I was talking with one of my former seminary students who now works at a Wesley Foundation at a major university in the South. She and her charges had been busy sending support to the Va. Tech students in the wake of the massacre in Blacksburg. Everyone had been praying and wringing their hands about what can be done. This horrific experience raised some important ethical concerns.

Where is the moral outrage about the ability of even mentally whacked out people to buy guns in this country? You heard none of the potential Presidential candidates saying anything about the need for tighter gun control laws last week. Indeed, hardly a member of Congress was saying anything. You might find this passing strange since over 80% of all Americans in recent polls have been all in favor of more gun control in this country. Why is this such a hard sell? Well because the 10-20% of those Americans who aren’t in favor of stricter gun control are better organized and they’ve got the NRA and the gun lobby to work for their point of view. It’s the best organized and the squeaky wheels which get the grease in our society.

It is interesting to me that even most American Christians, when they discuss these things, discuss them in terms of their Constitutional rights to bear firearms. They don’t ask whether the New Testament might have anything to say about Christian conduct in this regard. Never mind that the original strict constructionists of the Constitution had in mind that the colonies had a right to a militia and private citizens could keep their hunting rifles. They could never have envisioned young adults packing multiple round pistols or adults carting around AK 47s because they think they have a Constitutional right to do so. I would reject the NRA’s interpretation of the Constitution on these points, but that is a debate for another day. My question is— are their ethical teachings in the New Testament that have a bearing as to whether Christians, as private citizens, should be bearing arms? Well yes, in fact there are texts to consider.

Let’s start with first of all the unequivocal NT principle that Christians are never to engage in taking revenge. Perhaps the plainest statement of this fact is found in Romans 12—Paul, writing to Roman Christians says this “Do not repay anyone evil for evil….If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written “it is mine to avenge, I will repay” says the Lord. On the contrary “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (12.17-21).

This is a reasonably clear statement of the basic Christian principle of “no retaliation”, but in fact it goes further by adding that instead of retaliation one is to do good even to one’s enemies, to ‘kill them with kindness’ as the old cliché goes. Notice the reference to enemies. Even enemies are not excluded from love and concern and indeed from ministering to at the point of their needs. The basic underlying issue here is leaving justice in God’s hands, rather than taking matters into our own hands. Even if someone does you a grave wrong, you are not to respond in kind, but rather leave it to God to deal with the perpetrator.

Does loving one’s enemies include enemies who are currently in the process of doing you harm? Well yes it does. Notice these two clauses back to back—“love your enemies and pray for those who are persecuting you that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust…” (Mt. 5.43-45). These of course are the words of Jesus, and among other things they rule out loving your enemies to death at the point of a gun. In context this saying teaches us a lot: 1) instead of responding with violence to violence we should be praying for those who are persecuting us. Notice it does not say praying about those who are persecuting us (for instance praying God will eliminate them quickly). No, this is about wishing them well, praying for their good and not their harm, just as Paul suggested in Rom. 12. It’s about overcoming evil with good. Notice as well that Jesus expects his disciples to be emulating the beneficent behavior of God the Father who blesses both the just and unjust with needed sunshine and precious rain. God is here depicted as indiscriminantly gracious– pro-active, rather than reactive.

What about the famous text in Lk. 22.36-38 where Jesus seems to advise the disciples to go out and obtain a weapon? Again context is king here. Remember this is the same Jesus who: 1) advised that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and 2) who immediately put a stop to Peter’s violence against the high priest’s slave, and indeed reversed it’s effects by healing the man’s ear. So what is the meaning of this little story, taking into account the larger context of Jesus’ teaching? Vs. 37 is the key where Jesus quotes Is. 53.12—“he was numbered with the transgressors”. Jesus is saying to the disciples—you must fulfill your role as transgressors of what I have taught you!!! They must play the part of those who do exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught them in the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples become transgressors by seeking out weapons and then seeking to use them. This much is perfectly clear from the context for the disciples then go on to say “look Lord here is two swords”. They already have such weapons and Jesus responds in disgust to the fact that they are already transgressing his principles of non-violence by responding “that’s enough” (of this nonsense).

Clearly, Jesus knew that two swords would not be enough to hold off a Roman legion, so we must take his response as highly ironic not as straight forward. Either he says ironically “oh that will be plenty”, or more likely as I have suggested, he means “that will be enough” of this foolishness. Either way, there is absolutely no endorsement here by Jesus of his followers using weapons. Carrying weapons makes them fulfill the role of transgressors, as the citation of Is. 53.12 makes evident.

