Christians and Guns

Greg GarrettLast week, after the shootings in Tucson, the New York Times called out one of the most powerful political lobbyists in the United States, the National Rifle Association. In its editorial, the Times argued—in words that some Americans surely found maddening—that the NRA and its allies "have made the country a far more dangerous place."

This week TIME announced its coverage of Tucson with the cover caption "Guns. Speech. Madness," suggesting that, while all three matter, guns are the first item for discussion.

Some agree that we need fewer guns; other do not. Two members of Congress have publicly stated that they will begin carrying guns to public appearances to protect themselves. Many Christians own guns—that is, they hunt, shoot targets, or keep a gun for the protection of their family.

Getting past reflexive condemnation or defensiveness caused by the outrage in Arizona, can we ask the core questions: How should people of faith look at guns and gun control?

And how might that shape conversation going forward?

Naturally there is nothing in the Bible about guns themselves, and there is little in scripture about rights, as we understand and claim them in America, including the right to bear arms (although a considerable amount about responsibilities). In the scriptural record, though, we can uncover two pertinent themes, both of which require some interpretation: righteous violence and radical pacifism.

Some scripture seems to suggest violence is acceptable under some circumstances; the Hebrew (Old) Testament gives us stories of a God authorizing violence both to establish and to protect God's Chosen People, the Israelites. Then some readers cite verses in the Christian (New) Testament as supporting war or righteous violence, such as Jesus proclaiming he has come to bring a sword (Mk. 10:34) or the vision of John in Revelation 19 that suggests that Jesus will lay waste the enemies of God with a sword that emerges from his mouth.

Everyone agrees that the Bible deserves a good literal reading, but it also deserves more. Some interpretation is nice. The preeminent scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, has written Divine Presence Amid Violence about Joshua, one of those Old Testament books that seems to authorize violence. Brueggemann points out that, at least in some regards, this "Old Testament violence" is directed at imperial power—that the Israelites are empowered to stand against the horses and chariots, the superior technical prowess of their enemies, because God always opposes a heavily-armed empire.

Ouch.

Likewise, one needn't do much more than pay attention to the larger narrative of Jesus' life to reject as normative those places where his words (or a writer's vision of him returning in triumph) suggest that violence was somehow Jesus' modus operandi. In one of the few elements of Jesus' life and work that all four canonical gospels include, Jesus himself rejected violence—even to preserve his own life—when an armed mob came to take him to his death.

As for Revelation and the Last Judgment, I agree with Brian McLaren that the Jesus of Revelation is not Rambo, that a better reading of Revelations 19 is the one Brian offers at length in A New Kind of Christianity: the writer of Revelation foresees a time when the word of God—the Word of God—holds dominion over all the world.

Jesus' sword comes from his mouth, not from his scabbard. As Brian points out, Jesus didn't change his mind about violence, decide he was wrong the first time around. No. The example of Jesus throughout the Christian Testament stands at odds with other elements of the scriptural record that suggest it is acceptable to protect yourself or your clan; it is a record of pacifism even in the face of bodily destruction.

So what then do we conclude about whether it is okay to bear arms, to protect our families? Are we permitted to have guns, or are we called, like Jesus, to give up defense even of our lives?