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The Church is Failing the Gun Debate—and Young Men

The church is failing the gun debate.

More to the point: the church is failing its men—especially young men. There are a many young men who are aimless, uncertain and who feel something is lacking. They are looking for meaning and purpose in life. They may not even know they are searching. Doesn’t this describe each of us at some point in our lives?

Our communities, congregations and families are fragmented. Everywhere these young men look, people and institutions have little meaning to offer and even question whether there is meaning at all—at least, nothing worth finding.

One day, a young man holds a gun. Suddenly, he feels powerful—important-—impressive. He never forgets that feeling.

Of course, limiting access to weapons of mass destruction is common sense. Random individuals walking around with loaded assault rifles and zero accountability to anyone or anything was never the intent of the 2nd amendment. If you need proof, just look at the thousands of weapons the military already has off limits to the general public. This should be obvious to anyone.

But all the well-reasoned arguments in the world won’t compete with that feeling of meaning and power that an adrift young man suddenly stumbles upon when he holds a gun. There are great arguments here about the original intent of the 2nd Amendment. But those arguments fall on deaf ears when many feel like their very life is at stake if they were to lose access to certain guns—and they are right, but not in the way they think: They sense they would lose their identity and that feeling of meaning and power they have unfortunately never felt anywhere else. So they fight for gun rights with intensity.

These people, mostly men, have never felt meaning and power anywhere else in their lives—THIS is where we are failing as a society. The church especially is failing because it has a message that far surpasses what guns or gun culture could ever hope to offer.

What the Church offers

Unfortunately, the church often enters the gun debate in the same ways as the secular culture—either arguing for or against gun control. But that’s not where the church can be most effective in this debate.

There are lots of ways—and much better, more edifying ways—to find meaning, power and stature in life than through gun ownership. There are other place to take risks, rise up to challenges and be brave. There are other ways to make a difference in the world—and I would argue, far better and more satisfying in so many ways. But we are failing as a society for neglecting to introduce these to young men.

Reaching out to the poor, the needy and lost can take more bravery than anything you could ever use a gun for. It takes more creativity and is more of a challenge, too. I’ve seen it and felt it. And I will never forget that feeling. The excitement of church missions—to build, to serve, to preach the good news—takes all the guts you could ever hope to muster and leaves you with a deeper sense of fulfillment than possibly anything else—but we aren’t inviting young men into this!

Think of how Abraham followed God’s call and led his family from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Or how Noah built the ark against all odds and against public scorning. Or how Joseph guided a pregnant Mary to a safe place to give birth, and then shepherded them all to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod’s wrath. Think of men in mission today, such as Rev. Gregory Boyle who has befriended many of the nation’s most dangerous gangs. Or those bringing medical supplies to war zones—or water to remote, parched areas—or education to impoverished children. Good fathers, husbands and workers. The list goes on and on. There is more excitement, challenge, belonging and meaning there than anything else you could imagine!

The excitement that comes from gun ownership is merely about power, and power is never as meaningful or satisfying as the mission that Jesus calls us into through the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) or the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), for example.

Even more fundamentally, the church teaches that every person has dignity and worth. Every person has the image of God and shows us something of God.

It’s one thing to own or use a gun for self-defense or for hunting. However, a line is crossed when that gun becomes enmeshed with a person’s identity—when that gun is necessary for a person to feel good about themselves. In this case, gun idolatry has set in.

We Can Do Better

We can do better as a society. We can’t simply neglect our men and boys as a society and then be surprised when society starts to crumble—and mass shootings are a very good indicator of that crumbling. Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr has a great video series about this. He argues that just about every traditional society had rites of passage and a system of mentorship for the young, especially for young men. We don’t have that today and the results are disastrous.

I walked by a gun store the other day. There were a few guys in there perusing guns, holding them. You could see how that very environment—that access—that privilege—that ritual… changes their posture, it changes their energy. It gives them a sense of importance, power and meaning. You could just see it radiating off of them. Having all that power at their disposal gives a sense of awe and responsibility. In this way, gun stewardship is a kind of a rite of passage for some men. Maybe for some guys that sense of responsibility can be a good thing—good training, mentorship and a culture that supports these goals about guns can help people manage that great responsibility and rise to the occasion (but this goes back to being “well-regulated”—the example of Switzerland shows how a well-regulated gun culture could work). But for so many others this power does not come with an equal share of responsibility, and innocent people are paying the price with their lives and well-being.

The Plight of Young Men

Young men are under a lot of pressure:

1.  They are expected to achieve and to provide for their families. Yet, society has made it increasingly difficult for this to happen.
2.  Hollywood tells them that they must lead and dominate at all times. Yet, real life doesn’t work that way.
3.  On top of that, these men are also fed a message that success is solely determined by one’s individual efforts. They are told you can’t point to any societal factors but only your own hard work and enterprise (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this myth persists).
4.  Even further, there are fewer and fewer places where men gather for camaraderie, support and private conversation. My barber used to tell me what his shop used to be like a generation ago: Men would gather on a weekend morning for far more than a haircut and shave. They played pool, smoked cigars and talked about family, sports and the nation. This was once common and is now rare.
5.  Then on top of all this, society tells them that they are over-privileged! Make no mistake: White, male, hetero, Christian privilege is real.

But people who assign those labels rarely give witness to the whole story, and this only makes it more difficult to talk about and address the real problems of privilege.

So what do these men do?  They try to boost themselves to make up for it. They carry guns. Some take steroids or drive big trucks. Then many in society make fun of them for that. It’s a no win situation. Many young men respond by isolating themselves with their own friends and tune out the rest of society, since the rest of society clearly doesn’t understand them. They are trying to live up to the impossible standards that society and Hollywood have set, without having much of a stabilizing influence of older men in their lives offering a better vision and a chance to be part of something good and decent.

We are failing males in our society, including—maybe especially—the ones we call “over-privileged.” Yes, their privilege is real, but underneath it is a more complex story. They don’t have good mentors, they don’t know where else to find meaning—and more importantly, they don’t seem to have a sense of their own value and dignity without needing a gun (or wanting to overpower others) to feel good about themselves. Whether or not they discern a gun can be useful for self-defense isn’t the issue… the issue is they shouldn’t  need a gun to feel complete or whole as a human being. We can complain about them and talk about the dangers of fragile, insecure men—and that danger is real. But I actually feel for guys in this situation. We don’t know how to raise men, how to talk about men and how to support men. And we see the results.

Is it any wonder why so many young men, especially white men, fall through Whether or not people discern a gun can be useful for self-defense isn’t the issue… the issue is they shouldn’t need a gun to feel complete or whole as a human being.

Visit Frank Lesko’s website here.

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