Christ vs the Constitution: Why Christians Do Not Have the Right to Bear Arms

Sunday, June 26, 2016

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: , ,

Gun Rights... and Responsibilities

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I read an article on Vox where a guy tries to explain why so many Americans like him own assault rifles. The article assumes that those opposed to these weapons of war think anyone who would own one is “inhuman or insane.”

This is a straw man argument. Of course I don’t think that. No reasonable person would. I don't think you are a criminal or a nut. I get the appeal of owning a big gun like that. It’s like wanting a fast car. They are both kind of awesome. I want one, too.

The problem here is one of people needing to show moral responsibility. Driving fast is fun, but that does not mean you can race your car 90-miles-an-hour down a little suburban street. The reason is obvious, your fun endangers the lives of lots of people.

The same is true with people who want to own a weapon made for mass shooting people in war. I get why they want it. It’s cool. It's a power tool. But what is lacking here is moral responsibility and social conscience.

A long time ago Amitai Etzioni said that what we need in this country is to learn to balance rights and responsibilities. Having an assault rifle is not a right. No one needs it. It is a cool toy, like a smart phone. The question is: are you willing to be mature and responsible enough to give up your fun toy for the sake of others, for the sake of public safety?

I think a lot of people probably would be. Once we take fear out of the picture, people are often able to be considerate and social. But creating fear has become a major factor in the gun debate. People are constantly told that they need to fear having their guns taken away. They tell people they need to fear home invasion, terrorism, rape, a violent government, and every horror scenario you can think of, all calculated to play to people’s deepest fears.

This focus on fear is no accident. Fear engages your brain’s amygdala, which makes you defensive, reactive, and physiologically unwilling to compromise. It literally overrides your brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that is thoughtful and concerned about the needs of others – your social brain.

As long as a person’s brain is in that reactive threat-state, there is a huge physiological pull that keeps people from thinking of the needs of others, and of doing something good and unselfish – like giving up their dangerous toys.

So what we need is to move away from fear, away from demonizing the other, and -- this last one is maybe the hardest for us Americans -- away from unbridled me-focused consumerism. We need more people who can show self-restraint, and who can care more about other people’s safety than they do about their possessions.

Labels: ,

On Not Throwing the Bible Out With the Bath Water

Saturday, June 18, 2016

When we read the Bible we want to read it in a way that speaks into our lives, and helps us to be more moral. We want it to challenge our assumptions and values, to push us to go beyond the lame morality of our culture, and to be more like Jesus. But at the same time a lot of us have noticed that the Bible is often read by people in ways that justify them in being really terrible people who do inhumane and immoral things.

The Bible has been called a two-edged sword, and unfortunately that means it can cut both ways – it can do great good and great harm – depending on how we use it. So the question is, how can we know that we are reading the Bible in a way that makes us more moral, not less moral?

The Bible is a means not an end. Love is the goal, and the Bible is supposed to be a servant to lead us to love. If we are reading it in a way that leads us away from love, it would be better not to read it at all. That’s where a lot of people end up. They see all of the yucky stuff in the Bible – the parts that promote racism and oppression and violence and so on – and they just want to chuck the whole thing. So why do I keep reading? I can answer that in a single word.


I read the Bible in the hopes of understanding what Jesus was about, learning to see things like he did, think like he did, love like he did. In particular Jesus’ idea about loving your enemies is something that has captured my heart and mind. It is something that is still needed and radical today some two thousand years later. I want to learn what it means to do that. So I immerse myself in that book (including reading Paul, who I see as trying to figure out how to live out that Jesus-shaped love).

So that’s why I still read the Bible. But still the question remains, how can I read in a way that makes me more moral as opposed to making me less moral? How can I read the Bible in a way that challenges my own blind spots and the blind spots in my culture?

Something that I hear a lot as an evangelical is conservative Christians who maintain that they are going against the grain of their culture today and upholding the Bible and tradition. So if we all think something is bad, but the Bible says it’s good then we need to trust the Bible. The basic assumption is that the Bible should override what we observe and experience in life to be good.

The logic behind this seems straightforward enough: If we want to have the Bible and the way of Jesus act as a corrective to the broken values of our society, then shouldn’t we let the Bible trump what seems right to us? The problem is this is an argument based on authority, and as long as we are basing something on authority alone (including the authority of the Bible) we are by definition not really understanding it. This authoritarian approach inevitably always leads to hurtful interpretations because it has no means to differentiate between what is hurtful and what is loving. In fact, what happens is we disregard what we can observe about life, we disregard our hearts (and the Holy Spirit in us!) saying “this is wrong, stop!” and we disregard people saying “Hey you are really hurting me, please stop!”

