When it comes to many controversial sociopolitical issues facing Christians (and everyone else) today, I usually take, or at least acknowledge, a middle road. For example, on the use of genetic and reproductive technologies, such as IVF, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and prenatal screening, I write with the intent of educating people so they can ask good questions about the morality of such technologies. I don’t write to persuade people that one ethical approach is clearly superior. Even on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, where I have a clear opinion informed by my faith, I acknowledge that people of good will and good faith may very well come to different conclusions.
And then there’s gun law reform, about which I have said—and am saying again here—that supporting basic reforms should be “no brainer” for Christians. Why the difference? Why such clarity on this topic when I see room for debate on so many others?
The difference is that Jesus Christ’s life, death, words and ministry said little to nothing specifically about many of the sociopolitical issues we grapple with. But Jesus said and did lots and lots of stuff related to fear, self-protection, vulnerability, violence and victimization—precisely the dynamics that inform our relationship with guns here in America. His words and actions related to such issues were repeated and consistent. That is why, more than two years after I wrote my first blog post on gun reforms in response to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, I still believe that the life, words and ministry of Jesus Christ make sensible gun law reform a “no brainer” for we who claim to be his followers.
What do I mean by “sensible gun law reform”?
Universal background checks: We know that background checks help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, such as felons. Unfortunately, loopholes in the law mean that many guns are legally purchased without background checks. Polls continue to show that a huge majority of Americans (around 85 percent) support universal background checks, as do a huge majority of gun owners (around 84 percent).
Banning of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines: The banning of weapons and ammunition whose intended purpose is rapid slaughter is also supported by a majority of Americans, though the numbers are not as overwhelming as for background checks. It’s important to note that most gun homicides are committed with handguns, so a ban might not make a huge dent in the horrifying numbers of Americans who are killed or injured by guns every year. But banning such weapons makes sense from a purely practical standpoint (you don’t need an assault weapon to either hunt for food or protect yourself), and could potentially prevent deadly mass shootings—such as the December 2014 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where gunman Adam Lanza was able to kill more than two dozen people in a matter of minutes.
Other legal reforms that make sense include consistent regulations around licensing, registration, and waiting periods; better training and technology for law enforcement agencies to track guns used in crimes; and education and training on gun safety and responsible gun ownership.
Such reforms, which do not aim to rob any law-abiding citizen of their right to own a gun, relate directly to what Jesus said and did during his ministry.
Opponents of gun law reform rely on a model of personal and communal safety based primarily on self-protection, physical and firepower, and violent response to threats, which stands in opposition to the values preached and modeled by Jesus Christ.
Jesus had a lot to say (and show) about vulnerability, fear, self-protection, and violence—and it wasn’t “arm yourself.”
One of the most common responses I’ve heard from Christians who oppose gun law reforms is that the Bible does not prohibit self-defense. Fair enough. I do not own a gun for self-defense because I am convinced by both data and family experience that owning a gun is too likely to lead to one of my own family members being killed or injured when a gun is used in a homicidal rage, a suicidal depression, or an accident. But I, and most proponents of gun law reform, are not telling people they can’t own guns for self-defense in their homes, so long they are willing to undergo a background check, and store the gun safely to prevent accidents.
But even if Jesus doesn’t outright prohibit us from defending ourselves with a weapon, Jesus has a lot to say about whether we should allow fear to be a primary motivator, and to what extent we should rely on weapons for defending ourselves and others.
Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” was always positioned as vulnerable, starting with his birth to a refugee family in an animal barn. He continually resisted his friends’ efforts to claim power and privilege, ultimately chooosing vulnerability over violence and self-defense. Jesus also made clear that fear ought not dictate our actions.
In the gospel stories preceding Jesus’s crucifixion (Matthew 26 and Luke 22), we see Jesus rebuke one of his friends who tries to protect Jesus by drawing his sword. Jesus’s response is, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” A bit later, when Jesus is telling his disciples how to equip themselves for spreading his message of reconciliation and healing, he says that two swords for twelve people is “enough.” In other words, Jesus told his friends that two swords would be plenty for a dozen people as they went out to preach the Gospel. His advice if any town rejected them? Turn around and walk away.
Jesus also told us that the “meek” and the “peacemakers” (not the confidently well-armed) will inherit the earth.
Jesus turned on its head the Old Testament ideal of violent retaliation, “an eye for an eye” (which is, let’s face it, also a very human ideal, in that most of us nurture revenge fantasies regularly, even if not of a violent nature). Jesus said instead that we ought to make friends with our enemies and turn the other cheek.
Jesus continually rejected the role his friends wanted and expected him to fulfill—as the head of a conquering army that would forcibly drive the Romans out of Israel—to instead heal and feed and remind his people to whom they belong. He went on to refuse violent self-defense even when facing his own tortured execution at the hands of an oppressive government.
Jesus said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us.” (John 4:17-19).
There is no fear in love. No fear.
As Shane Claiborne wrote for the Huffington Post shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting:
Everything in Jesus’ world, just as in ours, contends that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence, which is the very thing Jesus came to help us un-learn through his nonviolent life and death on the cross. Surely, we think, if God were to come to earth, he should at least come with a bodyguard—if not an entire entourage of armed soldiers and secret service folk. But Jesus comes unarmed. Surely, we think, if God were about to be killed he would bust out a can of butt-kicking wrath; but Jesus looks into the eyes of those about to kill him and says, “Father forgive them.” The Bible goes so far to say that the wisdom of God makes no sense to the logic of this world, in fact it may even seem like “foolishness” (or at least utopian idealism).
