Citizens arm themselves not just to protect themselves, but because a day may come when their government may betray them. Political groups rally to let the government know they will not stand for such oppression. Religious radicals are killing any who do not conform to their laws. They kill those who disobey. It’s a dark and difficult time.
No, this isn’t just the context of America in 2016 but it’s the playing field of each narrative that exists in the New Testament.
Citizens do not feel safe under Rome. Bands of zealots have attempted to overthrow the empire. Religious Jews stone to death those who practice homosexuality, adultery and other sexual immoralities. They kill those who preach contrary to their law. And their religious texts (now collected in The Bible) tell them to do so. (Deuteronomy 22/Leviticus 20, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 24)
The world that Jesus is up against is not so different from our own. Maybe the Empire and the religions have changed but the circumstances mirror in very clear ways. It should be easy then for the followers of Christ in 2016 to observe how they are called to exist in such conditions. We can simply place ourselves in these narratives and learn how God desires us to handle these conflicts. After all to know the character of Christ is to know the character of God. For we believe that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)
We’ve suffered yet another tragedy in America where many people were killed by an upset human with access to a destructive tool. And there are all sorts of narratives out there that make efforts to explain what within this situation was the root of it all. Republicans want to blame “radical Islamic terrorism” and Democrats want to blame our of lack gun control. I’ve read the Facebook posts. I’ve watched our politicians. I’ve reacted internally in various ways as we all have.
We each want a simple thing to blame and our opposition reacts and distances itself from this blame. “It’s not fair to label all Muslims this way.” “Taking guns away won’t solve anything. It will only keep good people from being able to protect themselves.”
If it’s alright I’d like to write about the latter. Because as a Christian who has only ever voted for the Republican Party, it’s the argument my teams have used the most.
I was raised in the South and every family outing I ever went on enjoyed the fun and exciting activity of target shooting. We’d set up coke bottles and watermelons or action figures and simply put…blow them the heck up! It’s about as American of a childhood activity as you could imagine. To this day I love to shoot guns. So yes, I love that my nation has the right to bear arms.
I’ve been surrounded by firearms my whole life. Many of my family members teach concealed carry courses and are members of the N.R.A. When I visit my parents’ home often my dad has a pistol sitting above the fireplace or on the dinner table atop his guns and ammo magazines. We’d take trips to Walmart just to buy more ammo. We’d go to the shooting range to become more accurate. And so no I don’t want that to go away. It’s one of the truest bonding opportunities with my family. So I totally get why this particular argument exists. Part of it is simply we don’t want to lose this and we want others to see what happens when responsible people own firearms. Guns at their core are not a problem. And it too often feels like left-leaning individuals are making this argument.
Now many people from this culture inherently are Conservative Republicans. And it’s no leap to know that many Conservative Republicans are Christians, many of whom are happily expressive of their faith in Jesus Christ. (Think Ted Cruz cooking bacon with a gun.) So I’d like to meet this topic on that level. As a Christian I’d like to talk about the back and forth on the topic of gun control. I’m not going to get into the particulars of what our second amendment grants us. Nor will I argue “the American perspective.” Bottom line, I’d like to approach what self defense and protecting oneself looks like in the life of Jesus, his followers, and the words found in Scripture. I’d like to talk about the WHY we are fighting for guns and what this has to do with what we declare as the single most important thing to us…glorifying God and obeying Christ. What is it about this discussion that drives us from stepping towards certain gun reforms and what can we observe, as Christians, that informs how we will continue to talk about this?
I ask you to not get carried away with “Oh he’s going Liberal on us! Or he’s going Conservative Evangelical on us.” These ways of thinking distract us from seeing as Christ sees and listening to His spirit. It’s okay if you disagree with me, but I ask that you disagree from this level.
I’d like to revolve the discussion around a general theme of how I’ve seen people justify self-defense by legal gun ownership or even on a grander scale the just-war theory. “They bomb us, we carpet bomb the hell out of them!”
Here’s a real comment that I think fairly represents the Conservative Christian justification: “He (God/Jesus) commanded us not to murder, there is a difference in defense and murder. When Christ commanded us to love our enemies He was speaking to individuals not the country. Your reasoning would mean we should never protect our country or our families or ourselves if it means someone might die.”
The usual response to people saying Jesus never advocated violence is: Well do you think that Jesus would not want you to to protect your family should an assailant enter your home?
The answer is of course you should protect their lives. But you also should protect the assailants life.
So to begin with the impossible questions, do you love your enemy enough to die for them?
This of course is the ultimate love Christ displayed on his cross. But not just him, nearly every single one of his apostles went to their graves because they didn’t fight back their aggressors. (Christ in the Gospels, Acts 6&7, search for death of apostles)
They showed their aggressors the love of Christ even to their dying breath. Many of these last words included “God forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” Their final act of life was to forgive their assailants, not kill them, not fight them, but sacrificially love them.
The truth of the matter is we HATE that answer. We hate it. We’re terrified of it. We think it’s irresponsible and wrong. And yet each of the apostles thought it important and true enough to die for it. Jesus never made the distinction of defense and murder as the comment so implies. When Jesus speaks of loving your enemies he used the example of the Jews and Samaritans (which entirely revolved around racial and ethnic tensions that existed for hundreds of years.)
