Fr. Gregory Jensen – Canons and Guns: An Eastern Orthodox Response to a HuffPo Writer

fr-gregory-jensen-150x150Source: Acton Institute Power Blog | Fr. Gregory Jensen

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.

Fr. Gregory Jensen blog at Koinonia.


  1. Michael Bauman :

    After reading Mr. Dunn’s take on homosexuality and Fr. Gregory’s summary it seems that Mr. Dunn suffers from the all to common problem of making a particular policital ideology the doctrine and theology of the Church (not party specific BTW). He suffers further, it seems, from the delusion that we can make heaven on earth by ignoring sin. Like many he has turned the concept of law around to a situation that the law is created and inforced against those who would otherwise be law-abiding rather than constraining the lawless.

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      Excellent points all. The danger of Dunn’s arguments is the naive (dare I say blasphemous) belief that human nature can be changed, even over “decades” of legislation. Fr Jensen is right: we don’t need to do tikkun ‘olam (Hebrew for “heal the world) but the Eschaton.

  2. Someone needs to remind David Dunn that Christ said “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, NOT “Blessed are the Pacifists.” Huge difference!

  3. Thanks for the cross post Fr Hans!

    In Christ,


  4. Michael Bauman :

    Any one is free to not own guns and we are all called to be peacemakers. However, the US Constitution is pretty clear and there is no dogmatic reason that people, except priests, should not own guns and be trained how to use them.

  5. I have interview literally, documented on paper, more than 1.500 absolutely forgettable male and female convicted felons who were in possession of a firearm at the time of their arrest – half of who having utilized the firearm in the commission of the crime for which they were arrested, including murder. I could count on one hand the number arrested in possession of an assault-type weapon, and they were specifically gang-related crimes, calculated & planned for, with a specific victim(s) in mind. Having recently attended a conference of the CA State Police. I learned that the AR-15 assault rifle utilized in Newtown, CT can deliver a round every 1.33 seconds – the time it takes an average adult to pull the trigger – meaning 45 rounds per minute or 12 rounds in less than 16 seconds. Dr. Dunn’s example is certainly conceivable. The police demonstrated a fully legal, mail-order attachment (less than $400) to the AR-16 that takes no technical skill whatsoever to apply, allowing it to immediately deliver 900 rounds per minute. I would note that the classic American Thompson Machine Gun maxes out at 1,200 rounds per minute. Assault weapons are virtually impossible to conceal – the hallmark of street crime – grossly expensive to purchase on the street, difficult to control, and are laden with exaggerated legal consequences for possession. My point: these weapons are not in the hands of street criminals.

    The individuals who perpetrated these mass murders are anomalies of human behavior. In the context of epidemiology, this behaviour is not on the increase, it does not constitute a “trend,” a pattern, or an epidemic of behaviour. Despite the feeding frenzy as to the “common cause.” these isolated events of atrocity are so anomalistic and random that attempts to draw inference or project their “meaning” as “bellwether” or metaphor of social or societal state is foolish, unfounded, and diminishes perspective. An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine the week after the shootings in CT pointed out that the combined total of shooting victims in Oak Creek, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Newtown was 95, while the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011 showed an average of 88 murders and more than 200 serious firearm injuries by firearm per day in the US.

    I will say that I do not agree with Dr. Dunn’s choice of the use of the theology of oikonomia in this circumstance – and while I would guess that most, if not all, have not followed his personal blog – I appreciate the need of a father who delivered his three small children to school on the morning of the Newtown tragedy to put his thoughts to writing, tentatively, speculatively, and without the intention of necessarily being dogmatic. The commentary that he has done “a disservice to the Church’s moral witness” strikes me as rich rhetoric, but fool’s gold. The consistent theme of this particular site has been to champion the fact that “moral witness,” “moral leadership,” and “moral authority” are precisely what is missing in the church!

    To conclude, It seems to me that everyone has settled on the “necessary first step” of repentance and the a return to the ascetic struggle. Yes, yes, who can disagree, who can take issue with this? And the corollary is, in the event nothing changes, it is easy enough to say, “YOU are not really committed to repenting and/or the ascetic ideal.” This is a circular symbiosis that keeps everybody busy, nobody encouraged, and indeed it will take the Eschaton to disrupt. But somewhere in my heart, I suspect the Lord will pity the servant who honestly says “No one taught me. No one showed me the way. There was no leader” while charging those He anointed, “You knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed.” (Matt 25:26)

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