This is the first of a series of blogs dealing with gun control from a Christian perspective. In this first installment, I sketch the general theological case for sane restriction on guns, particularly assault weapons, and apply biblical principles to common objections. In subsequent (shorter) posts, I will respond to alleged “biblical” arguments used by gun advocates, who claim that Scripture supports unrestricted access to lethal weaponry for private individuals. [I have slighly modified this post in the wake of the horrible tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.]
- A disgruntled employee walks into his workplace shooting indiscriminately at clients, coworkers, and executives, leaving several dead and others critically wounded.
- An angry middle-schooler finds his father’s handgun in a shoebox under his parent’s bed and decides to put a hole through the teacher who failed him in geography.
- An apparently “normal citizen” attends a political rally in order to overturn an election by murdering the congresswoman he disagrees with. His aim is off, but he succeeds in killing six others and seriously injuring her, ending her political career.
- A toddler lies in a hospital bed clinging to her life after a stray bullet bursts through her living room window while she was watching TV, lodging itself perilously close to her spinal column.
- A depressed teen looks in the mirror one last time at a face that no one admires and decides to permanently end the snickering; one bullet is all it takes.
These are just a few of the headlines that have flashed across our newspapers and TV screens recently, and they do not even begin to express the scale of the massacre occurring every year in America. To this continuous string of random acts of slaughter one also has to add Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, and this weekend a gay bar in Orlando; ordinary places whose names have become synonymous with carnage and horror.
The title of this blog is taken from Jeremiah 29:7, where the prophet is urging his compatriots in Babylon to “seek the welfare (shalom) of the city” where they are exiled and work to achieve it because, “in its welfare you will find your welfare” (ESV). No, I do not think Jeremiah was taking about gun control, but I do think the prophet articulates an important principle that informs this issue, and one that should be foundational to any biblically grounded social policy: living as light in a fallen world involves (in part) actively striving to promote the welfare of the larger society — seeking its good, its justice, its shalom. In my view, perhaps the most obvious and concrete way that Christians living in the U.S. can apply this principle is to think more deeply about gun violence in America and to strive more conscientiously to connect our theological convictions to our social-political policies. Here is what I mean …
“… People kill people.”
A commonly expressed truism among opponents to restrictions on guns runs like this, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Regardless of how you may assess the cogency of this maxim, it gets at least one thing right: people are evil. The Reformers (following Augustine), along with the major Protestant catechisms and most contemporary Evangelical traditions refer to this as the doctrine of “total depravity” (or “complete inability”, “radical corruption,” and so on). This doctrine does not entail the belief that all people are as evil as they possibly could be, but that every aspect of humanity—actions, aspirations, thoughts, desires—is tainted by sin. My point is not to offer a defense of this doctrine biblically, but simply to ask us to think through the implications of what Scripture clearly teaches concerning the brokenness of the human condition; to connect our theology with our praxis. In fact, in the contemporary setting, gun control seems to be a necessary corollary of the biblical doctrine of total depravity. If we really believe that humanity is fallen, it follows that we should strive to limit the damaging effects of our sinful nature on society. To be perfectly frank, it baffles me that so many evangelical Christians can affirm the doctrine of original sin and total depravity, and yet have no problem with a society flooded with handguns and assault weapons. We will never be able to eliminate those triggers that send fallen sinners like me and you over the brink—abuse at home, mistreatment at school, mental illness, the grinding humiliation of unemployment, the list is endless—but we CAN restrict access to weapons of mass destruction, so that when broken individuals are pushed beyond their limits they are not able to inflict the carnage we saw at places like Aurora and Newtown. And if you object to the term “weapons of mass destruction” to describe the arms legally sold in gun shops across America, take a long, hard look at the photos of the 20 first graders gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or those who were slaughered in Orlando. This is mass destruction.
“What about the second amendment?”
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
These 27 words constitute, arguably, the most debated clause in the entire constitutional corpus. Proponents of gun control argue that the Second Amendment was originally intended to authorize state-organized militia, not private ownership — to say nothing of personal stockpiles — of firearms. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates believe the background to the Second Amendment has to do with citizens protecting themselves against government tyranny. There is probably some truth to both sides of this (admittedly over-simplified) debate. Yet, regardless of the precise historical motives behind the Second Amendment, it is absolutely certain that its sponsors could not have envisioned the gun technology of the present day — high powered assault rifles capable of firing dozens rounds in mere seconds. When the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791, rifles were single-shot flintlocks loaded through the muzzle. A shooter wandering into a schoolyard or a market place in 1791 would have been tackled before he could load his second round. Given the vastly different historical circumstances of our technologically sophisticated and extremely lethal weaponry (flintlocks versus AK-47s), it is dangerously naïve to assume that the judgments of post-colonial America, however reasonable at the time, should be uncritically applied to our own.