In short, the absolute worst possible way to read the Bible is in an authoritarian way, and that is precisely the way most of us have learned to read it. What I want to propose instead is that it is possible to read the Bible in a way that informs our morality, and that goes beyond simply mirroring the values of our culture. That includes by the way mirroring the entrenched values and assumptions of our particular faith tradition or of our culture from a couple decades ago in “the good old days.”

Typically one is either on the side of tradition and the Bible, and dismissive of the voices of those who are marginalized in society by religion, or one is on the side of those who are marginalized in society by religion, and dismissive of the Bible. If we look at how Jesus read Scripture however, what we find is that he read it in a way that was connected to real life and our observed experience, and in particular by giving voice to the voiceless. He interpreted the law in a way that did not ignore the injustices of his day, as the Pharisees did, but interpreted the law in a way that resulted in loving those who were being harmed by an authoritarian interpretation of the law.

The law was the servant of the people, Jesus said, and so he therefore saw no problem in changing the law to accommodate the situation so that the end was love – breaking the Sabbath to help someone in need, ignoring the command to punish in favor of promoting reconciliation and restoration instead, going beyond commands for retribution and calling people instead to the way of enemy love.

What is key here is interpreting and applying Scripture not in a way that ignores what we can observe about what is good for people and how life works, but in a way that is integrally connected with our lived reality. This is the opposite of an authoritarian approach because instead of saying that we will obey without understanding, we say we need to seek to understand so we can obey (i.e. follow, live as a disciple) well.

That means we need to really get what the way of Jesus is about, and the only way to do that is by living it out. We will never understand what the complex reality of forgiveness looks like until we actually walk through it – both as individuals and as a community. We won’t ever get what reconciliation looks like until we learn to practice it. It can’t just be theoretical, it needs to be practiced and lived.

I also have to say that the more I walk in this the more I find words to describe the Bible like authoritative, infallible, inerrant, and even inspired to be really unhelpful. I know that make a lot of people nervous, so let me explain why I dislike them all. The reason is that they are almost always used in a way that promotes an authoritarian reading. They are used to shut down questions, and shut down people. I have no time for that.

That’s not to say that I reject these concepts, but simply that I want to be able to have a productive and practical conversation about how to read and apply the Bible in our lives, and want to work with words and concepts that help that, rather than hinder it. So I find it is much more helpful to simply approach the Bible, and in particular the words of Jesus, like I would any other idea – not blindly and unthinkingly following it, not treating it like it was sacred and untouchable, but seeking to really understand it. I strip away everything romantic and just ask “is there something good here?” which is the way I would approach reading any book.

That does not mean that I think the Bible is just “any” book. But I find that “any” book approach actually helps. My goal, after all, in reading the Bible is to go beyond the book and to reach the person behind the book. The way I have come to understand inspiration is that it is about encountering the Holy Spirit – inspired = in-Spirit-ed. The book is not the Spirit. The words on the page are not the Spirit. The Bible is a vehicle, a window, through which we can encounter the living Spirit of Christ speaking straight into our heart, personally and powerfully. So the Bible is not in itself inspired. An atheist can read the Bible and not encounter God at all (and so can we). The Bible is a means for us to encounter the Spirit, but that takes our heart being open to that encounter with the living Word of God, Jesus.

Labels: , ,

The Orlando Mass Shooting and Our Spineless Lawmakers

Sunday, June 12, 2016

With the news of the mass shooting in Orlando in the headlines -- which is being called the worst in U.S. history -- it's hard to think of much else today. It's also hard to know what to say when it's so painfully obvious what needs to be done. As pretty much everyone agrees -- including the majority of gun owners in the country - we need to pass reasonable gun safety laws. The approach needs to be similar to how we approached car safety, not using one single approach, but a variety of things (seat belts, speed limits, air bags, etc). Doing all of these will of course not eliminate gun violence (just as there are still car accidents), but it would significantly reduce it.

However, our lawmakers are not passing these safety laws. They are blocking them. They are lifting the restrictions and making things even less safe. The reason they are doing this is also very clear, these lawmakers are in the pockets of the NRA.

This is all, frankly, pretty devastating and discouraging. So let me end with one small ray of hope that was put forward in the recent investigative documentary Under the Gun produced and hosted by Katie Couric. They reported on how citizens were finding a way to bypass these do-nothing lawmakers, letting the people vote directly on ballot measures promoting gun safety laws. It was lots of work, but when the people actually got to vote themselves, the gun safety measures were passing in many States.

Labels: ,

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.