade off. According to the Erasmus University’s survey of world crime, Europe has twice the violent crime rate of the US because they are willing to accept more violent crime in exchange for having fewer gun crimes.

    Of course, the left will say they don’t want to take away all guns, just assault rifles. What harm could that do? First, murderers could easily kill more with shot guns than with assault rifles. Assault rifles are for long distance fighting. They’re less effective at close ranges. That’s why US soldiers in the Viet Nam war switched to shot guns when the enemy got very close and was about to over run them.

    Second, the clear goal of the left is to ban all guns. Compromise of any kind puts us on the slippery slope to that goal because the will come back with just another small compromise. Liberty erodes by inches, not miles.

    • Roger,

      Thank you for your very thoughtful and well written reply to my post.

      You raise a number of very good points, all of which I wish I had made!

      Let me focus in here on two. First, Hayek’s distinction between family/tribal rules and national rules and second, that banning any weapon is group punishment and so immoral.

      Strictly speaking oikonomia is less a principle of jurisprudence and more the fruit of the Church’s prophetic character. Unlike in American law, in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, an act of economia doesn’t set a precedent. Instead it is meant not simply to compensation for the lacunae that exist in any legal system but also to allow room for the movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. While this freedom can be, and has been, abused but the abuse happens when economia is exercised in a manner that is contrary to the dogmatic tradition and/or the canons themselves. Economia is not
      freedom to do whatever one wants but is rather a disciplined freedom that is exercised within the context of the living relationships which constitute the Church.

      As you so rightly observed, economia is familial law, it presupposes real and substantive intimacy. It is not a matter of applying general and abstract principles but of trying to discern the will of God for the person. But again, economia is only responsibly exercised within the context of a personal relationship and within the formal limits of the life of the Church.

      The Orthodox Church is a community, a highly cohesive social group with clearly defined boundaries relative to other social groups and with very concrete behavior expectations for its members. A nation like the US is a very broadly defined social group with relatively porous boundaries and few concrete behavior expectations for its members. Both the Orthodox Church and America are based on a creed but the American creed is a very broad anthropological statement (“All
      men are created equal,” etc.) while the Nicene Creed is very specific in the beliefs that it enumerates.

      Rules that work for a community (like the Orthodox Church) aren’t appropriate for a nation for the reasons you outlined. While I think the Church can function as leavening agent for a nation by providing the State with a critical perspective from which to examine the justice of its laws, the only way (I think) you can do the kind of “scaling up” that Dunn attempts is by sacrificing the uniqueness of both Church and State. While canon law might offer a helpful perspective for secular law (and vice versa), a direct application of one to the other strikes me as ideologically driven. At its core this ideology seeks to impose a social and person intimacy that does not, and cannot, exist on a national level. My fellow citizen is not (necessarily) my friend, much less is he a member of my Church or my family and applying rules from these intimate relationships to our relationship as fellow citizens is, well, frankly a sin against chastity.

      Now to the second point.

      I concur absolutely with you—taking semi-automatic weapons from law abiding citizens because someone else committed a crime is immoral. It is unjust to impose a penalty on you because of my misbehavior. If I commit a crime with a gun, take away my right to own a gun—do it for the rest of my life if my crime is serious enough. But by what right does the government take away your right because of my crime?

      The just tradition I think offers us some insight here. According to the
      classical understanding, a pre-emptive war (that is a war undertake to prevent a perceived rather than an actual threat) is unjust. So not only is taking away your weapon because of my crime an unjust punishment of an innocent person, doing so in anticipation of a possible crime by a third party makes such laws a moral outrage. “I’m going to take away Tom’s gun because of Dick’s crime and because I’m afraid that Harry might use a gun to commit a second crime.”

      Do we really want to restrict the rights of citizens based on the fear of
      what someone else might do. This is simply an abuse of power and I think you’re right that the “goal of the left is to ban all guns.” That they are willing, as evidently they are in Europe, to suffer more violent crime overall in order to suffer fewer violent crimes committed with guns. What make this all the more worrisome is that the likely victims of a more criminally violent society are not those making the law. It is the poor who will most likely suffer not the politicians.

      Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Thank you again for your insightful comment!


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