A loyal reader, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, asked me to do a piece on a Biblically-centered approach to the gun control debate. I decided to spend some time to think about the issue after the horror of the incident had passed, and also to provide time for appropriate mourning and respect.
Then the other day, a Facebook friend changed his cover photo to this:
That a conservative, evangelical Christian felt this way is no surprise to me. As regular readers know, I have written about the unholy alliance between Christianity and American politics before, most notably here, but also here, here, here, here, and here. (And I do not use the term "unholy alliance" loosely: I mean it quite literally. To be "holy," by definition, means to be set apart for God, separated from the common man on Earth. So when we ally our faith to common politics, the alliance is by definition 'unholy,' and we become nothing more than yet another lobbying group.)
Such a belief system is shocking only in how commonly shared it is. Among white evangelicals, 57% own a gun at home and 59% oppose any tighter restriction to gun ownership. This compares to only 36% of the general population owning guns, and over half of the general population supporting some form of gun control.
In other words--professing evangelical Christians are the MOST likely group in America to own guns, and oppose attempts to limit gun ownership. Why? As shown in the links above, it is largely because the average white evangelical does not see the Constitution as much different than the Bible, and thus treats the Second Amendment as a God-given right--rather than a Founding-Father-given right.
So, it occurred to me that the timing is right for RebootChristianity to address the issue.
Before I do, though, let me tell you what I will NOT address.
1. The Constitutionality of gun ownership.
A good amount of the Christian debate on the subject comes down to this statement: "The Constitution gives me the right to own a gun, so no one can take it away!" I am going to spend absolutely no time discussing whether the Constitution gives the right to unencumbered gun ownership, or whether it arms the militia, or whether it supports conceal-and-carry, etc. I am no constitutional scholar, and--more to the point--it is completely and utterly irrelevant.
You see, as Christians, we are citizens of heaven and pilgrims here on Earth. Our first and primary duty is to God and His Christ, not the President. We pray for God's kingdom to come, for that is our true home. The Bible is our guide to life, not the Constitution.
In some regard, every Christian understands this. The First Amendment gives you the freedom to worship any religion...does this mean it is okay for a Christian to worship Allah? Of course not! The First Amendment gives you the right to a free press...does this mean it is okay for the Christian to say bad things about the Christ in a newspaper? Of course not! The Fifth Amendment protects the right of a person not to self-incriminate...does this mean it is okay in God's eyes to refuse to admit guilt for our sins and try to "beat the rap"? Of course not!
We Christians all know that the freedoms granted to us by the United States must be looked at secondarily. We Christians can only take advantage of those freedoms if they are within the bounds of appropriate Christian behavior. And the Second Amendment is no different: so the only thing of importance is whether our faith allows us to utilize of the Second Amendment--not what the Second Amendment actually says.
2. The practicality of gun ownership.
Another major topic of debate is whether gun ownership is a practical deterrant. Do we have the right to defend ourselves? If so, in what situations? Will controlling guns reduce mass shootings or not? Are guns more dangerous in the home than they are likely to stop a crime? What kind of guns are practical to own? Should they be allowed to be purchased without background checks?
These are all questions of practicality, rather than morality. Christians well know that it is not important how practical something is if it is wrong. For example, the authors of Freakonomics convincingly argue that crime rates dropped as a result of Roe v. Wade--because fewer low-income unwanted children were born, who are likely to commit crimes. Thus Roe v. Wade has a practical benefit...but that is irrelevant to us as Christians. It may indeed be practical to kill infants--that doesn't make it right. Eugenics may be practical. China's one-child law may be practical. Lots of things are practical--this doesn't make them moral.
So again, it is largely irrelevant whether gun control is practical or not. What is important is whether we should be owning guns.
So with this all said, let us debate the real question:
What should Christians think about guns?
Obviously this will not be a "proof-text" case. There were no guns at the time of the Biblical writing, and thus we can't find a verse where Jesus says, "And thus it is okay to have a shotgun, but thou shalt not carry a rifle of assault." The Biblical audience's view of 'superior firepower' was the Roman army, and despite the greatest technology of their day, violence still basically came down to "swing this pointy thing really hard at a guy dressed in armor, and see what happens." Compare this to today, where depraved men and women have the option of walking into a public school and shooting several hundred metal slugs through the air in a few seconds, each traveling faster than the speed of sound. Needless to say, the two situations are not directly analogous.
