This particular post is an exercise in hermeneutics, as a ground-clearing exercise before going into the various essays in the volume edited by Chris Hays and C.L. Crouch (Westminister/J. Knox, 2021). In the first place, what the OT says about human produced violence and what the NT says about the matter is not the same. And this is true in spite of the fact that the ten commandments says clearly ‘no killing’ or at least ‘no murder’ and various prophets in the OT (particularly 3rd Isaiah, among others) prophesy a day when God’s people will and should beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. If we seek to understand why we find what we do in the OT, the clue is provided by Jesus himself who tells us, in discussing divorce (cf. Mk. 10 and Mt. 19), that various commandments in the OT were given due to the hardness of human hearts. In short, they were given to limit the damage humans can do to one another as fallen creatures. They were not meant to license violence of any sort. Even the ‘an eye for an eye…. a life for a life’ should be read, as ‘only an eye for an eye…and so on. Again, an attempt to limit violence already happening, not license it. I take it as fundamental that Christians should read the OT through the lens of Jesus and the writers of the NT on such issues, at a minimum.
The second hermeneutical principle is that Christians are not under the old covenant, they are under the new covenant and as should be apparent, the disciples of Jesus are to live by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount and more broadly the ethic of forgiveness Jesus’ enunciated which is the opposite of revenge taking. As Mt. 18.21-22 says: “Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.” What is notable about this teaching is it is Jesus attempt to reverse the worst effects of the curse and human fallenness, reverse the tendency to use violence to solve human problems. The only other place one finds the number seventy-seven times in Scripture is in the Lamech story in Gen. 4.24 where Lamech vows to his kin that he will take revenge seventy seven times. Jesus is ruling out such behavior by his own disciples and instead putting in its place the ethic of unlimited forgiveness.
The Sermon on the Mount of course teaches the ethic of non-resistance and turning the other cheek, as persons as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi rightly recognized in the 20th century. But it is not just the eschewing of violence that the new covenant ethic insists on. It goes on to insist on loving one’s enemies and praying for those who persecute you. This ethic is expanded and expounded upon by Paul clearly enough in the second half of Romans 12 and Romans 13.
The third hermeneutical principle that should be in play is that the ethics of Jesus and Paul and others for disciples of Christ is one thing. The ethics of the general culture is another. For example the ethics Paul speaks about for governments in Rom. 13 assumes that governments have a right to carry arms to enforce the law. Paul of course says this assuming that Christians will not be in the Roman military or government for that matter, not least because worship of pagan gods and later of the emperor was required of soldiers and public figures such as senators and Christians could not do those things. So, the ethics that are applicable to non-Christian governors or police or soldiers are not the same thing as the ethics Christians are called upon to follow. Indeed, it is precisely in Romans 13 that Paul speaks both of the ethics of rulers, and then later of the distinctive ethics of followers of Christ.
Underlying all that discussion is the assumption that Christian ethics cannot be imposed on a non-Christian government or general public. One has to be persuaded to follow Christ and his teachings before it becomes incumbent on that person to obey God in the person of Christ rather than rules for humans in general. What this has meant for many Christians throughout the ages is the following: 1) the practice of personal pacifism; 2) the abstention of Christians from serving in roles in government and the military that require the commitment to use violence when necessary. So for instance, as in the movie Hacksaw Ridge, a devout 7th day Adventist could be patriotic and serve his country as a chaplain and medic during a war, but not by taking up arms. Similar rules would apply in regard to public service in the local police.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the ethics of the NT in regard to these matters is not the same as the ethics of the OT. And here is one more reason why— with the sending of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples a higher and more demanding code of morality and ethics is required of the followers of Jesus, because one can do more and do better by the power of the Spirit, as the Spirit renovates, renews, restores the image of God, and eliminates the effects of human fallenness internally. As Paul says ‘inwardly we are being renewed day by day’. To whom more is given (in this case the indwelling presence of the Spirit which produces the fruit— love,joy,peace patience, kindness, self-control) more is required. In short, the commandments in the NT go well beyond what is demanded in the OT, because Christians are to follow the teaching and the personal example of Jesus who even reminded Peter at the last ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword’ and then proceeded to heal the servant’s ear severed by Peter. This is the same Jesus who from the cross asked God to forgive his executioners ‘for they know not what they do’. Bearing these things in mind, we can better evaluate the various essays found in God and Guns.
Footnote: I am frequently asked about Lk. 22.36-38 which reads: “36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
Doesn’t this imply that Jesus endorses Christians to carry weapons of all sorts? The context here is crucial. Notice that immediately prior to this Jesus had asked his disciples if they lacked anything when they went out to evangelize, without purse, bag, and sandals (presumably extra purse etc.) and the disciples say they lacked nothing. Then we have the verses cited above. What Jesus is talking about is the disciples carrying a weapon for protection when they are on the road and camping out. Protection from what? Probably he’s talking about the sort of animals who are predators that one might run into in such situations– wolves, among others. He is not talking about the weapons of war used on humans. The Greek word μάχαιρα has as its basic meaning a knife, sometimes a large knife used for cutting up meat, and for use in offering sacrifices. It can also mean a razor, or even a small knife for trimming one’s nails. The normal Greek word for sword, used in battle against other humans is σπαθί or ξίφος. It is unlikely Jesus has this in mind. The disciples respond that they have two such knives and Jesus says that is enough. If you doubt this you can look it up in the exhaustive Greek dictionary done by Montanari and entitled The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, p. 1287. The other alternatives is that, in light of the quoted Scripture, Jesus is saying that his disciples will be the transgressors in the coming scenario, and they will need swords to play that part. Two will be plenty to make them appear that way.