This week we re-post a letter from June of 2013. Writing in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Brad Crisler explains why he decided to liquidate his gun collection. This is not a political statement. At least not in the way the word "political" is used in current American culture; a way of identifying which side of any number of talking points one comes down on. However, in the classical sense of the word, (what lens informs how one goes about making daily decisions in the context of one’s communities) this very much is a political statement.
For the past 15 years or so I have very passionately pursued collecting in the field of antique weapons, namely antique firearms and specifically western expansion and military firearms of the mid-late nineteenth century. Like most of my pursuits, this one has involved deep scholarship and the formation of many great mentor relationships as well as the thrill of the chase of that unrecognized valuable or historically important gun. Those who know me know that my particular passion for history is equaled only by my passion for the treasure hunt. I have owned some amazing pieces over the years and my understanding of the American story has been greatly enhanced through my knowledge of these firearms.
However, over the past couple of years I’ve been wrestling with how to reconcile my passion for collecting antique firearms and the narrative by which I have chosen to live my life—the Jesus story and my devotion to his teachings.
Now, no doubt some of my friends who are gun collectors (and some who are not) will say that I have been unduly influenced by liberal-minded metropolitan-progressive church folk or by my biblical-scholar friends, or maybe I’m reacting to or overcompensating for the recent tragedies involving firearms. The truth is they would be right on all accounts. There are many friends in my faith community that have been central in helping me explore more fully what it means to be a follower of The Way in twenty-first century America. Some of these folks are indeed academics who have had long journeys of deep wrestling with these same questions…and frankly, if we are not moved or changed and called to great reflection by 20 dead school children by the hand of a single gunman then I mourn the loss of our collective sanity.
However, at the end of the day, the most influential factor in my thinking on this matter is that I cannot misinterpret or gloss over or talk my way around the fact that the founder of the religion I am devoted to, who I believe was the embodiment of all that is dear to the heart of the Creator of the universe, was a pacifist. A man of complete peace. A man whose central teaching was love and, even in the face of extreme violence, taught and lived a non-violent response, even to his own end.
And in our culture where the distinction is becoming increasingly clear between those who have given themselves to the teachings of Jesus (no matter how counter-intuitive they may be) and those who use the word “Christian” to indicate a default attitude about certain sets of political, social, and moral issues, it seems inappropriate for me to continue to pursue the collecting of instruments of violence, namely guns.
There is at the heart of gun culture (even the antique gun culture) a dark celebration of and an infatuation with violence. The Civil War, the Wild West, cowboys and Indians, military achievement, and the spirit of the gun slinging adventurer are all central to the field. Further, the almost rabid adherence to and insistence on the right to bear arms, no matter what the consequences to our national well-being, seems to permeate all gun collecting circles and has reached such a fever pitch that I feel I can no longer identify with it.
There are people I know and have great friendships with that look on collecting guns as a way of honoring and remembering their ancestors, as a vehicle for education and as a legitimate investment field. I do not wish to be at odds with these folks, and I have much more in common with many of them than just collecting guns. Those friendships will continue. I also don’t mean to imply that all guns are bad and that no one should own one. I grew up hunting and there is great value in teaching and sharing responsible hunting practices. My father was teaching my daughter gun safety and target shooting with a .22 rifle just a couple of weeks ago, and we have enjoyed the bounty of my and his hunting at many, many meals in our home. My very personal specific decision involves collecting and accumulating historic firearms.
I believe that being an American presents a particularly unique set of challenges for Christians. The often misunderstood idea that America was founded as a “Christian nation” or on “Christian principles” (which principles do we mean? The enslavement of an entire race of people for 400 years? or the displacement and near eradication of the majority of the native population? or the gender inequality that still ripples through the culture?, etc., etc.) and the intermingling of faith with nationalism, patriotism, and empire has had the effect of many Christians believing that the Kingdom of the United States is the same as the Kingdom of God…and to lose one or win one means to lose or win the other. Nothing could be further from the truth…or from the teaching of Jesus who explicitly taught that the Kingdom of God has no political boundaries and that membership was tied directly to the practices of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7)—a deep and honest reading of which stands in stark contrast to the aims and end game of all empires. The odd and frightening thing is that very many mainline evangelicals in America come down squarely on the side of empire, whether gun control, capitalism, immigration, racial issues, social justice, and, in greatest contrast, war.
These are all issues we are confronted with daily in our culture, and I am slowly trying to make decisions to further make clear where my ultimate allegiance lies. Giving up collecting guns is one of these decisions. In the spirit of Adams to Jefferson—"We ought not die until we have explained ourselves to each other"—I thought I should do just that to my friends who collect guns and to those who have known me as a collector of guns.
Peace be on us all, Brad Crisler
Brad Crisler is a career songwriter and producer, quasi-professional treasure hunter, collector of exotic trinkets, painter of illuminated manuscripts and portrait miniatures, husband, father, and self proclaimed redneck renaissance man from a cotton town in Northwest Alabama, population 364. He currently resides with his family in Brentwood, TN.