David J. Dunn

Acton Blog: Dunn, Oikonomia, and Assault Weapons: Misappropriating a Principle?

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acton-institute-logoFor better or for worse (probably better) discussion of Orthodox teaching to cultural issues and every day life takes place more often on public blogs than anywhere else. Some critics deride the development of a virtual public square but how does it differ from essays written on paper except that delivery is faster?

Moreover, the quality of the writing is often good and sometimes excellent. The communications revolution is changing the Church as it has every other institution. Sharpening ideas by offering them for public critique is a good thing overall. People engaged in public life who know that ideas are important have been doing it for centuries.

Below is a response to David J. Dunn’s essay An Eastern Orthodox Case for Banning Assault Weapons by Dylan Pahman published on the Acton Institute Power Blog.

Fr. Gregory Jensen also crafted a response to Dunn that published immediately below this post.

David J. Dunn yesterday wrote an interesting piece arguing for a ban on assault weapons from an Orthodox Christian perspective (here). First of all, I am happy to see any timely Orthodox engagement with contemporary social issues and applaud the effort. Furthermore, I respect his humility, as his bio statement reads: “his views reflect the diversity of Orthodox opinion on this issue, not any ‘official’ position of the church.” The same applies to my views as well.

I take issue with Dunn, in particular, in his use of the Orthodox principle of oikonomia. As he frames it, it would appear that he has not taken the time to understand it in historical context, distorting his application of the principle to the debate of firearm regulation. Indeed, he appears to have entirely misappropriated this principle, applying it in precisely the opposite manner in which it is traditionally intended.

When it comes to government intervention in the market, I tend to err on the side of freedom, as I have recently expressed with regards to the issue of smoking (here). Now, to be clear, my point in that post was that I was unsure what good any further regulations on smoking would bring, not that we ought to lift all that are already in place. The central question in that case, I stated, is “to what extent should the state be able to intervene into the market when a company’s or industry’s product can and tends to, but does not necessarily, endanger our natural rights?”

Now, when it comes to firearms, I think this is an even stickier situation. Many people own and operate firearms perfectly safely, whereas most people who smoke at least endanger their own health, not to mention the health of others through second hand smoke.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that firearms are actually made to kill, calling to question whether the state has a role, for the sake of protecting the right to life of its citizens, to regulate—or perhaps to promote, as some would argue—the availability of different types of firearms. All that is to say, this is a difficult question of ethics, economics, and constitutional law and not as simple as some may want it to be.

Dunn argues for banning “assault weapons” (a rather ambiguous legal term) on the basis of the Orthodox principle of oikonomia. In response to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, he writes,

Wayne LaPierre needs a little oikonomia because oikonomia demands we value people more than ideology. The “letter of the law” in the NRA is to oppose any regulation on the sale and manufacture of firearms. But holding fast to one’s ideals can make a person blind to their human cost, leading to irrational behavior. Thus, in the wake of shootings like Sandy Hook Elementary, LaPierre refuses to admit the obvious fact that a shooter with a smaller clip can kill fewer children. Instead he says that we should focus on the root causes of the problem. But the root causes are not always the ones that need to be addressed. In the Orthodox Church, oikonomia is a kind of spiritual triage: First save the patient! ButLaPierre is like a doctor, who comes across a person in cardiac arrest, and scolds her about proper diet and exercise.

What I take issue with here is Dunn’s understanding of the principle of oikonomia. He defines it as follows:

Oikonomia comes from the word oikos, which means “household” or “family.” When it comes to the canons, oikonomia means that, just as parents do not enforce the rules in every situation, neither do priests. The canons are what the Orthodox theologian, Fr. John McGuckin, calls a “pastoral instrument.” If a priest knows someone is sinning, the canons might dictate a particular course of action, and the priest might choose to ignore it. The letter of the law is subordinate to the needs of the soul. If enforcing a canon is going to make someone feel ashamed, despair, or leave the church, the most responsible thing the priest can do is to suspend the “letter of the law” for the sake of the immediate need.

While this is more or less true, what Dunn does not explore, and what clouds his application, is when and for what reason a priest may act out of oikonomia.

Historically, with regards to the canons, at least, the principle of oikonomia can be summarized by Canon 74 of St. Basil the Great:

[The one] that has the power of binding and loosing, may lessen the time of penance, to an earnest penitent.

