Friday, June 26, 2015

How to Be Pro-Gun without Being a Heretic

A note to our fashion-minded friends in open-carry states: If you're wearing your favorite top hat and pink sash, don't forget that a giant rifle really rounds out the look to great effect.
Every so often, our country comes back to one of its perennial questions: should ordinary citizens be allowed to have weapons explicitly designed for the killing of other people? I won't get into the political arguments here, except to point out that pretty much the entire rest of the world thinks that we're nuts, and that we suffer unthinkably high rates of gun violence in contrast to every other developed country. But what I really want to do is offer my humble services to the many novice theologians of the pro-gun lobby, to help them argue their case without being either ridiculous or heretical, because, unfortunately, they often end up being both.

Despite the many Christian-sounding pronouncements from pro-gun folks, it may surprise you to learn that Jesus never owned a gun (though you can see a rather fetching portrait of him posing with one here). There are, however, a couple instances where Jesus talks about the choice weapons of his own day, swords. These verses often get raised in pro-gun theological arguments. For instance, in Matt. 10:34 he says, "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Even clearer is Luke 22:36, where he instructs his disciples, "if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Unfortunately, in both of these instances the best interpretation probably ought to be metaphorical, not actual advisements of the Prince of Peace toward owning personal weaponry. Why ought they not to be taken literally? For the very simple hermeneutical principle that Scripture is best interpreted by Scripture. We have remarkably clear examples in the Gospels of Jesus' teachings that contradict a pro-gun argument about the use of personal weapons. For instance, in Matt. 5:39, he says, "I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also." Since this teaching is far less ambiguous than his opaque statement about "coming to bring a sword," we must be careful not to read the Matt. 10 passage as saying something Jesus clearly didn't intend. It's hard to imagine that he was speaking approvingly of using one's personal sword when the Matt. 5 passage seems to preclude any such action. Likewise, all four gospels record the story of the disciples' use of a sword in defense of Christ at his arrest, and his rebuke to them is startlingly clear. Thus, his advice to "buy a sword" (which in Luke occurs immediately before his rebuke for actually using a sword) ought probably to be interpreted as a metaphor for preparedness, not as a literal exhortation to wield weaponry.

The overall teaching of the apostolic age clearly seems to follow this trajectory, of conceiving of the ideal Christian response as "turning the other cheek" rather than an ethic of violent defense in the cause of justice. There are numerous instances in the book of Acts where Christians could have conceivably used force in defense of Peter or Paul, and yet they never did. In fact, Paul seems to directly eschew the idea of using weaponry: "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world" (2 Cor. 10:4). So, unfortunately, the pro-gun theological argument that we ought to own guns in order to defend the cause of justice and protect our families actually rests on a staggering amount of silence from Holy Scripture. Instead, Scripture seems to teach clearly that it is the government that has been endowed by God with the use of force for the purpose of justice (Rom. 13).

So, pro-gun folks, it's probably in your best interest to leave the Bible out of it when you want to argue about your right to bear arms. Argue from the Bill of Rights, because your argument actually has a foundation there. But Scripture, when taken as a whole, seems clearly to point in the direction that Christians are to be agents of peace, not through the use of weapons of war, but through our prayers, love, and compassion. It doesn't say outright that you ought not to own a weapon (for instance, I don't think Jesus would be against his disciples owning a few hunting rifles), so I think there's still a possibility of being both pro-gun and Christian. But it's a position you should think about carefully.

(Painting, above: "Schützenbrüder," by Christian Heyden, 1939, oil on canvas)