However, I do think the intention of the Constitution is crucial. While we may debate the purpose of the Second Amendment, there is no debate concerning the primary intent of the constitution as a whole. As the Preamble to the Constitution makes clear, the Constitution exists to promote a well-ordered, just society. The Constitution is not Scripture, and it is not inspired. Rather, its purpose is to help us actualize in our society the principles of justice, mercy, and compassion enjoined on us by Scripture. To the extent that it succeeds in this goal it should be embraced. To the extent that it fails in this noble aspiration, or no longer fosters this ideal in the contemporary setting, it should be modified. Our Constitution is a document that has been amended many times to ensure that it fulfills its larger purpose. Its enduring relevance and abiding validity issues, in part, from the fact that it was designed to be amended as society changed and need arose. We have even used Amendments (the 21st) to nullify other Amendments (the 18th). However, I do NOT really think we need to tinker with the constitution or jettison the Second Amendment. Rather, we need to understand the historical context in which the Second Amendment was written and apply it wisely and intelligently to the contemporary setting, in light of the primary purpose of the Constitution: “to insure domestic tranquility” (from the Preamble).
“But it is my right!”
Quite apart from how we interpret and apply the Second Amendment, I confess that I am genuinely distressed by Christians who insist on their “right to bear arms,” regardless of the effect on the larger society—be it their neighbor across the street, or the children gunned down in Newtown. I do completely understand when my unbelieving friend wraps himself in the Second Amendment and claims, “Guns are my constitutional right!” The Christian, however, is called to live for others, not themselves; indeed, this is the very foundation and core of New Testament ethics. This principle is particularly important for the apostle Paul: “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:24). According to Paul, this is one way God’s redemptive purposes would be accomplished in the world: “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:33). Paul arrived at this radical, other-centered ethic by imitating Jesus: “Do not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Your example is Jesus, who, being in very nature God, made himself nothing, becoming a servant, submitting even to death (Phil. 2:4-8, abbreviated). In other words, the Christian who insists on his or her “rights,” to the detriment of others has not yet grasped the implications of the cross, nor understood the true vitality of a cruciform life. For the maturing follower of Jesus, arguments based on “my rights” will fail to have the persuasive force that they have for the larger society, because such arguments reflect a value system that is fundamentally at odds with example of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament.
“But only criminals will have guns!”
Another common objection to restrictions on guns runs like this: “If we restrict gun ownership, then only criminals will have guns! Law-abiding citizens will lose their guns while gang members and criminals will obtain theirs illegally.” There may be some validity to this concern. However, when we scrutinize the larger social dilemma more carefully, I have to conclude that those raising this objection do not fully understand the nature of the current crisis. The truth is, it is not criminals who are the problem. Restrictions already exist that prohibit criminals from purchasing guns legally. The sad reality is that it is “law-abiding citizens” who have been responsible for the recent massacres that have occurred in our country. The culprits behind the mass murders at Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech., Newtown, either purchased legally, or had access to legally purchased weaponry. In the case of Adam Lanza, the unstable teen responsible for massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, there were assault weapons literally lying around the house. Here is the real problem. We live in a society with an absurd amount of guns easily and immediately accessible to troubled teens (Columbine, Newtown), mentally imbalanced and unhinged adults, (Virginia Tech., Aurora, Navy Yard), or anyone who flies off the handle and momentarily succumbs to the cussedness of life. When we combine fallen humanity, mental illness, the inevitable injustices and indignities of life under the sun, with easy access to weapons of mass destruction, the outcome is both gruesome and predictable: daily isolated incidents of suicide and murder all throughout America, and frequent acts of mass carnage that leave parents, spouses, children, and friends, grieving for years.
“But don’t I have a right do defend myself?”
Yes, I think you do. The Bible distinguishes between killing someone in self-defense (Exod. 22:2-3), and killing someone out of malice. (Exod. 21:12-14), and this distinction is a universally upheld principle of jurisprudence. Yet, apart from this brief, and somewhat opaque reference in Exodus 22 regarding a nocturnal home invasion robbery, the Bible actually has precious little explicit teaching on personal, lethal, self-defense [to be addressed in a subsequent blog]. Jesus, in fact, modeled and taught a completely different response to aggression. His birth spurred a bloodbath of political violence (Matt. 2:16-18), and his ministry took place under the heavy boot of Roman domination, yet his advice to was to offer your left cheek if your enemy struck your right, and to carry the gear of a Roman oppressor two miles, if he forced you to carry it one (Matt. 5:39-40). His summarizing command, “Do not resist the evildoer” (Matt. 5:39) was addressing a context of military subjugation and political oppression, and the obvious socio-political overtones of his teaching certainly did not sit well with many of his contemporaries, particularly those with anti-Roman sentiments (who were many!). So, while using deadly force, if necessary, in self-defense may be a legitimate right, the Christian is called to a different standard, a higher standard, a standard exemplified by Jesus. I do not think anyone who has read the Gospels and reflected seriously on Jesus’ life, teaching, and the manner of his death, could imagine him killing someone in self-defense. In fact, Peter’s attempt to defend Jesus by means of bloodshed and violence is sternly rebuked by Jesus (Matt. 26:52). And, as the story unfolds, we see Jesus practicing what he preached: he carried his cross to Golgotha without drawing a sword, throwing a punch, or calling down the legions of angels at his disposal (Matt. 26:53). His apostles, along with many Christian martyrs of the early church, followed their master: they did not take up arms to save their lives, they took up the cross and laid down their lives. Why? Because maturing disciples of Jesus, following the example of their crucified Lord, will prefer to die, rather than to kill, even in self-defense.