Jesus had a lot to say about how we are to care for the people most in need of care in any culture—the young, the poor, the voiceless.
And it’s precisely those people—the young, the poor, the voiceless—who are most victimized by gun violence. While mass shootings in middle-class or wealthy areas are what make the news and stir up conversation about gun reforms, the real victims of gun violence are young people, particularly African American and Hispanic,living in our lower income urban areas.
It is tempting—given that much of this violence is turned inward, with poor young men shooting other poor young men—to turn our backs and say that this isn’t our problem. They’re doing this to themselves, right? But Jesus was clear that we are to love our neighbor, and that our neighbor is anyone in need—not just those whose motivations and situations play on our sympathy or make sense to us. Jesus modeled a ministry that looks past the elite folk who dominate conversations about law, policy, and right behavior, and instead sits down at the table with the people who are regularly overlooked and rejected. Finding solutions to urban gun violence perpetrated by and against young people won’t be simple or easy. But we are under a moral imperative to follow Jesus by seeing both victims and perpetrators of gun violence as our neighbors and beloved of God, not as throw-away “sinners” whose violent, depressed neighborhoods aren’t our problem.
Christian theology makes clear that there is no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.”
It’s so tempting to divide the world into the good folk and the bad folk, and that’s precisely what the gun lobby wants us to do. They want us to ignore those poor inner-city thugs; if they want to shoot each other, it’s not our problem. They want us to believe, as NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre said after Sandy Hook, “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The problem is that our theology and our savior don’t allow us to divide the world so neatly. Biblical theology 101 is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that it is human nature—the nature of all humans—to defend our needs, with violence if necessary, and to care for ourselves more than others. Biblical theology 101 is also that we are all made in God’s image and therefore called to and capable of loving others as we do ourselves. Jesus continually challenged his culture’s ideas about who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were, by, for example, holding up a hated Samaritan as the true neighbor to a man who lay injured by the side of the road, and criticizing the Pharisees, who saw themselves as the “good guys.”
That the world is not so neatly divided into good and bad folk has become tragically clear in situations in which young unarmed men and women have been shot and killed by someone wrongly convinced that they posed a violent threat.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are all quite capable of behaving as “bad guys” in moments of stress, anger, and conflict. I think of myself as a patient, calm person. And most of the time I am. But when circumstances come together—fatigue, a time crunch, and pestering children, for example—I will behave (and have behaved) in ways I later feel ashamed of, such as by hurling unkind words at my kids at top volume. When a gun is available during moments of high stress and frayed nerves, it can lead to irrevocable violence perpetrated by those who would otherwise consider themselves—and be considered by others—as the “good guys.”
People who speak out against an NRA-backed refusal to consider even the most basic gun law reforms supported by a majority of Americans—those who challenge the status quo, in other words, and dare to speak out against the world view those in power—are punished. Just as Jesus was punished for daring to challenge the status quote and speak out against the world view of those in power.
About a year ago, a vocal second amendment gun-rights advocate, Dick Metcalf, wrote an op ed for Guns & Ammo magazine in which he argued that no one’s constitutional rights would be infringed if we adopted some basic gun safety measures, such as mandatory training for all gun owners. Readers went nuts, and the Guns & Ammo editor ultimately issued an apology for the “mistake” of publishing Metcalf’s piece. Metcalf himself did not back down, lamenting the “one-sided social-media and Internet outcry” that prevented people from debating a reasonable idea. Both Metcalf and the editor, Jim Bequette, lost their jobs.
Jesus and his friends were dissenters too. We’re not supposed to choose the Romans as our role models.
We’re living in an anxious time right now, with threats such as the Ebola virus and ISIS dominating our front pages and online news feeds. But the threat of gun violence is a far more credible threat to anyone living in America today. In an average year, about 30,000 Americans die of gun violence (about 2,800 children) and about 75,000 are injured (about 15,000 children).
And yet we, Christians included and perhaps especially, have allowed ourselves to be bullied into inaction on gun law reform by a powerful gun lobby. That lobby is supported by a very small minority of Americans who see the world with eyes clouded by misplaced fears and an assumption that violence is only meaningful way to protect ourselves from violence. If we strive to see the world, and human beings, power, vulnerability, fear, self-protection, victimization, and violence as Jesus did, we must fight back against this powerful minority. They are propagating a world view at clear odds with the world view we know from the Biblical narrative and Jesus Christ. It is time we stood up for that world view, not merely because a majority of Americans support some basic gun law reforms, but because our faith demands it.
As I began doing during my posts for the year-long #ItIsEnough campaign, I am closing comments on this post. I have previously provided open comment threads on gun-related posts. What I learned is that such threads generally require a lot of moderation because people (of many different opinions) don’t know how to speak nicely to one another about gun violence and legislation, and commenters rarely bring up points that say anything new. In fact, I just closed comments on a post that was more than two years old, because it continued to require too much of my time deleting nastiness.
If you like what I’ve said here, I hope you will share it with your social media friends and followers. If you don’t like what I’ve said here, you are welcome to share this with your social media friends and followers and discuss what I’ve gotten wrong. If you believe you have something new to say, I urge you to say it on your own online platform.