So we cannot find a proof-text for either side of the case. But what is valuable in this case is to look at all of the Biblical texts on using weapons for violent acts, and determine what principles we can determine.
The Old Testament Advice on Weaponry and Violence
During the course of this study, I identified over 500 references to the use of weapons in the Bible. The old belief about the Old Testament being violent and the New Testament being peaceful is not far wrong: over 95% of the references to using weaponry in the Bible occur in the Old Testament, and very few of those passages indicate any major concern with personal ownership of a weapon. It is assumed that a wise man will use a weapon for self-defense (Neh 4:17), and indeed it is encouraged. Frequently throughout the Old Testament we see personal weapons used for hunting, and hundreds of references to soldiers using weapons for warfare. The right of self-defense seems well described here.
In short, I find it comfortable to say: under the Law, it is perfectly fine to own a weapon for hunting or self-defense, or to use a weapon in warfare (particularly with regard to establishing Israel as a state). The Jewish Bible seems quite clear on that point. And so if I were writing to a Jewish audience, that would be all of the story.
However, something remarkable changed in the New Testament. In the Jewish Law, there are over 500 references to Jews using weapons, of which all but a dozen or so are positive. It is generally accepted that you will own a sword, and use it in war or home defense (as long as you do not kill during daylight in this case).
Update, Apr 17 2013: In my Egypt series, I noticed a passage I had previously missed. In the Old Testament there was something quite interesting and different than I originally noticed. In the Mosaic Covenant, as God is giving the rules of His people to the Jews, He addresses home defense explicitly in Exodus 22:2-3. In verse 2 He says that if someone breaks into your home at night and you kill him in self-defense, there is no penalty. However in verse 3, He says that if someone breaks into your home during the day, killing him is considered murder (because you could see him coming, presumably).
This opens a lot of questions for us. Of course in general the Mosaic Code does not apply to us today, but does this seem to give us a hint that, in God's eyes, defending your home with lethal force is okay as long as you cannot see the attacker? If so, does the advent of the electric light bulb and the fact that the home is never fully dark mean this is a non-issue? Regardless, with this passage you have two choices: either you argue for the acceptance of both verses 2 and 3, or the acceptance of neither, for the Gentile Christian. Since this is explicitly in the Mosaic Law to the Jews, and not one of the parts of the Law which is extended in Gentiles in the New Testament, I tend to think neither of these are really relevant to us today--either the situation where it is allowed, or the one where it is considered murder.
The New Testament Advice on Weaponry and Violence
But the New Testament is much, much different. First of all, weapons are rarely ever mentioned: only about two dozen times in the entire text. To put that in perspective, if you read the Bible you are 38 times more likely to see someone use a weapon in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.
And while the Old Testament had a largely neutral-to-positive view of personal weaponry use, the New Testament is overwhelmingly anti-violence:
* In Matthew 5:3-8, the people Jesus calls blessed are those who are poor, meek, mourning, merciful, peace-making, and persecuted. Jesus does not say that those who are practical or protect themselves or their families are blessed; quite the opposite! He gives blessings to those who are meek and gentle, who seek to show peace and mercy, and who are persecuted by the more powerful. In other words, Jesus in principle here is identified explicitly with those who seek peaceful solutions (even if hurt for it), not those who seek "peace through superior firepower."
* In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus tells His listeners that the appropriate response to being attacked is not to retaliate with equal violence, but instead to go out of your way to help those who help you. If someone robs you, Jesus says--give them even more than they asked for! If an oppressive government forces you to do something, do even more than they expected (v.41, a reference to a soldier's right to force someone to carry their armor and weapons for them a mile).
* In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells His listeners to love their enemies, rather than plot how to dissuade or destroy them. He tells us to go out of our way to seek out our enemies and show them love. (It's hard to tell someone "I love you," by pulling a gun on them, so clearly this is not pro-home defense here.)
* In Luke 22:36, Jesus says that they need a sword in order to fulfill a particular prophesy. The disciples are carrying two swords with them (v.38), but Jesus appears not to have known this (v.36). So here we see Jesus asking for a sword for the purpose of prophetic fulfillment. However, when that sword was used in self-defense, Jesus rebuked Peter harshly (Lu 22:49-51, Matt 26:51-52). Jesus said that people who use the sword as a weapon will die by the sword.