I could go on looking at text after text, but by now the point is clear— both Jesus and Paul were opposed to the use of violence by mere mortals particularly their disciples
, especially the use of violence as a form of vengeance. Vengeance was supposed to be in God’s hands, and this brings us to one more point. Jesus’ action in the temple is an example of God in the person of his Son taking vengeance against sin in his Holy Place. It is not an example of a mere human being given permission to do such things. This is why Jesus cites the Scripture “zeal for my house has consumed me”. The “my” in question is God of course, and so Jesus is acting in a divine role there. Even so, it should be noted that he does no physical harm at all to any human beings. The most one could get out of this story in Mk. 11 and par. is that justice, even when it comes to justice in the house of God, should be left to the hands of the divine.

What is the ethical cash value of the call to non-violence and non-retaliation in the NT when it comes to gun control? Several things should be said. In the first place it is just common sense, even if one is not a Christian, to believe that law enforcement should be left in the hands of the trained professionals— the police and the military. I am frankly incredulous that we simply ignore the repeated pleas and cries of the police for tougher gun control laws, so that they will not be sitting ducks while trying to do their own jobs. This inherent contradiction in the rhetoric of the gun lobby makes no sense at all. The police are absolutely right—there are whole categories of weapons than cannot be called weapons of self-protection but rather are weapons of war, and no mere amateur or private citizen should have an inalienable right to own one.

For example, I am referring to automatic weapons such as machine guns, AK 47s, or the sort of weapons Mr. Cho was able to buy. These are not in any sense mere hunting weapons nor are they like a personal hand gun, such as a revolver. These weapons, which require large bullet clips, have no purpose except the destruction of human lives on a massive scale. Even if one believes owning a gun is alright for self protection or hunting purposes, no Christian should be endorsing the right of anyone to own these sorts of WMDs which wrek havoc with our police, and empower gangs, drug dealers, and crazed individuals to create one tragedy after another.

At this juncture in the argument, someone usually points to Canada. Canada does indeed, at least in some cases, have more liberal gun laws than America. They have far fewer killings as well. Why is that? It has to do with the Rambo and wild west history of America, a history unlike the history of Canada in various respects. The British Empire, including Canada, had a long history of training people in restraint, in not using violence to try and solve human problems. That history is still in play in Canada. They did not, in the way the American colonies did, perpetrate a revolution against British rule.

Ever since our Founding Fathers, we have believed in the use of violence to establish our claims upon the land, and to maintain those claims. We still believe violence works. This was the basis of going to war in Iraq—“a military solution”. Here is where I say, that as America becomes a less and less Christian country, with less and less restraint on all sorts ethical issues WHAT WE NEED IS NOT LESS GUN CONTROL, WE NEED MORE. When the society becomes more and more ill, sinful, dysfunctional, what is needed is less access to the ability to create havoc and mayhem by using major weapons.

In surely one of the greatest ironies in recent American history a Romanian Holocaust survivor who taught at Virginia Tech, on Holocaust remembrance day, deliberately got in the way of Mr. Cho’s bullets, laying down his life to save some of his students. This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he said “greater love has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends”. Lives can indeed be saved by such sacrifices, and even the most dedicated pacifist should be ready to intervene in this way to stop the violence.

Christians believe they have the gift of eternal life. They do not need to be protecting their own lives at all costs. This simply isn’t necessary for a Christian. Of course it is true that Christians who have families must take that into consideration when seeking to act sacrificially in a dangerous situations, but nevertheless, in principle the idea that Jesus put before his disciples was to be prepared to take up their crosses and be martyred, as he was. It is forgiveness and self-sacrificial love, even to the point of dying, not killing, which stops the cycle of violence and upholds what God has in mind for all his children. This is what Jesus’ own death teaches us, and notice he was even busy forgiving his tormentors while dying on the cross.

The prophets told us that God’s goal was to get us to the point where we would one day, at least by the eschaton, beat our swords into plowshares, and study war no more. Every Christian has a chance to be a preview of that coming Kingdom now, if they will live by the principles of non-violence that Jesus modeled for, and taught all, human beings. What would happen if all, or a large majority of the Christians in America took seriously such a mandate? What would happen if more of us behaved like the Amish in western Pennsylvania and the way last year they handled the carnage wrought on their children in a small school house? I do not know what would happen humanly speaking. The world would likely see it as weakness, not meekness. But this I know—Jesus would be smiling. The words of the exalted Lord to Paul was “why are you persecuting me?” Any attack on Jesus’ people, is an attack on Jesus. And so the response should be left in Jesus’ hands. “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord—I will repay.” Think on these things.

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