Rev. Richard Land: Greatest Commandment Justifies Deadly Force

I know this sounds strange, but my feelings about guns is pretty similar to how I feel about cigarettes. On the one hand, I can’t stand either one, and I’m more than happy to see their numbers reduced in our midst. Both seem to serve a common end game, which involves death in various forms. But though I don’t like either one, the libertarian inside of me wonders how much the government really should be involved in limiting individuals’ access to either. After all, the government hardly can save us from ourselves.

And then I heard the interview last night on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program with Rev. Dr. Richard Land, a minister and prominent leader within the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s rare that I can say I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I did have to go home and look this one up to make sure he said what I thought he said.

Land is hardly alone in being a Christian and also advocating strongly for what many call their Second Amendment right to bear arms. And for much of the interview with host Robert Siegel, I appreciated where he was coming from, even if I didn’t entirely agree with him. Land is a lifelong gun owner, though he has never joined the NRA. As a youngster, he used a gun to ward of an invader in his family’s home, and he has advocated for gun ownership ever since. He is in support of closing loopholes in the background check system, in eliminating access to high capacity clips and possibly even re-enact the ban on assault weapons.

But then toward the end of the interview, Siegel asked Land how, as a Biblical literalist, he could use the texts in the New Testament to justify the possession and use of guns against another human being:

SIEGEL: What’s the New Testament justification for owning firearms?

LAND: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. If you see your neighbor being attacked, if you see your neighbor in danger, you have an obligation and a responsibility to do what you can to protect them.

SIEGEL: Do you have an obligation to turn the other cheek?

LAND: I think I do, personally. But the difference between personal and defending others, you know, it’s the justification that’s used for soldiers and others and police officers, and I think for private citizens as well.

If I find that someone is trying to do harm to someone else, I believe that I have a moral and Christian obligation to do what ever I can – with the least amount of violence necessary – but if necessary, lethal violence to stop them from harming others. That’s loving my neighbor as myself. That’s doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.

So basically, Land employs both the Golden Rule and Jesus’ Greatest Commandment to justify shooting someone to death if necessary, so long as there is a perceived threat against someone you consider your neighbor. But if this was the case, why is there nowhere in the Bible that Jesus endorses violence? What about when Peter cut off the ear of the centurion? Surely this would have been justified within Land’s understanding of Gospel teaching?

Taken further, Land applies this thinking to justification to everything from police deadly force to war. But if this was what Jesus meant, why did he disappoint so many who expected him to ride into Jerusalem and kick some Roman ass? Weren’t his Jewish neighbors being oppressed, even killed, by their Roman occupier? Why didn’t he lead a rebellion like the people wanted? Why submit, instead, to a humble death, striking out against no one in retaliation?

Land’s interpretation of scripture here is convenient manipulation for a personal agenda at best. And although we all engage in this to some degree, it seems that this kind of marriage of personal agendas with select Biblical passages is the very kind of thing that has justified any number of “holy wars” in the past. And really, the problem doesn’t seem to lie so much with the co-opting of the text for personal interests; rather, my greatest concern is in how Land seems to choose to limit the definition of what the word “neighbor” means.

As Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek and to lay down our swords, even when faced with an imminent threat as he was, he challenges us to break our understanding of community wide open. In that moment when Jesus ordered Peter to sheath his sword, he saw Peter and his disciples as neighbors, but he also saw the soldiers themselves as neighbors. He sought forgiveness from God for his captors, even as he hung on a cross, moments from death. Why? Because they, too, were his brothers and sisters.

Such love to which we are called erases all boundaries otherwise used to justify things like deadly force, war and exploitation or oppression in its many other forms. In those scenarios, we can justify nearly anything, so long as we’re on the “right side” of the line. But once there is no line, the rules of engagement change entirely.

My hope is that Rev. Land was caught unprepared, and that he will take every opportunity available to make right the distortions he promoted in the NPR interview. It’s chilling to consider that one of america’s most powerful religious leaders would wield the Bible as a convenient weapon over the heads of others, much as he holds his gun at the ready to level at anyone posing a threat to those he cares about.

This is madness. And it has to stop. But if people of faith won’t call for the laying down of arms, who in the world ever will?

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/drewsumrall drewsumrall

    Your last sentence says it all…

  • Evelyn

    Amen, brother. You preach it!

    I think a lot of the problem is the arguments tend to be based on throwing scripture back and forth, and as we all know, you can proof-text almost any argument. Not suggesting you’re doing that btw. I think it’s time to get more overt about the hermeneutics. Eg “you are proof-texting, but it’s important to look at the whole story of scripture” or whatever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.cash.3192 Matt Cash

    I’m sorry, but did the author miss out on the scripture passages where he commands his disciples to carry swords, even if they had to purchase one? Striving for peace does not mean laying down our arms, even if it means forsaking the safety of those in danger. Am I really to believe that Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek also applies to a neighbor or stranger under duress?

    By this logic, why can’t I extend this to a child being molested? “Well, Jesus said to turn the other cheek!”

    How about a man walking in to his wife being raped? “Well, Jesus said turn the other cheek!”

    What about a random mugging on the street? “Well, Jesus said to turn the other cheek!”

    As we can see, the logic used by the author clearly fails.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      I would suggest reading Jesus and nonviolence: a third way by Walter wink

    • TimN1

      Perhaps Christian has read the passage and understands what it means. If you reread it, you will see how Jesus refers to how the 72 were sent out in his name – no money, no swords. And now he says take money, take swords. They are being dismissed – they are to return to the world and separate from Jesus. He will be alone, he will be arrested. Later, with the resurrection, and Pentecost they are called back to become the church, and to resume as they had before.

      We are called to resist the evil of violence. Ignoring a mugging is not resisting it, it is passively accepting it. Shooting a mugger is not resisting it, it is actively participating in it. Like Jesus, We should be prepared to die to protect others. We should not need to kill.

  • Lilleth

    Why would this perversion of the Bible surprise you? Don’t these same people use their alleged holy book to oppress women every day?

    Oh and mr Cash Jesus instructed his disciples to buy swords to fulfill the prophecy. That’s why he said two would be enough. For those who read whole passages in proper context.

  • Russell Geisthardt

    Thank you, Christian, for addressing this. I heard the interview last night and was thoroughly disturbed, to the point that it kept me awake last night. With the command “love your neighbor”, we are being pushed to a wider understanding of who our neighbor is, but Rev. Land is unable to push to the point of understanding that our enemy is also our neighbor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AndrewRHamilton Andrew Hamilton

    Throwing over all them tables in the temple was probably a little violent, i mean noone got killed but he really went ham on a few peoples goods

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      1. That was fulfillment of prophecy and 2. No one was hurt. Forceful? Yes. Violent? No.

  • Roger Wolsey

    I’m pretty sure that when Jesus said, to “Love our enemies,” he didn’t mean to kill them.

  • taizegoose

    Richard Land is someone I decided could not act as a spokesman for Southern Baptists, much less other Christians, many, many years ago. It comes as no surprise what Robert Siegel was able to get him to disclose.

  • Whit Johnstone

    I despise Richard Land, but his thoughts on the use of lethal force are classic Martin Luther. And I think that World War II showed us that we need to have a theology that allows us to use lethal force in defense of what is right.