* In Romans 13:4, Paul tells us that the government is given swords in order to punish evildoers, and thus should not be opposed in that regard.
* In Ephesians 6:17, Paul talks about self-defense...but in Paul's mind, our attack weapon is the Spirit-inspired Bible, not a sword.
In other words, the New Testament is overwhelmingly anti-violence. In fact, many of the common modern pro-gun talking points seem to be directly addressed here. For those who say that we should be able to defend ourselves against criminals breaking into our homes, Jesus says to pray for those who would do you harm (Mt 5:43-48) and to give them even more than they ask for (Mt 5:38-42). To those who say that you should be able to have a weapon in order to defend yourself or the innocent, Jesus says that they should not do this and that weapons are more likely to lead to your own death than to solve any problem (Lu 22:49-51, Mat 26:51-52). To those who say that you should be able to keep weapons to protect yourself from oppressive governments, Paul says that God put one of the most oppressive governments in history in place and gave them their authority, and it was not to be opposed (Rom 13:14).
In short, Jesus says that we should seek a lifestyle of meekness, peace-making, gentleness, mercy, and rejoicing in persecution (Matt 5:3-8)...and it is very, very difficult to believe that any of these are helped by gun ownership. In fact, I'm willing to bet that no person in history has ever said, "You know, I really want to be a more peaceful, meek, mercy-giving person. The kind of person who is so full of love they are persecuted. To achieve this, I should probably go buy a gun."
No matter where you fall on the gun debate, it is frankly impossible to imagine a situation where Jesus today would be packing heat. I can't see Jesus today going to a concealed carry class so that He could defend His disciples. I can't see the apostles--who, almost to a man, went without a struggle into martyrdom--going out and buying a handgun for plinking cans. There simply is no way to read the New Testament and get a pro-gun philosophy out of it. You might can twist something in the Old Testament if you wish, but the New Testament seems pretty clearly against it.
The same continued in early Christianity for centuries. The early Christians were known as passive and non-violent. Pastors like Tertullian even went so far as to ask Christians to resign from the military if they could, for Christians should have no part in taking lives or carrying weapons--he could not resolve such a concept to those Scriptures above.
It seems very clear that, if Jesus were around today, He would expect His followers to live without guns (or swords, or any other violent weaponry). He was pretty clear on the subject. A Christian's protection comes from God, not man: indeed, the reliance wholly on God is the entire basis of Christian philosophy.
To take it further--In Romans 13:4, Paul told us that God put violent weapons in the hands of government to allow them to punish evildoers. It is one of the government's primary roles, according to Scripture--to keep the Law, violently if necessary.
But that is not the individual's role. We are to live by grace and mercy, not the Law.
Ask any Christian what it means to have faith, and they will tell you that it means to rely on God, not your actions or the world's provision. Ask any Christian whether we are to live by Law or Grace, and they will say Grace, without hesitation.
Why then do we pretend as though gun ownership is outside the scope of these considerations? The government, according to Paul, should use weapons to enact the civil law. But we are to live by grace and peace--our weapon is the Bible, our defense is spiritual, not physical (Eph 6). Christians know that we are supposed to rely on God for all things, not take matters into our own hands--so why do we insist on taking "self-defense" into our own hands, even when Jesus explicitly told us to not do so?
For the Jew, I can see an argument for a wise use of gun ownership. For the Christian, frankly, it should be a non-issue. After completing this study, I find it impossible to picture Jesus packing heat.
And after all, we are supposed to be trying to be more like Jesus, aren't we?
Updated Postscript--The only thing about this article that I wish to change is the postscript, where I took a leap too far and thereby, in hindsight, undermined some of my point. Otherwise the study is solid, but my implication here led some people to the wrong conclusion. So let me clarify.
Does this article mean you are a sinner for owning a gun? No. Does it mean you should necessarily sell one that you own? No. Does it mean that it is wrong to hunt? Not at all. Does it mean that the United States should or should not change their gun control policies? No. All of this was out of my scope. Essentially what I am really investigating here is the validity of using lethal force to stop oppression, persecution, or criminal activity FOR THE CHRISTIAN. In that narrow instance I am saying that I can no longer draw the conclusion that this is okay--a position which, frankly speaking, I held prior to starting the series. I am likely going to be investing in a stun gun or pepper spray for home defense going forward, or some other non lethal method.