Tuesday, February 19, 2013

All Who Take the Gun Shall Perish by the Gun

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ Taken Prisoner (1308-11)
(Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena)

Ever since the mass gun murders last July in Aurora, Colorado (see my post here), and December in Newtown, Connecticut (see my post here), the American national conversation has focused, more than anything else, on the issue of guns: how can we, as a nation, balance proposed gun control measures with the interpretation of the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms" recently handed down by the Supreme Court? Those on the left of the political spectrum, believing the Supreme Court's interpretation of the amendment to be decontextualized and too sweeping in its affirmation of an absolute "right" to own guns, favor more or less strict controls. Those on the right tend to see all such proposed measures as "attacks" on their inalienable "rights," and hence steps down the slippery slope to gun banishment and inevitable governmental "tyranny."

In one sense, it is not surprising that conservative Christians ("evangelicals") have by and large aligned themselves with the political conservatives on this issue. For various and complex reasons, evangelicals have been accustomed to regard themselves as unabashed "conservatives." Indeed, "conservative Americanism" is ingrained on their cultural DNA to the point where any policy identified as "liberal" is deemed, at best, counterintuitive and, at worst, godless. Only this can explain the nearly unanimous evangelical support of American wars whose only real purpose, despite pious-sounding rhetoric that our "freedom" is at stake, is to build or maintain our imperial ambitions (aka "American interests"). This likewise is the only explanation for their overwhelming support of the major argument used by gun advocates for the necessity of a gun-wielding populace: "Gun ownership is necessary to resist a tyrannical government that oversteps its bounds." I don't have the digits on my hands and feet to count the number of times I have read supposedly "Bible-believing Christians" on my Facebook feed spout this rhetoric. But do these supposed Bible believers fail to read the Bible? Or worse, do they not care what St. Paul wrote in Romans 13 while Nero was Emperor? Perhaps, as Americans, they should be granted curve points. Nevertheless, the time has got to come when they, as Christians, realize that the founding fathers were not acting Christianly when they rebelled against King George, and that the ensuing conflict, while dubbed "the Presbyterian War," ran counter to the explicit teaching of the Holy Scripture they so vociferously profess to follow.

But what about Jesus? The one incident in Jesus' life that has some relevance to the current issue is one found in all four Gospels. I am speaking, of course, about the account of Jesus' betrayal to the Jewish authorities by Judas and his subsequent arrest on the Mount of Olives on the night before he was executed on a Roman cross. After Jesus' apprehension, one of those with him (the Fourth Evangelist identifies him as Peter) takes out a sword and, in an erratic example of loyal bravado, slices off the ear of the High Priest's slave (identified as Malchus in the Fourth Gospel). Jesus' response, most of which is found only in Matthew's Gospel, is telling:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)
On the surface, it would appear that the disciple's poorly thought through attempt at zealotry was misguided due to the particular situation in which Jesus and the Twelve found themselves. Jesus, after all, had just undergone the agony of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46), where he prayed through his fear and resolved to be obedient to the mission on which he had been sent ("Not as I will, but as you will"). The Scriptures, as Jesus said, had to be fulfilled "in this way" (houtōs) by divine necessity (dei(26:54). Peter, who had dozed off repeatedly during the hour at Gethsemane, was a model of misunderstanding: not only did he fail to grasp how God always intended to inaugurate the promised Kingdom (and thus, as Dale Allison puts it, implicitly "[did] not share Jesus' resolution, 'Thy will be done'" [Davies and Allison, Matthew XIX-XXVIII {ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997} 511]); he also failed to share Jesus' confidence in the Father's ability to protect them, if need be. In view of the Father's ability to send 12 legions of angels (since a legion consisted of 6000 soldiers, that amounted to 72,000 angels, one legion each for Jesus and the remaining eleven disciples), Peter's attempted heroism is unmasked as comically pathetic. Even more importantly, Jesus could not make it more clear that armed resistance is not the operating principle of the kingdom of God.

At this point I have heard and read many Christians claim that Jesus' disallowance of violence on this occasion was entirely due to the unique exigencies of that particular situation. The disciples, in other words, were not to resist due to the simple fact that Jesus had to be arrested in order that he could die for the sins of humanity. The uniqueness of that situation, so the argument goes, relativizes the abiding validity of the nonviolent principle Jesus espouses. Such an argument, however, fails at any number of levels. I mention three.

First, it decontextualizes Jesus' death, turns it into an abstract bit of atonement theology, and thereby robs Jesus' behavior of any paradigmatic significance. Yes, Jesus deliberately provoked the Jewish authorities as he had done the scribes and Pharisees for the previous three years. Yes, Jesus anticipated his imminent death at the Passover, and consequently provided a pictorial explanation of its theological and salvation-historical significance at the Last Supper. But that does not mean that the path he followed, the path he modeled for his disciples, is not the way of the kingdom that remains valid for his followers who are working for the kingdom now.  That this is indeed the case is made clear from two further considerations.

