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?

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At 2:21 PM, Blogger gingoro said...

Do you think calling upon the civil authorities is another way of taking revenge on someone who wants to steal your possessions or even children etc?

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Many times I think the answer to that would be yes, it is. Many black men are afraid of the police, afraid that if they call 9-11 that they will end up being shot. In that context, if someone calls the police, say because of a domestic dispute, while we might expect the police to act to deescalate the situation, the police can often times make things much worse, and even deadly. So people basically think "Yes we are having a problem, and I'd like to be able to call the police, but they only know the way of escalation and violence and will make things worse." I wish it were not so, but American police have become increasingly militaristic, and shown a dangerous incompetence when it comes to knowing anything about the deescalation of violence, and in fact typically escalate and make violent situations far more violent and dangerous (including dangerous for themselves). I'm sure that there are exceptions to this, but those who have studied this see it as systemic problem rather than one of a few bad apples.

Within the Anabaptist tradition there are those who seek to avoid any type of governmental involvement. I have problems with that and instead belong to the Anabaptist tradition that instead tries to find ways to let the values of Jesus shape culture. That means that I do not want to simply justify the status quo (here for example saying that the police are "good"), but rather I want to seek to move beyond the status quo in order to ask how we can move to let the values of Jesus shape our world (for example by demilitarizing the police, and instead having them become experts in deescalation of violence). I see many ways that we have moved towards that -- social workers, teachers, grief counselors, and so on. With the police I think we have gone backwards, and are a long long way from Andy Griffith.

Generally, I think it is clearly better to have the state take the role of retaliation, rather than individuals. I think this is what Paul argues in Romans 13, and studies have shown that it does dramatically reduce violence in a society. However, I think we need to go beyond this if we want to follow Jesus and his way.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

So I guess a Christian cannot be a police officer?

At 5:29 AM, Blogger lja_11 said...

Would we even have a United States if no arms were taken up? Could a Christian defend an unbeliever in an attack. Should we watch our children be raped and murdered and shrug our shoulders, saying we are sorry but we don't fight because we are believers and Jesus told us to love our enemies. The questions are endless. I am a mama can bet I will protect my family with my life. I guess I would rather be a poor witness and have living children.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Paul Nuechterlein said...

Excellent blog! I was interested in any further comments about the early church. You picture them as conservative literalists in practicing simple nonretaliation. Much of that nonretaliation, though, was very public. Is there any chance they were being more nuanced and understood basic concepts behind Gandhian nonviolent resistance to evil? Could their very public martyrdoms (witnesses) have had a similar effect over time in the Roman Empire? What makes for any difference between a literalistic, simple nonretaliation and nonviolent resistance (which includes a steadfast nonretaliation)?

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I want to point out that while I proposed that there was a 3rd alternative which is Jesus' way, both SteveO and Ija are presenting things as binary black/white either/or on/off choices. The 2 options here are seen as either kill like a bear or do nothing. What Jesus wants to do is get us to go beyond these 2 choices, to go beyond our animal "bear" instincts, and to evolve towards a 3rd way. As long as we are only able to see 2 ways, and cannot see the 3rd way we will be stuck in justifying the status quo of our culture, and not walking with Jesus where he is going. That's a shame because it means the conversation stops, and growth stops.

The question we all need to be asking is, what does that 3rd way look like, and how could it work?

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


That's a great question because it basically says, "instead of just dismissing them, is there something we can learn from them." I'd love to explore that too. Along the lines of what you were asking, there is evidence that the suffering of the Christians was unmasking the Roman empire as unjust. For example, speaking of Nero's persecution of Christians, the Roman historian Tacticus writes that Nero’s violence was so perverse that even the Roman populace recognized the injustice of what was being done to the persecuted church, “There arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44)

At 5:38 PM, Blogger GD Daley said...

Dear Derek:

What’s important to understand here is the context into which Jesus is making this statement...Jesus ... is addressing the deeply held moral values that people have and challenging them.

Methinks the context into which Jesus made this and other 'you have heard ... but I say ...' statements derives from Dt 18:15:

'Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him'

The evangelist uses 'you have heard ... but I say ...' as a literary formula. He has Jesus reference Mosaic law [Ex 21:24; Le 24:20; Dt 19:21] and then declare his teaching [Mt 5:38ff.].

Matthew presents Jesus as that greater prophet who supersedes Moses. Jesus is the New Moses who is teaching the New Law to the New Community in the New Age. Jesus is the one Yahweh raised up like Moses, to whom the people would listen.

This changes nothing you say about the impropriety of defensive violence; but it seems to me to place your argument on firmer ground.

Rather than 'if we want to follow Jesus ... then we need to renounce the way
of retaliation, and learn the way of Jesus,'
we could say:

'Unless we renounce the way of retaliation, we cannot follow Jesus or learn his way.'

Rather than debating the 'excuses,' we could state dispassionately and with all the love we can muster:

If we do not renounce retaliation on principle, we do not follow the New Moses who gives the New Law to the New Community; we are not of the New Age.'

