The Gun in US American Life: An Ethnographic Christian Ethics
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Guns hold a vexingly unique place in US American life. The United States has by far the highest rate of private firearm ownership and firearm-caused death among high-income nations in the world. Further, guns and conservative evangelical Protestantism stand in an intimate cultural relationship to each other in the United States. As such, the place of guns in US American life constitutes a wound that calls out for theological reflection and redress. This study aims to develop a Christian ethics of this issue.
Following the ethnographic turn in Christian theology and ethics, I develop my proposals out of two years of fieldwork carried out with evangelical Christian handgun owners in Durham, North Carolina and its environs, and the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham which organizes vigils at the sites of firearm-caused death in Durham. My project develops thick descriptions of these two orientations to guns in US American life, drawing upon phenomenology to characterize them as embodied orientations with distinctive temporal and spatial characteristics. In the first, my interlocutors engage in a mode of armed embodiment in which they aim to secure those bodies that present as vulnerable to them—their body, their family’s bodies, and their church’s body—through what I term a posture of care with a tool of violence. In the second, my interlocutors enact a mode of care for the victims of gun violence, the majority of whom are young men of color. If the first engage in a set of armed practices in the anticipation of violence, the latter attempt to craft a faithful response in its aftermath. In dialogue with the just war tradition, just peacemaking theory, and other theoretical frameworks of analysis, I draw upon this account to develop my Christian ethical proposals.
Chapter one gives an account of why just war and Christian pacifism are insufficient for developing a Christian ethics of the gun, turning instead to ethnography as a means of generating moral descriptions of the myriad ways that guns shape our common life. Chapter two turns to this descriptive task, issuing a thick description of Christian handgun ownership as I encountered it in the field. Chapter three draws upon a particular trajectory of the just war tradition in order to extend this descriptive account in a Christian ethical register, taking up the line of reflection—with reference to Augustine and Paul Ramsey—that sees justified violence as coterminous with love. Yet, through consideration of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, I show how just war fails to account for all of the morally relevant features of my interlocutors’ way of being in the world, particularly with regard to race.
Chapter four turns to the vigil ministry of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and just peacemaking theory. Through an account of the vigil and the mode of care enacted by vigil keepers, I show that the orientation of Christian handgun owners generates a myopia about who is made vulnerable by the vast presence of guns in our common life. I conclude by upholding the vigil as a practice of just peacemaking by which the victims of gun violence, those crucified by the gun, might begin to be cared for, and in which the place of the gun in US American life might begin to be imagined anew.
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