The U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to bear arms. The basic assumption is that you have a right to defend yourself and your loved ones from attackers. It is essentially a right to kill in self-defense. From a legal perspective this interpretation was held up by the recent 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which held that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm... and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
My purpose here is not to get into the legal particulars, but instead to speak of the felt values that people have associated with this. That is, Americans have a strongly held belief that they have a right to defend themselves with a gun, that it is good and right to do so. What I want to question is, is that “right” compatible with Christ?
As I’m sure you are aware, Jesus is pretty famous for saying just the opposite, that people should not defend themselves when attacked, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Mt 5:38).
What’s important to understand here is the context into which Jesus is making this statement. He is speaking to a people who, like us today, assumed that it was good and right to defend themselves. Jesus refers to the Torah, which played a similar role for people that our Constitution does today, and with his words, “but I tell you...” directly contradicts its affirmation of violent retaliation for a wrong. That is, Jesus is not simply saying this out of the blue, he is addressing the deeply held moral values that people have and challenging them. Specifically he is addressing the deeply held moral value of the right to retaliate when attacked.
We can see this in the fact that his own disciples were armed (Lk 22), and that they used these weapons when they were attacked (Mt 26). Like their contemporaries, their assumption was that it was good and right to defend oneself against an attack. This was the beginning religious/moral assumption of the time that Jesus spoke into and challenged. It is the same religious/moral assumption held by Americans today. The words of Jesus step on our toes, just like they stepped on the toes of the people he originally preached to. If Jesus were speaking today he might say “You have heard it said ‘you have the right to bear arms’ but I say to you...”
What does it mean to take the words of Jesus seriously here? One place where we need to begin is by recognizing that there clearly is a conflict. Jesus is directly challenging our moral assumption that we have a right to kill in self-defense. If we pretend otherwise, we are seriously kidding ourselves. We need to face that challenge head-on. There is a conflict between Christ and the Constitution. Jesus knew this was not a popular message, and that it was hard to take. That’s probably why he said the road was narrow that leads to life, and broad that leads to destruction. The question for us as American Christians is, will we continue to take that broad road? Are you willing to take the narrow road of Christ? How will you and I respond to Jesus here?
One approach that will not do is to find some proof-text verse that allow us to ignore the teachings of Jesus here. This cheap approach is also used to justify people ignoring the challenging things Jesus says about riches, and frankly to ignore pretty much everything Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount. People will find some text, like Jesus’ statement “if you don’t have a sword, sell our cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36), pull it out of context and take it to justify what they already want to do, ignoring everything else Jesus says on the subject. As SNL’s “church lady” used to say “Well, isn’t that convenient?” It’s an especially lame way of reading the Bible that allows one to keep doing whatever they want, rather than letting the way of Jesus actually shape their lives.
The approach of the early church here is telling. They interpreted the teaching of Jesus quite literally, and when they were attacked and killed they refused to defend themselves. Instead they were martyred. The word martyr means “witness.” and these martyrs saw their death as bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus in their lives. They saw their refusal to take up arms as an expression of faithfulness to Jesus and his way. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not something everyone did. The assumption then was the same as it is today, that people should defend themselves. The early church broke with religious and cultural tradition here. Their answer to the question “What would you do if someone attacked you?” is simply “I would die.” If that is not a hard pill to swallow, I don’t know what is.
Now, I am not proposing that we take the same literalistic approach of the martyrs. I think actually that the early church -- as much as it is romanticized by some – actually got a lot of stuff wrong. In particular, they ended up glorying suffering, rather than providing an alternate means to end it. I believe we need to go beyond simply forbidding retaliation, and to dig deeper to find an alternate means to resolve conflict based on the teachings of Jesus.
The bottom line here is that as a Christian, as someone who calls Jesus Lord, you simply do not get to appeal to your “right” to kill someone with your gun in self-defense. You lose that right when you give your life to Christ. It is really that simple. To hold on to your gun as Charlton Heston says, until it is “pulled from your cold dead hand” is to hold on to your sin, just as much as it would be to hold on to your riches or hold on to your sexual exploits instead of following Jesus. This needs to be said. We should not kid ourselves and think we can hold on to our swords and still follow Jesus. There is a clear and direct conflict here, and to ignore it is to ignore Jesus as Lord.
Now, if you want to take a conservative literalist approach to this, then you get to die like the martyrs. That’s your option if you want to read literally. If instead, like me, you want to take a progressive approach to interpreting Scripture and following Jesus, then we can talk about what it means to follow Jesus in this in a nuanced and complex way. But here also there is simply no room for justifying any “right” to lethal violence. This is precisely what Jesus is challenging.
While I see problems in the approach of the martyrs, the lesson I do want to take from them is this: While it is not where we should end, the prohibition on lethal violence is where we need to begin. Jesus does clearly say that the way of the sword, the way of killing, is not an option for us as his followers. I do not want to follow in the path of the majority of conservative Evangelicals and simply ignore the clear teaching of Jesus here, just because it is hard and goes against my own culture and country’s values. I want to find a way to make Jesus Lord of every area of my life, I want to allow the values of Jesus to shape how I see, what I value, and how I live. I don’t want to find some cheap proof-text way to simply ignore Jesus. I don’t want to just be a cultural Christian whose values are shaped more by my culture and country than they are by Christ.
So I ask myself, “What does it mean to love my enemies?” and I try to be open to the Holy Spirit to show me how I can live this out in my life. What does that look like? It begins with recognizing that Jesus is speaking to my country’s assumption that it’s okay to kill someone who is threatening us, and is challenging that way. On a broad level, Jesus is pointing us to another way to resolve conflict. I’m convinced that this does not simply mean doing nothing (simply forbidding retaliation), but entails an alternate way to resolve conflict and overcome evil without mirroring it. The New Testament repeatedly says, do not return evil for evil, harm for harm (1 Pet 3:9; Rom 12:17). This way is the polar opposite of the NRA’s mantra “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The New Testament would counter “Good guys, don’t become a bad guy by using your gun to retaliate and return evil for evil.”
If we want to follow Jesus here, if we want to truly make Jesus Lord of our lives, then we need to renounce the way of retaliation, and learn the way of Jesus. Rather than responding to Jesus argumentatively with “but what about...” looking for excuses not to follow, I want to instead ask “What are areas of my life where I can seek to go against my tendency to want to retaliate and use force, and instead find ways to reconcile and make peace?”
How would you answer that question? How have you learned to practice this in your every day life – for instance in how you deal with conflict in your marriage, or at work?
Labels: guns, love of enemies, violence