The latest mass shooting in San Bernadino has given me a feeling of despair I have not experienced from the evening news in some time. Like many of you, I am absolutely sick at the continuing cycle of gun violence in this country, and the seeming lack of ability for our political leaders to do anything about it.
I’ve had numerous arguments with friends and relatives over social media this past week. This has not made me feel any better. Living and teaching in the Deep South has convinced me the differences of opinion on gun control are as much cultural as political.
This got me thinking about possible cultural solutions to the problem—the need to change hearts and minds on the necessity of guns in America. As much as we need our political leaders to step up with real answers to this crisis, we also need to change the culture of guns and violence that pervade American society–whatever it is about our society that causes many of our fellow citizens to believe they must stockpile weapons for their own and their family’s safety.
And so, following Gandhi’s advice that we must “be the change we wish to see,” I have decided to start with myself:
I hereby renounce my right to bear arms. I will not keep guns in my house, in my car, or on my person. I will not rely on guns for self-protection. I do not believe owning a gun is a fundamental human right like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I do not believe owning a gun is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy. I am capable of functioning in society without resorting to the threat or use of lethal force.
I am not expert enough to argue this position from a legal perspective. I will leave that to the Constitutional scholars. I do believe, based on my understanding of the Scriptures and theology, that it is a Christian action to surrender this right.
America’s obsession guns and militant defense of the Second Amendment at the expense of all other considerations—including human life—have led to a culture of carnage unlike any other in the developed world. We live in a gun-sick society. As a Christian, when my rights impinge upon the lives and safety of other individuals, I must cede my rights in favor of the greater good. Whatever rights I may have under U.S. law are less important than the responsibility I have to love my neighbor as myself.
There are many things I am promised as a Christian: the counsel of the Holy Spirit, the surety of salvation in Jesus Christ, and the hope of eternal life. Among the things I am not promised are safety and security. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to expect quite the opposite:
“They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.” (Luke 21:12, 16-17 NRSV).
At no point does Jesus tell his disciples that if they are persecuted, they should be prepared to defend themselves by force of arms. In fact, some of the most powerful and revolutionary teachings of Jesus negate the very idea of self-defense:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5: 38-41).
This is part of the “world turned upside-down” message in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. The meek shall inherit the earth, not the strong (Matt. 5:5). The peacemakers will be called children of God, not the warmongers (Matt. 5:9). The first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matt. 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30). This is a theology that challenges us to give up control of our possessions (Matt. 19:28-29), relationships (Luke 14:26), rights and privileges (Mark 9:35), even our lives (John 12:25), for the sake of the Kingdom. And it is preached right through the Gospels.
In no way do I perfectly follow these difficult teachings of Christ. But I cannot see owning a gun for protection of my property, even for protection of myself and my family, as compatible with these teachings. The message here is that we are to focus on doing what the Kingdom requires, and leave the “safety” or “security” of self, family, and possessions up to God.
Jesus didn’t just teach this message, he lived it with the example of his own life. When he was arrested for what we Americans today would call “exercising his right to free speech,” he refused to fight back. He willingly gave himself up to be sacrificed as a political prisoner, not just to fulfill God’s plan of salvation, but to demonstrate the powerlessness of tyrants and oppressors against committed individuals and communities. If you doubt that latter point, ask yourself this: If Jesus had led an armed insurrection against Pilate and the Roman Empire, do you think we would have heard of him today?
Many have interpreted Jesus’ actions as applying only to him; that he submitted himself to earthly authorities and gave himself up to be sacrificed only to carry out God’s plan for salvation. This interpretation doesn’t jibe with Biblical teaching either. In multiple places in the Gospels, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).
This Gospel evidence against the idea of violent self-defense has not stopped some Tea Party ministers from using creative biblical interpretation to justify their own obsession with gun ownership. The most vocal of these is Chuck Baldwin, a church pastor, radio host, and former presidential candidate for the ultra right-wing Constitution Party. In 2013 Baldwin wrote an influential article on why Christians should own guns called, “The Law of the Sword.”
Baldwin’s sole justification for the Christian ownership of guns is a passage from Luke 22:35-38, which takes place directly after the Last Supper:
“(Jesus) said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’”
Baldwin goes on to say that in this passage Jesus is empowering the disciples with “the right to bear arms:”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the First Century Roman sword was the most efficient and lethal personal defense weapon in the world at the time. It is no hyperbole or injustice to language to say that the Roman sword was the First Century equivalent to a modern AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. It was designed to kill swiftly and efficiently. And Jesus commanded His disciples to buy and carry one!”
