The Washington Post's religion writers have been hard at work of late to boost the religious left's push for more stringent gun control legislation. On Thursday, for example, Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein treated readers of the paper's Metro section with a puffy front-page item celebrating the pulpit-pounding for gun control from the likes of the dean of the Episcopal Church's National Cathedral, Rev. Gary Hall, a self-described "left-wing Democrat." Hall has cravenly lumped gun control in with the message of the Christian gospel, using liberal applause lines like "I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby."
Two days later, the Post's Lisa Miller -- most famous for arguing that Christian Scripture is pro-same-sex marriage -- devoted a column to attacking Christians who are pro-gun rights, headlined, "The link between gun rights and the Gospels? It's still missing." The online edition is headlined "Is gun ownership Christian?" Miller began thusly:
According to the startling results of a survey released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of white evangelicals live in homes where someone owns a gun (compared, for example, with 31 percent of Catholics.) And more startling, even after 20 first-graders were slaughtered in Connecticut at the hands of a madman with an assault rifle, 59 percent of white evangelicals continue to oppose tighter restrictions on gun laws.
An obvious question occurs in light of these results: How do such Christians reconcile their stalwart commitment to the Second Amendment with their belief in a gospel that preaches nonviolence? The Christian Lord allowed himself to be crucified rather than fight the injustice of the death sentence imposed on him. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” he says, in the Gospel of Matthew. The Bible is mute on the matter of guns, of course, but it is impossible to imagine that Jesus would find anything good to say about them.
Impossible? No, it's not.
In fact, to her credit, Miller did go on to note Christian thinkers who defend private gun ownership specifically and the notion of self-defense generally as legitimate, but she closed her article by insisting they are all wet, again, turning to liberal Christian hero Rev. Hall for the final word:
Curbing gun ownership is the gateway to curbing other rights. “There’s a suspicion of a too-powerful state,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me. “Sometimes one will hear that if the government has too much power over guns, it will also have too much power over freedom of speech, freedom of religion.” The minute the state starts dictating the kinds of guns a citizen can own, this argument continues, it has gone over the line. Moore himself is not opposed to universal background checks and emphasizes that on the matter of gun control, believing Christians can disagree.
Self-defense and love (and defense) of neighbor are biblical values. This is how former Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land, in an interview on National Public Radio in December, defended his support of arming teachers. A similar argument was put forth by David French, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, in an article in Patheos several months ago. Going back to Noah, through Exodus and the prophets, French builds his case, and he concludes with the moral philosopher John Locke, who called the right of self-defense “a fundamental law of nature.” “The defense of self, the defense of others is not only biblically authorized but, in certain circumstances, is a moral imperative,” French told me. “Turn the other cheek does not mean turn your wife’s cheek or turn your children’s cheek.” Gun control, he wrote in Patheos, is the state’s effort to deprive humans of their God-given right to self-defense.
Provocative, but unconvincing. Jesus identified with the weak, not the strong; with the victims, not the shooters (or the people with the guns). More than 500 children were killed in accidental gun deaths in 2011. As the Rev. Gary Hall preached at Washington National Cathedral last week, “If we want to stand with Jesus and Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. . . . That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.”
Of course, there's a tremendous difference between dying a martyr's death to further the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and being killed by a home invasion burglar or bandit whose violence is not predicated on religious persecution. There's nothing in Scripture to suggest that Jesus advocated a complete aversion to self-defense or that self-defense is in and of itself sinful.
Indeed, Jesus's rebuke to St. Peter recorded in the gospel accounts is not for carrying a sword but for misusing it. Indeed, Jesus himself certainly had no problems with Peter carrying about a sword during his three years of ministry, as Peter clearly had one in his possession on the night in which Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”
(Luke 22:35-38 ESV)
The text in question is not a call to arm oneself for offensive purposes: Jesus clearly didn't desire his 11 remaining apostles to be armed to the teeth and the primary import of Jesus's statement is noting that a prophecy must be fulfilled. But clearly just as a knapsack, moneybag, and sandals were necessary for lengthy journeys in the ancient near east, so would a sword -- for fending off bandits and wild animals -- be a legitimate implement to carry.
What's more, when Peter strikes the servant of the high priest when Jesus is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus notably does not tell Peter to surrender his sword to the authorities nor to throw it away, but rather to return it to its place (emphases mine):
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
(John 18:10-11 ESV)
While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
(Luke 22:47-53 ESV)
And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” And they all left him and fled.
(Mark 14:43-50 ESV)
While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
(Matthew 26:47-56 ESV)
An honest evaluation of the relevant texts would show Jesus condemns the use of the sword as an offensive weapon for the spreading of the Gospel, but does not condemn the sword altogether for use in self-defense nor in the execution of temporal justice by the state.
Of course, that would require a willingness to read Jesus and the whole counsel of Scripture in context, rather than conveniently cherry-picking him to rebuke pro-gun rights evangelicals and calling them to repent of their political views.