Now notice that, as Dunn has recorded, the canons do allow for oikonomia, an overlooking of a canon in a special circumstance. But what is that special circumstance? The good behavior of the one under the sentence of the canon.

While I am not even so sure that expanding this principle to the ideology of the NRA is appropriate at all, if one wishes to do so, as does Dunn, it would seem that the above point would be crucial. Dunn wants LaPierre to relax the NRA’s principles because of the bad behavior of people who tragically misuse firearms. This would appear to be precisely the opposite of oikonomia.

Ironically, the NRA’s position of less regulation would fit oikonomia far better (though I am not too fond of comparing NRA members or legislators to priests and bishops). They want less of the law, not more of it.

No, whatever merits Dunn’s position may have, his application of this Orthodox principle seems entirely backwards. My advice would be that oikonomia is simply a non-starter for engagement with this issue from an Orthodox perspective.

As for how best to address it, well, I admit I am still personally working that out. However, when it comes to such a practical matter, there is something at the root of oikonomia that is much needed: the virtue of prudence. And I do not see how anyone can hope to act in prudence in this matter without engaging the issue from all sides and, importantly, considering any relevant data regarding the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of limiting the market in any way for the purpose of achieving a desired moral end, as well as minding the unintended consequences that surely will result as well—something that Dunn regrettably neglects to do.

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

Fr. Gregory Jensen

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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.

Ancient Faith Live Tonight (Sunday June 17) at 8pm Eastern — Same-Sex Marriage

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Is Same-Sex Marriage a Church vs State issue? Does the Church have anything to say to the larger culture about marriage? No, argues David J. Dunn, the author of an opinion piece that ran in the Huffington Post several months ago (Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage). Dunn argues that traditional marriage (one man and one woman) is a moral construct invented by the Church and thus applies only to Christian believers and not the larger culture. Let the Church be Church and the State be State.

On the other side is Fr. John Whiteford who argues that traditional marriage is not merely a moral construct invented by the Church, but exists in nature. Nature itself reveals the law of God; the natural order reveals the social context in which children are brought into the world. How so? Check out the biological plumbing. One man and one woman create a new child. Homosexual relationships on the other hand are naturally sterile, biologically closed to procreation. This reveals an intent and purpose that has its source in God. That’s also why traditional marriage is practiced almost universally across all cultures and time.

Traditional marriage is blessed by God, even for the non-believer. If people live in accord with the law of God, even if that law is discerned only through the operations of nature, then they obey God. We should not erroneously conclude that no blessing exists merely because the marriage was not sanctified in the Church. To do so makes the same mistake Dunn makes but from the other direction. Natural marriage is as real as a sacramental marriage and should be honored and supported as such.

It is important for Christians to realize that Dunn’s distinction between the natural and sacramental is artificial. Sacramental reality never negates nature. Rather, the sacraments elevate nature because natural operations become a means by which God’s grace is imparted to us. Ritual purification by water becomes baptism for example. Anointing with oil becomes a means of healing. The transformed bread and wine maintain their capacity to nourish the body while becoming nourishment for the soul. Sacramental reality never, ever, negates the natural workings of the created order. Rather, those workings take on a divine dimension congruent with their natural function.

Finally, we hear that the State should have no interest in marriage and it would be better for everyone if the State removed itself from marriage questions entirely, even from establishing contract law around traditional marriage (libertarians are fond of this argument including the Orthodox variety). The problem with this argument is that State has an interest in cultural stability, or to put it more correctly, the culture has an interest in stability and thus grants the State authority to affirm those natural relationships in law. By decreeing that same-sex coupling is a morally legitimate marriage however, the State arrogates unto itself an authority that runs contrary to nature and proclaims itself as the source and arbiter of moral law. Under this scenario rights are not discerned in nature or, ultimately, seen as coming from God. Rather, rights emerge only from the will to power of the elites — those who pull the levers of State power. The moral barriers against tyranny are removed.

The program runs on Ancient Faith Radio (click link) starting at 8pm Eastern.

Addendum: While hunting for the link to Dunn’s original article I came across this: My Year as a Pro-Gay ‘Orthodox’ Heretic. Somebody sent me the link to his blog posting (same content) but I had not idea it was published on HuffPo. The title is a bit misleading (I never called him a heretic) and the only argument I put forward so far are the ones I posted above: Dunn ignores natural law and has a skewed understanding of how the sacraments work. He should have given me a heads-up, but I will craft a fuller response this week sometime.

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