First off, let’s get one thing straight, a sword, though quite deadly in the hands of a trained user, is not as dangerous as an AR-15. We are not currently living in fear of daily mass-sword killings. Semi-automatic rifles make killing easy, even for the beginner.
Secondly, Baldwin’s biblical interpretation is bunk. It’s a prime example of eisegesis: the plucking of one verse or passage out of the Bible to fit a preconceived conclusion. One passage of the Bible taken out of context cannot counter the entire weight of the Gospel message of nonviolence that I have outlined above.
The Luke passage on swords is an anomaly. It bears several warning signs of being an inaccurate addition to the Jesus story. For one, it only appears in one gospel. It also directly contradicts another pericope, the “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword” teaching of Jesus, that appears in all three synoptic gospels. And it does not scan with the overall weight of Jesus’ teachings and personal conduct, which challenge the idea that might makes right.
My guess is this passage is an example of Middle Eastern hyperbole, often attributed to Jesus when he speaks apocalyptically about the arrival of the Kingdom. He’s saying to his disciples, “They’re coming for me. They’ll be coming for you. Be prepared.” It reminds me of the old Warren Zevon song that goes, “Send lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan.” It should not be read literally as Christ-given advice on the right to bear arms of any kind–swords or guns.
In addition to the biblical evidence against relying on guns for self-defense, many parts of my Christian theological tradition also question the assumptions behind arguments defending America’s gun culture.
The NRA often uses terminology that suggests there is a distinct difference between “law-abiding gun owners” and “criminals.” As NRA President Wayne LaPierre stated in his brazen defense of absolute gun rights after the massacre of school children in Sandy Hook, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
This is a fundamentally unchristian position, as even Christ did not claim to be “good.” When someone called him “good teacher,” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18).
Christian tradition teaches that all human beings have the capacity to do good and to do evil. It is by the grace of God that I am able to choose the good, despite my all-too-human tendency to do evil. Anyone, myself included, can suffer an emotional breakdown and lash out at others or harm themselves. Ready access to guns only magnifies the harm caused by human sin. I can think of no tool, no implement or technology, that can turn a “good guy” into a “bad guy” as quickly as a gun. All it takes is one pull of the trigger.
The tradition of Christian liberation theology also teaches me that I must go beyond personal righteousness and resist broader systems of oppression and violence. With this concern in mind, I cannot in good conscience collaborate with the gun industry and its lobbying arm, the NRA. As a participant in global capitalism, I have to make my negotiations with less-than-virtuous corporations the same as anyone else. I would be hard pressed, however, to find an industry as callous and impervious to human suffering as the gun industry.
There are a host of perverse incentives for the gun industry to resist any action that decreases the severity of gun violence. The best thing that can happen to the gun industry is a mass shooting just before Black Friday. These events send shoppers to stores to stock up on guns and ammunition for self-defense, but also to buy the deadliest military-grade assault weapons, stoked by fears of gun bans that never materialize. This continuing cycle of violence, followed by the increase of guns in circulation, followed by more violence, then more guns, benefits no one except the gun companies who profit from stoking the fear and mistrust of Americans toward their fellow citizens.
I have to say I don’t have a lot of fear of the usual trio of anxieties that motivate gun owners: crime, terrorism, and government overreach. Perhaps I have been sheltered or lucky in not experiencing these things firsthand. I do believe it is tempting, in a rapidly-shifting culture, to cast our own shadows on these causes of anxiety. Fear of the “other” gets shifted to abstract terms like “crime” and “terrorism.” Feelings of political impotence or economic insecurity lead to anger and mistrust of government. These are temptations for all of us, and I have my own fears of the “other,” my own feelings of political rage and insecurity. Sometimes I might even label these fears as manifestations of evil.
The Bible, and Christian tradition as a whole, takes our concerns about evil seriously. And it proposes an answer that does not leave us unprotected. As Paul counsels in Ephesians 6:12-13:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
I read this passage as saying the problem of evil we face is spiritual. The armor of God does not include a Glock or an AR-15. They wouldn’t work against this enemy anyway. The evil we face is the darkness of the human spirit, the shadow self we all carry around with us and ignore at our peril. The Scriptures promise that the armor of God will be sufficient for us in resisting the dark shadow of the world, and the dark shadow within ourselves. It is this armor that I will choose as my security against the evil of the world.