“But don’t I have a right to protect my family?”
Defending oneself with lethal force, and defending others are two different matters. I don’t think anyone could reasonably object to using lethal force, if absolutely necessary, to stop a life-threatening assault on another person, particularly a family member. However, in my view, the issue of gun control needs to be framed not in terms of one’s own immediate family, but in terms of the generations to come. In other words, it’s about ensuring that our children’s children, and the generations of Americans that follow us do not grow up with their own iterations of Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future, and we can give our grandchildren a better society and a better America than the one we live in today. If our grandchildren grow up in a society where assault rifles are stored in broom closets, and armed security guards patrol the perimeters of our kindergartens, we will have utterly failed in our civic duty to uphold the basic purpose of the constitution as articulated by the founding fathers, “to insure domestic tranquility.” More importantly, we will have failed in our Christian responsibility to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7).
“Your will be done.”
When Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer and affirm, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), we commit ourselves to the most comprehensive agenda of restoration and renewal imaginable. It entails a commitment to personal renewal (evangelism, growth in Christ-likeness, etc.) and social renewal (caring for widows and orphans, striving for a just and good society, etc.). To be sure, this restorative work will not be fully accomplished until God himself brings it about, but history is replete with examples of great social evils being undone because Christians believed what they were praying and cared enough to act now. In the early days of the Jesus movement, Christians began rescuing unwanted infants who were exposed and left to die by their fathers. This horrific practice was entirely in accordance with Roman tradition, convention, and law. It took several centuries, but the long held right of the Roman father to dispatch even his own offspring was ultimately overturned. Fast forward to nineteenth century Britain, where a small band of believers meeting in the London suburb of Clapham became the catalyst for the most important social reform of that century: the abolition of slavery. Social renewal, working for justice, “seeking the welfare of the city,” is part of the DNA of evangelicalism because it is God’s will for us on earth to strive to represent his Kingdom in heaven. That is what the Lord’s Prayer means.
Please do not misunderstand these illustrations. I am NOT equating exposing an infant or owning a slave with owning an assault rifle, nor am I implying that these issues are morally equivalent. That would be silly. Yet the scale of crisis we face in America is massive, and it is increasing every year. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, active shooter incidents tripled between 2009 and 2013, compared to the average annual occurrences between 2000 and 2008 (read a summary here). Another recent study revealed that there were 93 mass shootings (at least four people murdered with a gun) in America between January 2009 and September 2013; nearly two a month. Even more depressing, this constitutes less then 1% of murders by firearms during this period. So, while slavery and gun control are not morally equivalent issues, the ethical ground becomes considerably leveled at the ballot box. When we, as Christians, enter the ballot box and are faced with legislation that would either continue the carnage, or legislation that would reduce it, one important question should govern our choice: what would Jesus do?
“What would Jesus do?”
The pulse of evangelical faith beats incessantly with the question, “What would Jesus do?” This is not a slogan to be stamped on a bracelet and forgotten, it is a passion that generates a worldview. Jesus’ disciples asked this question as well, although sometimes they didn’t get the answer right. One significant instance is during the final weeks of Jesus life, when some of his followers misunderstood his call for readiness and vigilance (Luke 22:36) as a call for armed resistance. As noted earlier, Jesus corrects their mistake (“Put away your sword!” Matt. 26:52) and rebukes their folly (“Enough of this!” Luke 22:51). More importantly, he then makes a point to carefully and unequivocally clarify the principle that governed his teaching on this subject: “For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Does this verse explicitly prohibit the ownership of assault rifles? No, I don’t think so. But the principle articulated by Jesus in this verse certainly runs counter to those voices in our society that claim that the solution to the crisis in America today—the violence, the murder, the slaughter—is to give people more guns. (Yes, this is actually what gun advocates promote).
The truism that Jesus enunciates in Matthew 26:52 applies both on the individual level and on the societal level. We live in a society that clings to guns like a birthright. Hence, we live in a society with a murder rate far beyond our comparable international peers; where mass shootings occur at the rate of two per month; where parents drop their children off at school and wonder if they will ever see them again; where a school yard can become a grave yard, and a dormitory a cemetery, in a matter of minutes. This should not surprise us; Jesus predicted it.
Perhaps it is time we heed Jesus’ command to his first followers and put away the sword. Far too long have we lived by it, and far too many are dying by it. Our duty as citizens is to promote “domestic tranquility.” Our duty as Christians is to “seek the welfare of the city.”
We will be held accountable.