On the Pro-Life Direction of Providence: The Christian Withdrawal from Killing

This is a follow-up to a comment on a previous Facebook post concerning the March for Our Lives [in the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Florida], in which the commentator asked what gun-control restrictions I had in mind. In general, I want to see a heightening of licensing requirements. (There is nothing more fundamental to liberty than one's ability to move about freely, and yet the state regulates automobiles to the hilt.) 

Under Heller, the Second Amendment has been reinterpreted to be about "the core lawful purpose of self-defense." I say reinterpreted because given any specific knowledge of the civic conversation at the time, it should be recognized that the core question at issue in the Second Amendment is broader: it is about the right to revolt, which had barely fifteen years before been acted on by town militias, of ordinary citizens, at Lexington and Concord. Both Anti-Federalists and Federalists believed in the right to revolt, of course, but the Anti-Federalists were very worried about the near-plenary authority the Constitution had vested in Congress over the army and militia. The awkward phrasing of the Second Amendment is an attempt to fudge the common belief in a right to revolt in a way that would ease specific Anti-Federalist concerns somehow.

The Heller majority focused on establishing the "individual right to bear arms" against the fairly recent legal innovation claiming that the Second Amendment had only established a collective right to bear arms. That latter view is indeed absurd. But fixating on addressing that fantasy of Constitutional interpretation meant that what Blackstone called "the natural right of resistance and self-preservation" at stake in the right to have arms was, largely, truncated to the question of self-preservation. (To be sure, the Founders would not have second-guessed the right of the people to have weapons for hunting and self-defense.)

That said, I am personally thankful that the majority under Heller made this truncation. In theory I believe in the right to revolt. But under no circumstances do I ever envision shooting an American soldier--not least because my father was one. And as David French argues forcefully and well, but I believe in a way that is its own reductio ad absurdum, foregrounding the right to revolt means, in principle, enabling access to weapons powerful enough to prove effective as a deterrent against a government that would wield the might of the American military against the people.

My support of the right to revolt in principle combined with a profound reticence to countenance any activation of it in practice dovetails with my point about the general Christian tendency to withdraw from killing. Pacifism is not the teaching of the Church, and I am not a pacifist. If we care about the victims of history, we must stand ready to apply force against predators. But every Christian should feel within him or herself a tectonic pull towards pacifism. Likewise, I recognize that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, but I have also come, in Catholic docility, more and more into harmony with the tendency (since Pope Saint John Paul II's analytical siting of capital punishment within the culture of death in Evangelium vitae) to leave the option behind. The last case of justified killing, self-defense, is the easiest: surely every Christian recognizes from the Sermon on the Mount the radical possibility of sacrificing oneself in favor of an aggressor. The one instance in which there is no question that the possibility of killing is on the table is when those directly in my care are threatened. It is one thing for me to turn the other cheek, quite another for me to turn a vulnerable person's cheek. We must not fail in our basic responsibilities towards our children, towards those who have less power. (Of course, there can be no question in natural law, and certainly not in Christianity, of killing someone merely to defend property. That would be a demonic inversion of values.)

I used to complain about the translation of the Fifth Commandment as "Thou shalt not kill." As a moral theologian, I would note that "kill" is too generic; it has not been specified by a moral object. It should be "Thou shalt not murder." And, technically, that is true.

And yet. And yet. Human killing is something we should always be in the practice of withdrawing from. That withdrawal belongs at the heart of the New Law of grace. Grace perfects nature, yes, but it is a perversity to use that architectonic fact to insist grimly on a right to kill, to carve out an interior space, that tends to grow, in which I am at pains to assert my rights against a world of threats. That is not Christian liberty.

Grace perfects nature often by setting it within a context so vast, it will look to unevangelized eyes as if everything is upside down and backwards, even unto the Cross: loving and forgiving your enemy, though he be killing you.

The immensity of the Gospel cannot be legislated. (One cannot, for example, legislate away the natural-law right to self-preservation.) But Christians are to be a leaven in the world. Christians are to be fire from heaven. The structure of nature, designed by God, is not a static thing. It moves. And the directionality of that movement is towards universal reconciliation. Every Christian is called to be a minister of that pro-life directionality.

This direction is rooted in the natural law, but aims towards something limitless. As I wrote in my last post on this topic, it is the case that being pro-life means, first of all, feeling the urgency of the restoration of the right to life of each innocent human being in law. If one does not recognize that principle, the most rudimentary of the principles of liberal republicanism (the equality of each human life), it makes no sense to pursue, as we ought to pursue, the pro-life logic into the muddier waters of how exactly to regulate guns under the Second Amendment. But it is also the case that the pro-life impulse is there to move the whole dead and killing weight of history, of resentments, of fear, of scarcity, of entitlement.

To be pro-life is a radical thing: it begins with the fundamental responsibility towards the most vulnerable life, and it strains towards a heaven of peaceable infinity.