Recent events have Americans once again debating (more like shouting at each other) the relative merits of private firearms vs. gun control in our country. As usual, the rhetoric is extreme, emotions are high, and friendships are strained over the disagreement. There are legitimate discussions to be had over various policy alternatives, and I have opinions aplenty on many of the issues myself. I’m not going to discuss those on this blog. Contrary to popular opinion in some quarters, I happen not to consider the United States to be a Christian nation, and while I still think we’d be better off following the example of Christ, I believe that issues such as firearms policy are ultimately secular issues to be decided on secular grounds in a secular state.
Among my Evangelical Christian brethren, however, my position is not normal. Many would even say it’s immoral. Prominent Christian leaders, as well as a good many of my own friends, are speaking out vociferously in support of gun rights and the Second Amendment. It is these, and their faith foundation, to whom I speak. To put it plainly: The Second Amendment is the law of the land, but it is antithetical to the law of Christ. Let’s take a look at some of the major justifications Christians I know use to support the second amendment.
Self/home defense. I’m starting with the right of self defense because I think it’s actually the one with the least clear opposition in scripture. It’s plain that Jesus didn’t approve of violent self-defense (Matt. 26:52 is about as direct as it gets) and took a fairly dim view of bearing arms (Luke 22:36-37, in which Jesus says his disciples carrying swords will identify him as “numbered with the transgressors”). However, there’s plenty of armed conflict and defense in the Old Testament that Christians still point to, and this isn’t the place I intend to engage that particular issue.
Some Christians will point out that a consistent pro-life perspective (which can be Biblical) argues for defense of the innocent. I think that’s probably true. I myself have acknowledged that I can’t completely rule out the use of force, even deadly force, in defense of the innocent. I would, however, suggest that defense of innocent third parties, of oneself, and of property are distinct issues, and probably need to be considered separately with regard to morality. “Turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) makes sense if it’s me turning my own cheek; less so if I’m turning somebody else’s cheek, it seems. And “Give to him who asks” (Matt 5:42) does not include a sub-clause of “unless he tries to take it by force.” While I’m not prepared to leave my house unlocked and open to all comers, I think it’s valid to consider that no inanimate object, however prized or valuable, is worth a human life. Ultimately, in this area, I think the question is “whom do we trust?” “Some trust in chariots and some in horses (still others in AR-15s or Glock-9s), but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7 with my own twist). In this vein, it seems to me that many Christians have set their hopes on things of this earth when they arm up.
There’s a corollary form of home defense that deserves special mention, and that is the so-called “Christian Survivalist.” I’ve got good friends who have stockpiled food, water, weapons, and ammo against a dissolution of societal order such as might happen after a cataclysmic natural disaster or attack by a foreign power. These friends are prepared, if society completely falls apart, to hole up in their own personal bunker and fight off any marauders who might approach their castle. Without addressing the pragmatics of the issue (you’re really going to hold off an essentially indefinite wave of desperate survivors? Really?), it seems to me that this mentality runs so counter to the “minister to the least of these” ethos of Jesus as to be heretical. Whatever we do in periods of chaos and disaster, I can imagine no response more antithetical to the way of Jesus than to wall ourselves off and kill anyone who tries to take our stash. If such disaster ever does befall us, we Christians should be the ones out front ministering to the hurting, not the ones cowering in private fortresses.
It’s a fundamental, Constitutional right. Another common issue raised by my Christian friends has to do with the fact that the right to keep and bear arms, whatever its purpose, is a right enshrined in our Constitution through the original amendments of the Bill of Rights. And this is true. That matters from a legal perspective, but not really from a Christian one, other than the basic point that it is the law of the land and should be obeyed. Although some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were Christians, there is nothing about that document nor the government it established that is divinely inspired. Changing an American law is not remotely equivalent to changing a point of doctrine in the faith. The very fact that the right to bear arms appears as an amendment (that is, a change) to the Constitution should be evidence enough that unlike a sacred text, the framers fully intended the Constitution to be changeable, and provided a mechanism for doing so. Far too many Christians treat (parts of) the Constitution as sacred text. This is blasphemy and must be stopped.
The right to overthrow an oppressive government. I don’t think there’s any reasonable doubt that the original founders of this country intended an armed populace to be a buffer against government overreach. They said as much in the Declaration of Independence: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [that is, the preservation of Life, Liberty, & Pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…” Less than a decade before, the United States had finished a war of independence, and though they developed foreign supply lines during the war, there’s no question they’d never have gotten started if the colonists hadn’t had arms of their own with which to oppose the British. Like it or not, the concept of armed resistance to government is an authentic part of American history.
But it’s not part of authentic Christian behavior. In a passage that conservatives used to quote regularly (during the era of the Vietnam war & draft), Romans 13:1-7 is pretty blunt that rebelling against an established government is unacceptable to God. Verse 2 is direct: “… whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (quote from NIV) And lest anyone say that v. 4 & 5 qualify this command in that God only demands submission to just governments, take a little look back at Roman history. The Roman colonial power of the first century was far more oppressive in matters of law, human rights, taxation, and other areas, than the British ever were; both were far more oppressive than the various “socialist takeovers” that figure in the vivid imagination of the American Right. To stockpile arms against the possible need to overthrow the American government may be a very American thing to do, but it’s baldly anti-Christian and as such, merits the harshest condemnation.
Of course there is an important caveat to submission to government, and that’s best exemplified by Peter and John in Acts 4:19 and Acts 5:29. When a governing authority commands us to do something that is explicitly contrary to God’s command (in this case Peter and John were being ordered not to preach about Jesus), we of course must disobey — and then accept the consequences. Sometimes submission to authority means taking the punishment that authority metes out — even if unjust. But it never means violent rebellion.
Basic freedom. Finally, many protest that they simply want their guns, and enjoy their guns, and should have freedom to enjoy them. I get it. I like to shoot too, and though I’m no Olympic marksman I’m not half bad. But when it comes to asserting our freedom in anything that is not in itself a matter of faith, it seems to me we need to take a step back. ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.’ So says the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 10:23. More to the point, 1 Cor. 8:1-12 goes into some depth on the notion that we ought not allow the exercise of our freedom to be a stumbling block for others. I do not suggest (nor does Paul) that we should necessarily avoid anything simply because it upsets someone else. But our faith does not support liberty for liberty’s sake. The freedom offered in Christ is exemplified in Christ-like service and humility, not in the arrogant assertion of our own desires.
So: defense, Constitutionality, limitation of government, and freedom. Each of these is a valid, secular, American notion with regard to the question of firearms in the nation. Grounded on these principles, legitimate secular debate is not only reasonable but necessary. But however American these tenets may be, they are not Christian — in fact in many ways they’re anti-Christian. We do violence to the cause of our faith when we fail to see the difference.