Sunday, January 29, 2023

Jesus and guns

I have finished editing my notes on Christian ethics and will self-publish in the next day or so. I did add a section on gun control to the article on "There are exceptional circumstances where force is permissible."


The question of gun control has become a fairly serious discussion in recent years. The United States has in its Constitution the right “to bear arms.” This right presumably was put in the Constitution remembering that the country was founded in a rebellion against its ruling authorities, with individuals taking up arms against its government.

It seems strange that some aspects of this topic would be significant enough for Christians to merit inclusion in a book on Christian ethics, but it seems appropriate. On the one hand, the Bible has no prohibition about owning weapons. Israel went to war. Peter has a sword of some kind with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, presumably not only for utility but also for protection (John 18:10).

However, after Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus gives the more basic Christian attitude toward violence: “Put your sword back into its sheath” (John 18:11). In this article, we have argued that the use of force can be justified in some rare circumstances. But it is the exception. The fundamental bias of Jesus is toward peace, and we have no reason to think that Jesus himself carried a sword.

Jesus’ default instruction was to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). The more fundamental orientation of the New Testament is to show the power of God in your unjust suffering (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:9): “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” Paul says the same: “Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19).

This teaching is hard, and many American Christians implicitly reject it. Our culture has a cult of freedom and rights, and the church sometimes cannot tell where its faith ends and its Americanism begins. Bonhoeffer would be appalled at the way one moment of allowing for violence against Hitler under the most extreme of circumstances has now made him a hero for a fundamental attitude of violence by many in the American church. [1] The fundamental attitude of the New Testament in relation to these things is one of peace. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Paul did not mean peace at the end of a gun.

In general, it seems permissible to defend yourself, but the use of violence is not the fundamental bias of the Christian. Violence begets violence. Peace begets peace. In the light of the New Testament, which seems to fit Jesus’ bias better: let us have more and more guns or let us have fewer and fewer? If you answered “more,” you are probably not reading the New Testament with a clear head. In the decade after the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to sunset in 2004, mass shootings more than tripled. No objective reading of Jesus will likely conclude that the Christian way is “more and more guns.”

Is there not a happy medium between all or nothing? As we will continue to explore later, the Christian ideal for a country would be a place that maximally “loves its neighbor as itself.” If we were to put this idea into secular philosophical terms, “What structure of government brings about the greatest good for the greatest number without violating the fundamental health of any minority in the process?” In philosophical terms, this approach is a mixture of utilitarianism (greatest good for greatest number) and something called universal ethical egoism (maximal benefit for every individual). Because love of neighbor is one of the chief ways in which we love God, such a structure also loves God in the process.

We can thus see an intersection between Christian values and secular values in the question of what approach brings about the greatest good for the majority of people without hurting some segment of the population. Obviously less violence for more people is an easy answer. Further, an unlimited and unregulated freedom to have weapons is arguably neither in the best interests of the majority nor does it hurt the health of some minority. None of the rights in the US Bill of Rights is absolute. They all balance against each other.

As a side note, during this phase of history, God is not yet forcing the world to serve him. In other words, loving God does not mean forcing the rest of the country to follow Christian rules. God allows other religions to exist. During the days of Israel, he allowed other nations to exist, and during the days of the New Testament there was no political entity that was a theocracy, a country supposedly ruled directly by God. In practice, theocracies end up being rule by religious leaders who are the ones who relay to the people what God supposedly thinks.

What is the New Testament view of rights? We should note that Paul clearly subordinates his individual rights to the benefit of others. As someone working for the benefit of the Corinthian church, he had a biblical right to their material support. They had an obligation to support him, Paul says. Nevertheless, “we have no made use of this right… rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12).

He advises the same to the Corinthians, some of them clearly felt the freedom to eat meat that had been sacrificed to another god, perhaps even at a pagan temple. Paul urges them that the way of Christ is not a way of insisting on my freedoms. “‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial… Do not seek your own advantage but the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Even if your conscience is clear, Paul says, sacrifice your own freedom for the benefit of the person whose conscience is not clear (1 Cor. 10:28-29).

There are of course limits here. Sometimes the faith of the other person is not in danger because of my freedom. They’re just going to get ticked off. Paul does not say, “Don’t wear a wedding ring because you’re going to offend someone who doesn’t wear one.” Nevertheless, even here, the Christian does not have a bias for giving offense. The Christian bias is for peace, even when the other party seems to be acting unreasonably.

The law is complicated. Laws often have unintended consequences. Let me merely do my best to suggest what I think Jesus would do in relation to gun control. Let us assume that Jesus did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword. Let us therefore allow that there is nothing intrinsically unbiblical about a Christian owning weapons. There is nothing unbiblical about hunting. There seems to be allowance for self-defense.

However, something seems a little off with a thirst for human-killing weapons. We are not talking about the military. We are talking about individuals who stockpile weapons. I cannot say it is prohibited. It simply does not obviously fit the spirit of the New Testament.

Would Jesus have supported an assault weapons ban? Would Jesus have supported some regulations on who can own a gun? Would Jesus have supported background checks to get a weapon? Perhaps Jesus would have said, “Let Caesar do what Caesar wants.” Nevertheless, it is hard to see where Jesus would not have said “yes” to the values behind these questions. This is the value of preserving life. Among his own followers, he would have surely supported limitations, with abstinence from weapons likely preferred when feasible.

When the groups we are part of get into ideological fights, it is sometimes hard to get our heads straight. We are in streams of culture, including Christian culture. We get pushed along. Sometimes we are like that frog in the kettle that does not realize he is being boiled until it is too late. In the early 2000s, I used to joke that the reason some in my family supported the NRA was because they were against abortion. In other words, because they are against abortion, they are Republican. Republicans tend to be aligned with the NRA. Therefore, by the transitive property of equality, they support the NRA because they are against abortion.

This sequence of thought is of course illogical, and it probably is not as funny today as it was twenty years ago. Many Christians have been boiled in the kettle of the pro-gun movement to where, even after so many school shootings, there is still a strong resistance to even basic regulations on weapons. You hear comments like, “Guns do not kill people. People kill people.” This is a distraction. Would you hand a young man some pornography and say, “Remember, son, it’s your choice whether you look at this or not.”

I offer these thoughts as a plea for the church to remember who it is. God has not called us to violence, but to peace. The goal of this section is to remind us of our fundamental principles and values. Legislation is almost always complicated with nuances, exceptions, and unintended consequences. But let us be confident on our fundamental values as believers. Jesus is the Prince of Peace!

[1] It seems to me that this is the fundamental (mistaken) attitude in general of Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). It seems doubtful that Bonhoeffer himself would approve of Metaxas’ general take.


Martin LaBar said...

A sadly important topic. Thanks.

aservantofJehovah said...

I think I can sympathize with both sides of this issue. We live in a dangerous world. The institutions charged with protecting us from each other appear to be asleep at the wheel.
It's perfectly understandable that many would feel that they can't possibly do a worse job of protecting themselves than the powers that be have done of protecting them. But the faith that keeps me from falling prey to such "logic" cannot be legislated.

John Middleton said...

Speaking as someone who likes guns and owns several, you are right. As noted, there is more than one reason to own a firearm, and not all firearms are made with human targets in mind. However, like the social drinker who is kidding himself about the intent behind and the effects following his drinking, too many gun enthusiasts, including Christian ones, are in denial about their own motive and the consequences of our national 2nd Amendment fetish.