I’d like to talk a little bit about the 2nd Amendment and how our faith informs us regarding this “Right to bear Arms.” The argument over the 2nd Amendment has captured the spotlight over the past 30 years and is especially relevant today regarding the increase of gun deaths within this country. As a society, we are reaching a critical mass regarding gun ownership and usage. I would submit that as Christians, owning a weapon, much less using one, is not consistent with our faith.
I say this as one who grew up in rural Eastern Kentucky where gun ownership is almost expected as a proof of citizenship. I am a veteran who qualified as Expert on the use of the M-16 rifle and have fired the M-60 machine gun, thrown live grenades, as well as deployed/used the Claymore anti-personnel mine and the “Light Anti-Tank Weapon”, albeit not in a combat environment. I fully engaged, as a young man the ethos of “Death before Dishonor” that the military sought to inculcate into the minds of the young men and women they put into uniform. I enjoy action movies like “Die Hard” and the movies of the James Bond franchise and where there are numerous explosions and copious amounts of weapons of all sizes and shapes firing a gazillion rounds. I count as my favorite movies “Patton” and the mini-series “Band of Brothers.” So it is not without a little soul searching and self-realization that I find the tension that exists between our/my own mortal insufficiencies, such as the desire and tendency towards violent expression, and the teachings of a pacifistic 1st Century rabbi named Jesus.
In our society today, we see police forces are becoming more and more militarized and their use of deadly force is on the rise. Not only is it on the rise, it is disproportionately targeted toward the African American community. Several states have liberal “stand your ground” laws which allow for the legal use of deadly force by private citizens with little more than “I feel threatened by your presence, so I’m going to shoot you.” Often, these private citizens have little training other than how to load and shoot a gun. Nowhere within the law do we provide for responsible training of private citizens regarding the use of deadly force, and the first question that comes to my mind is, “Should we be training people how to kill people?” Gun ownership does not, according to the Constitution and the interpretation thereof, come with a qualifier other than the owner cannot be a convicted felon. The owner does not have to prove mental stability or fitness to purchase one, there is no licensure required, other than concealed carry, no requirement for liability insurance, and owning military grade weaponry e.g. assault rifles such as the AR-15, the SKS, and the like requires little more than filling out the paperwork. How do we as Christians respond to this?
There is a statement within the Scots Confession that I think while on the surface seems like it would be unnecessary to state, seems particularly relevant as we try to discern what to do regarding our national dilemma of the love affair that we seem to have with guns. We find that it says; “When controversy arises about the right understanding of any passage or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought not so much to ask what men have said or done before us, as what the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures and what Christ Jesus himself did and commanded.” American Christianity makes a dangerous error when it conflates the call and work of Christ’s Church and United States political aims as it, the United States, seeks to build and maintain empire. It is an error that at best can be described as heresy. It does this by the fatal assumption that the US is somehow favored over other nations by God. This false assumption leads not only the government but individual citizens to an “ends justified the means” mentality that has caused pain, suffering, and abuses both abroad and at home.
Jesus Christ in his preaching speaks to the reformation and the evolution of the human spirit in that he calls us to question our intentionality. In other words, what motivates us to follow the laws of God? Are they real and living within us or are we “just following the rules?” In Mark chapter 10 verses 19 through 22 (NRSV) we find the story of the rich man seeking advice from Jesus on how to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The young man was not willing to part with his possessions as they gave him status and comfort and he was unwilling to put himself at the same level of the rest of humanity. As a nation and as individuals we are guilty of that same sin. We automatically devalue that which does not meet our criteria and is different from us. We place too high a value on self-interest and possessions, not understanding that it is community and the care of all of God’s creation which should be paramount in our lives if we are to follow the way of Christ.
In Matthew chapter 5 verses 21 through 26 (NRSV) we find Jesus speaking of anger and our expression of that anger. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. We find that Christ calls us to reconciliation with those whom we have disagreements with. Nowhere do we find Jesus calling for retribution on our part.
We see this call for reconciliation and peace further exemplified in Luke chapter 6, verses 27-36 (NRSV) where we find Jesus teaching, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There is no instance of Christ calling for retribution/vengeance within the words attributed to him. Furthermore, we are specifically called on to love, pray for, and do good to those who would do evil to us. If we only love those who love us it is not true love, it is a transaction, a bartering for affections and good treatment. As God loves all of us equally, whether we are good or evil, God calls us to love everyone without thought of reward or reciprocation. Even within the Ten Commandments we are commanded not to kill. Some would parse this as not unjustly murdering and I believe those people miss the point, in other words, they are looking for a loophole that would justify taking another life.
Earlier I spoke of intentionality, or what lies at the root of our actions. We have been told by God in the Ten Commandments as well as Jesus in the above Scriptures that killing is wrong and outside of what God wishes us to do. We know from Christ’s own example in the garden at his arrest, he did not retaliate. In fact, he healed one of his captors after Peter had struck the ear off the man arresting Jesus. While Jesus was on the cross, he did not strike the Roman soldiers dead and went so far as to pray for their forgiveness. When I read these things, I see Jesus as one who put his actions in accord with what he preached and was willing to live out the words, regardless of the cost.
When we buy a gun, we must first understand that there are no secondary uses for that instrument. You cannot play baseball with it, you cannot prepare your dinner with it, and you cannot build a house with it. A gun is designed to kill and maim living creatures that is all. When we buy that gun, we also must reconcile within our minds that there is the possibility that we may kill someone with it. Knowing these things then, when we buy that gun, we tell God that we know that we are told by God not to kill, not to retaliate, not to harm one another and that we don’t care. We say with our actions that we don’t care or trust God when we buy that gun because we have decided that our personal safety and our possessions are more important than the rest of God’s creation. We have decided that owning that gun is more important than following the will and the word of God. There are no justifications for our violent actions and as long as we think that we can end violence with more violence, whether by individual or by the state, we ignore Christ’s example of love, of peace, and of reconciliation. And in doing that we confirm that the truth of Christ is not in us.