Bonhoeffer, AR-15s, and Adventist Ethics—Part III


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In Part I of this three-part series, I mentioned my intent to apply Bonhoeffer’s ethics to the question of gun ownership. I am still planning on doing this. But before I do, I want to discuss the relationship between Bonhoeffer’s pacifism, outlined in Discipleship, and his work in Ethics. I have decided to discuss this because, while I did not address it in Part II, it is helpful for understanding Bonhoeffer’s ethics as a whole.

Bonhoeffer’s Pacifism

In his book Discipleship, written a few years before Ethics, Bonhoeffer clearly advocates Christian pacifism. Christians are “not only to have peace but to make peace… they renounce violence and strife. Those things never help the cause of Christ.”[i] In this passage, commenting on Christ’s statement “blessed are the peacemakers,”[ii] Bonhoeffer holds that Christians should “renounce self-assertion and [be] silent in the face of hatred and injustice.”[iii]

This ethics seems a far cry from Bonhoeffer’s later ethics of “free responsible action,”[iv] which allowed him to participate in a plot to kill Hitler. However, the core of Bonhoeffer’s ethics remains the same—it is, in the words of Clifford Green, an ethics that “never rested on principles.” [v] According to Green, Bonhoeffer acknowledges that “participation in a conspiracy to kill a tyrant involves guilt; it is contrary to the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount.”[vi] Bonhoeffer acknowledges that plotting a murder is wrong, and yet his ethics allow him to act with free responsibility. “Those who in acting responsibly take on guilt…place this guilt on themselves, not someone else; they stand up for it and take responsibility for it,” wrote Bonhoeffer. “Before God they hope only for grace.”[vii] While acknowledging the weight of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer allowed himself to participate in the plot to kill Hitler, hoping to bring peace to war-torn Germany.[viii] Green sums up Bonhoeffer’s position: “understanding Bonhoeffer requires moving from disembodied principles to the concrete situation: confronting the life-destroying warmonger [i.e., Hitler].”[ix]

Bonhoeffer’s difficult situation is precisely the reason that I have chosen to employ Bonhoeffer’s ethics for this series. Bonhoeffer’s situation is the historical moment of decision—he cannot sit back and consider, he must act. In his own words, “The question about the good always finds us already in an irreversible situation: we are living. This means…that we can no longer ask and respond to the question about the good as if we first had to create life new and good.”[x] Bonhoeffer’s situation is similar to our own. We can talk all we like, but the reality remains that if we want to live ethical lives, we must confront the problem of gun ownership as it is in the real world, as it is today.

With Bonhoeffer’s ethics hopefully clarified, I want to apply this ethics to the question of gun ownership.

Applying Bonhoeffer’s Ethics to Gun Ownership

When I speak of the question of gun ownership, what do I mean? I will here define a gun as any firearm engineered for the sole purpose of killing other human beings, such as an AR-15. This definition excludes hunting rifles and shotguns, along with firearms used for sport shooting. While recreational weapons may also be questionable, I want to focus on outlining an ethics for owning guns designed to kill—such as handguns, personal defense weapons (PDWs) and assault weapons. Contrary to some popular ideas, these weapons are not engineered to do anything other than kill. A shovel is made to dig a hole and a car is made to drive, but an assault weapon is to kill as many people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This is the situation we find ourselves in as Christians: we are called by Christ to “love our enemies” and to “overcome evil with good.” Ideally, this would mean that we live the kingdom of heaven, along the eschatological lines written by Isaiah: “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (or their firearms into, say, tractors).” But we don’t live in an ideal world.

We (at least, we American Christians) live in a country where firearms are readily available. Many Americans take pride in their right to own personal killing-machines. Firearm ownership accompanies American identity, which takes pride in its various ways of expressing power: its unnecessarily large trucks, its unnecessarily offensive flags, and not least, its unnecessarily powerful firearms. Many Americans are thus eager for an ethics which promotes firearm ownership carte blanche.

We also live in a world where people kill each other, sometimes with firearms. Thus, a popular argument goes, it is more ethical to own weapons and protect oneself than it is to refuse to own weapons and leave oneself unprotected. This consequentialist ethics is often invoked. Those who see ethics in terms of duty (normative ethics) reject consequentialist ethics, but their duty just might be to own a firearm and protect the family. It is their duty, after all. The availability of firearms coupled with such ethical arguments as the two outlined above leave many Christians thinking that they can and indeed should own firearms. However, other Christians, on the basis of an ethic similar to the Divine command ethics outlined in Part II, unilaterally reject firearm ownership.

Bonhoeffer’s ethics of responsibility can consider the question of firearm ownership not in terms of culture, consequences, duty, or Divine command, but in terms of the historical situation. And in the specific situation of twenty-first century America, firearm ownership does not seem to be necessary or helpful to living the ethical life. In a country in which many are murdered and few are saved by firearms, Christians should abstain from owning them and actively work to take these killing machines out of the hands of others, especially their Christian fellows. There is no dire need, only pride in owning firearms or fear of what may befall without them. In this case, Christians should act by the grace of God.

[i]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 108.

[iv]See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, vol. 6, (Fortress Press, 2005), 11-12.

—Daniel Peverini, from Loma Linda, California, is currently studying theology at Walla Walla University.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5132