In a rather remarkable series of autobiographical essays, the late Andre Dubus writes about his struggle to give up his gun. For most of his adult life, he had carried a small handgun, convinced that it provided the security he needed for himself and his family. He was a big man physically, more than capable of taking care of himself in an hostile situation, and yet he felt the need to carry a firearm. His rationalization through all these years was that, by carrying a gun, he would be able to save innocent people in any situation should trouble break out. Indeed he shares an incident when, emerging from a restaurant one night, he, by using his gun, is able to back away two drunken, racist bullies who were about to beat up a man.
A couple of years before he died however, Dubus was hit by a car (while trying to help some people at the scene of an accident) and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Now, curiously, in this situation within which he is more helpless, he gives up his gun and lives without it. What changed?
At one level, it’s simple: As an older man, mature, in touch now with both his vulnerability and his mortality, he begins to understand more deeply the dynamics of non-violence (which holds no place for guns). True, but there is more. In the end, he gave up his gun because he didn’t need it any more. He could now rely on the security promised by that Someone who invites us, at a certain stage of our lives, to trust in that safety provided by a divine shield. What is meant by this?
Perhaps an example can help: There are stories told both of Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty (two woman of extraordinary faith) pertaining to their seeming lack of concern for their own safety while they were living and ministering in some of the tougher areas of New York city. Sometimes they would venture into areas where even the police, carrying guns, were nervous about entering. Warned about the danger, they would say something to this effect: “God will protect me!” And God always did. Neither was ever attacked, despite their seeming imprudence. I suspect the same was true for Mother Theresa. She didn’t need to carry a gun. She had divine protection.
This is not the stuff of fairy tales, but the stuff of mature faith. Scripture assures us that faith works fully when it is fully mature. Thus Jesus tells us that if we believe strongly enough we will be able to pick up deadly snakes and not be harmed and drink poison and not feel its effects. There is a catch to the whole business however, the not-so-little caveat “if you believe strongly enough”. The problem is that, for most of our lives, we don’t believe strongly enough. When this is the situation, we still need to protect ourselves against snakes and poison and thugs. When we lack a strong faith, a gun can be a valuable thing. Why?
John of the Cross makes a distinction that sheds some light on this: For him, the demands of the gospel deepen and become more radical (and literal) the more we mature in faith. Ultimately God asks the same thing of everyone – “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” However how literally that applies to us at a given moment depends upon our maturity in faith. John of the Cross sees three levels here: the neophyte, the essentially mature, and the fully mature. The full literalness of the gospel kicks in only for the last group. Prior to that we lack the faith-maturity to turn the other cheek (without getting bitter and resentful), to pick up snakes and drink poison (without losing ourselves in the process), and to give up our gun (without an irresponsible free-fall into some abyss).
This is a critical insight. For John of the Cross there is indeed a time for healthy fundamentalism, a time to take the written word of scripture and apply it literally in our lives, but that time may not be too early. If we take scripture too literally when we are still immature in faith we are more likely to end up like the man in the gospels who set out to build a house but did not first calculate how many bricks he would need to finish the job and ended up with everything crashing down on him or like the older brother of the prodigal son who did all the right things but inside became bitter and angry.
If we aren’t able to carry the cross without sending the bill, perhaps we aren’t ready yet to follow Christ at a radical level. Likewise, if we don’t have the faith of a Dorothy Day, a Catherine Doherty, a Mother Theresa, or of a mature Andre Dubus, perhaps we aren’t ready either to give up our gun and walk purely in the safety of God.