Here, there is nothing to negotiate. There is nothing to discuss. We listen to Jesus, or we disassociate from him.

I found your blog some 8 - 10 weeks ago while checking out what people are saying these days about Christus Victor. Thank-you for your work.


G. David Daley

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Dear GD,

thanks for your comment! I think what I was saying about the context and what you were saying can be seen as both true at the same time. I am referring to the religious/political context that Jesus is speaking into, which saw violence as justified and good, and noting that our political and religious context today makes very similar assumptions. So the challenge Jesus is making in his time also challenges us today.

You are referring to the frame in which Matthew presents his argument within his Gospel, which is to present Jesus as a New Moses, giving a New Law, for the New Age, the Eschalon. The way that you describe Matthew is one that many scholars would echo, and I also agree that it is a correct reading of Matthew’s intent.

Matthew presents his Gospel in “end times scenario,” where the choice is basically “turn or burn,” specifically calling people in Jesus’ name to care for the poor and practice the way of radical forgiveness and peacemaking, if they want to avoid the coming judgment and destruction. So it is certainly true that Matthew’s framing of his arguments presents us with a very clear choice.

I think, looking at Matthew as well as all of the other Gospels and the writings of Paul, it would be fair to say that renouncing the way of retaliation and learning the way of peacemaking, reconciliation, and radical forgiveness is not some optional extra credit thing for Christianity, but is a non-negotiable must-have element of what it means to call Jesus Lord. This is the point that I think that you were making, and I completely agree. Jesus calls us to follow him in this way, and it is not optional for us. If we opt out of this, we opt out of him. The caution I have ethically with Matthew’s approach is that it is essentially an authoritarian one, motivating people by fear and threat. While I appreciate Matthew’s goal, I think we now know today that motivating people by fear leads to very shallow character that vanishes as soon as the fear element is removed, so I would like to instead think of how to lead people to moral maturity, which is to lead them away from authoritarian thinking, so they are motivated by love, not by fear.


At 10:57 PM, Blogger P Reese said...

Posts like this make me want to throw my tablet across the room and give up Christianity. Sorry to be so blunt but there it is. Here's the good news: Jesus calls you to submit to slaughter. Don't believe it? Sorry, you're not following Jesus. Seriously, how is this sort of hyper-literalist reading categorically different from John Piper railing about some ridiculous conservative reading of scripture? There's even a photo meme making fun of those who hold a different view! I've never intentionally physically harmed anyone in my life that I can recall, and I don't own a gun, but if someone tried to kill me I would try to kill them first. That goes double if it were someone trying to harm my family. As for a third way - sure, I'd try hard to talk them out of it and I'm all for early intervention, etc, but if the threat is imminent I will fight back. This holds true for me on a national level. I haven't seen a war I liked in a long time, but if someone invades America, I would fight back. It's true that this is a widespread opinion - the wide road - but so is looking both ways before crossing the street! I believe Christians are called to not automatically react violently in the vast majority of situations. But i can't go as far as you go here. On a broader level, it is frustrating to me that as I finally get past an upbringing of conservative fundamentalists telling me to read the Book of Revelation literally, I now hear the progressives in my new circles telling me to read the Sermon on the Mount literally! Is there not a multitude of nuance and contradiction in the Bible? Is that not okay?

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It sounds like you are wanting to find a nuanced and sophisticated way to apply the teachings of Jesus, and to avoid the mistakes of an authoritarian literalistic reading of Scripture. Well, today is your lucky day, because that is exactly what the aim of my work on violence in the Bible has been for years -- both in longer form in my books, as well as in my blog here.

FWIW, I think if you read the above post again, you will see that I am not advocating for a literalistic reading, but instead want to let the words of Jesus challenge us towards going beyond our natural response as well -- not moving towards something that would increase harm (including harm to ourselves), but just the opposite, moving towards reducing harm.

The question is not "does Jesus advocate keep things the way they are so I don't need to change anything?" Clearly there is a challenge from Jesus that we must hear as his followers. The question is, "how can we respond to that challenge in a way that moves us to a better, more morally mature, loving world?" That's the kind of question we need to ask. Not "can I ignore this?" but "how can I do this well?" Doing that requires we go beyond an authoritarian reading that demands compliance without understanding, and requires that we do the hard work of figuring out what it means to intelligently apply the way of Jesus in every area of our lives, taking into account all our lives complexity and nuance.

At 3:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late to this thread, but I found your premise compelling. What struck me was your use of the word "retaliation". When I consider someone defending themselves from an attack, I don't perceive that as retaliation; I see it as self defense. So are you stating that a Christian shouldn't resort to self defense? Also, if I am reading you right, I think you are saying that we shouldn't make this a binary argument; that we should look for a third alternative. But if you only have a binary choice in the moment, self defend or don't, how would you respond? All my questioning aside, I think if you are going to take Jesus seriously then these are conversations that should be had.


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