The one passage that often gets abused is when Jesus tells his disciples to go and buy swords. (Luke 22). People get so excited to justify their self defense that they miss why Jesus tells them to do this and how he responds to the use of the sword in self defense.
Jesus was fulfilling prophecy that claimed the messiah would appear to be with a band of thugs. (Isaiah 53) He checks this foretelling off the list by getting the bear minimum to achieve such appearances then gets frustrated and says “That’s enough sword talk!” One of the apostles of course will try to protect Jesus and slice off the ear of the High Priests’ servant and receive for themselves yet another of Jesus’ harsh rebukes. 52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26) He then heals one of the men who will lead him to his arrest and death. (Some propose that Jesus rebuked the violence because it would interfere with what needed to be done with the cross. While this is a fair understanding of the situation his followers are never documented as returning to such violence and Jesus never advocates for violence elsewhere. Jesus rather suggests that action belongs to God. 1 Peter 3:9, Matthew 5:9, Matthew 5:44, Matthew 5:39)
What greater teaching than the Sermon on the Mount:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That’s how Jesus wants us to treat our aggressors. We retaliate with love.
The truth is when talking about why we need such guns, most Americans use the excuse of protection against our government. Many Americans fear their government more than they trust God. Well, what if our government turns on us? We need to protect ourselves! Jesus’ government turned on him, where was his sword? Where was his attack? Stephen was brought before the law and stoned to death for his faith. Where was his sword? Where was his attack? Peter? Paul? Philip? James? Bartholomew? It goes on to this day.
We are commanded to love our enemies. This means to see that their life is also precious. That in resolving and protecting our families and nations we actually attempt to save our enemy with the love of Christ. That we believe in such a terrifying and dangerous moment that our spirit is in the hands of God. (Like the story of Stephen) And that His spirit is with us. (Acts 7:55)
I do not expect all people to see the beauty of this. Nor can I place an expectation on all Americans to find truth in this (In fact I’m sure it’s greatly offensive and annoying for many), but I do call Christians to wrestle with this teaching. It starts with us. How will we discuss this and advocate during political discussions?
Jesus actually defeated that violence and government by taking on their evil to himself and through such submission changing the course of human history.
The World of Jesus’ day was so very violent. He asked his followers to not give back to such evil in any way. It is better to give your life for another than to risk such evil. This is at the core of the power and truth of the kingdom of God-of God’s will done here as it is in heaven. Even hatred of a person is seen as murder. This is the pattern of the world Paul tells us not to be conformed to.(Romans 1) A world of violence. Do not repay evil with evil. Justice belongs to God. (Romans 12:19) If we truly believe the beauty of resurrection, it should drive us to live this life as an offering to the next. It doesn’t mean we run to opportunities to die for Jesus. It doesn’t mean we can’t try and nonviolently stop someone from killing you and your family. But there is no just violence in the hands of Christ followers. Rather turn the other cheek. As most Christians did, flee from such violence as best you can. Even if you think that is cowardly.
Those followers are called to rejoice when we are persecuted for Christ’s sake. (Matthew 5:11) Paul was beaten numerous times and he returned to share the gospel. (2 Corinthians 11:25)
He was crazy. It cost him his life.
But he loved as Christ loved,
He loved his enemies.
I think when we get to these cores some of the beliefs we are defending as Conservative Christians actually get in the way of protecting innocent lives. And as we discussed here, these views aren’t really rooted in Jesus. The Second Ammendment should not be a neccesary right to those in Christ.
I do not think we are justified in our paranoia of our government and our enemies to protect ourselves with such violence. We should be on the front lines to seek resolution in lessening all forms of death. We can’t chant “All lives Matter” unless we take it to the dangerous extremes of that truth.
For when one Father saw his enemies torturing and murdering his Son, He loved even those enemies enough to save them by the sacrifice of His child. What great a cost that was for Him. What great a gain that love has brought us.
It’s dark, nonsensical, and profoundly beautiful.
So beautiful it changes lives, and it changes the world. Because love like this doesn’t make sense and it demands our curiosity.
Think of why we love Dr. King, Mandela, Ghandi. Their names endure because they practiced this same love for life.
We can seek peace by seeing and observing what systems and beliefs lead to radical extremism around the world rather than advocate the drop of a bomb. What systemic things can lead to these violent ideologies? We can love and seek understanding and not add to conflict we should not. Do not repay evil with evil. I don’t expect our nation to operate this way and I understand the upperhand this can grant enemies. I don’t expect for most people to desire such loving sacrifice. Even though it seems as though our current President views the world through these eyes in regards to these particular situations. It should be of great surprise that his strongest critics of dealing in this way comes mostly from Christians. Though if that point negates all that has been written here I pray you can still soak in this perspective.
We should think about Christ and the Apostles when we justify our weapons. We should think of the next lives we will lose because we keep denying even a portion of the problem. It starts with us and our contribution to evil. What do we contribute to division that creates enemies. What do we elevate above the image of God in each of us?
May we be wise in our defense of false idols.
May we value all lives. Even those who do not value ours.
May we not conform to the pattern of this world.
& may we love our enemies with the impossible love Christ has shown to us.
***Following this post I received many great questions and concerns about the Christian tradition of non-violence. I’ve written a response The Violence of the Gospel. (Christian self-defense) that should help you dig deeper into this topic.