Second, in Matthew's presentation, it is Jesus who, in his obedience to his messianic vocation, suffered so as to inaugurate the kingdom unlike the ones the world has to offer. He was meek. He suffered for the sake of righteousness. Above all, he did not retaliate when spat upon, slapped, and beaten, and when insults were hurled in his direction. He was, in other words, the one who embodied his own admonition to his disciples not to resist the evildoer (Matt 5:39). The apparently patriotic "zealot option"the so-called "fourth philosophy" that flourished intermittently in Palestinian Judaism from the time of Judas of Galilee's revolt against Quirinius's census in 6 CE until its full flowering in the Zealots of John of Gischala and splinter groups such as the Sicarii led to Jerusalem's demise in the Jewish War of 66-70 CE—simply was not on the table for Jesus or his followers.

Fundamental here is Jesus' famous teaching about nonresistance in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:38-48). Literarily, this "sermon" (Matt 5-7) is designed by Matthew to be a précis of Jesus' ethical teachings which enunciate the counter-cultural "better righteousness" (Matt 5:20) that is to characterize his disciples as beneficiaries and citizens of the kingdom he came to inaugurate. Jesus' disciples are called to be "salt" and "light" in a hostile world (5:13-16), but they fulfill their role only insofar as they embody the behavioral characteristics laid down by Jesus in these chapters.

And make no mistake about it: Jesus' Sermon on the Mount does indeed set forth a vision of what John Stott called a "Christian Counter-Culture." And it was as counter-cultural then as it remains to this day. Indeed, an index of the extent to which this is true may be found in the multifarious ways Jesus' so-called "followers" explain away and, at times, explicitly ignore his radical teachings in these chapters. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to what he says about nonresistance (for the relevant verses, see here). The "eye for an eye" principle of the lex talionis has no place in the personal dealings of Jesus' disciples. Rather than take the law into their own hands, they are not to resist those who do them harm, even "turning the other cheek" when assaulted—even if the "assault" was, as is commonly understood, a back-handed slap intended to insult their honor. By doing so, as Richard Hays says, "the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights" (The Moral Vision of the New Testament [San Francisco: Harper, 1996] 326). Yes, Jesus employs hyperbole in this text. Yes, he speaks generally, without mentioning potential exceptions. It is one thing, however, not to take what Jesus said literally. It is another not to take what he said seriously. And such is precisely what so many of Jesus' latter-day American followers do when they speak blithely about carrying weapons to defend themselves and their property. The follower of Jesus is called, no matter how difficult and hard to practice it may be, to transcend violence with love.

Third, after Jesus tells the disciple to return his sword to its rightful place, he bolsters his command by asserting a concise, chiastic proverb: "For all who take the sword, by the sword will perish." By doing so, Jesus explicitly generalizes his command to put the sword away and utters a universal principle for those who  follow in his disciples' train. In its most basic sense, the proverb simply affirms a general observation, namely, that violence has the unmistakable tendency to ricochet back onto its perpetrators. But its main point, in the present context, is as clear as it is hard to implement: retaliatory violence, especially lethal physical violence, is incompatible with Christian discipleship.

Of course, for the past two millennia Christians have bent over backwards in their attempt to mitigate the force of what Jesus said. So-called "Just War Theory" was drawn up through the work of such theological masters as Augustine and Aquinas. More recently, Christians accept as a matter of course that the use of lethal violence for, among other things, self-defense, is morally defensible. But I wonder if by doing so we Christians have culpably blunted the intended force of what our Lord said.

All such mitigations manifest a common trait: they utilize the logic of the world. From a merely human perspective, it is of course foolish not to defend oneself, or even to let another person metaphorically trod on one. But Jesus uses another type of logic, the logic of the gospel. In other words, Jesus' admonitions only work on the supposition that there will be a resurrection at the last day in which God's people are rewarded and his enemies judged at the bar of God's unassailable justice. For too long, God's people have thought and acted as if the former type of logic is not only operable, but ultimate as well. It is high time that we reverse that trend.


  1. I guess my anecdote about target shooting with my step-daughter on Saturday was ill-timed. I hope I didn't set this particular blog into motion.

    1. Have no fear, brother Jereme. Shooting guns for sport was not my target.

  2. Jim, I always wondered why, in the Luke account of the upper room conversation just before they retired to the garden, Jesus told the disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword if they didn't have one, and then, following up on their observation that they had two swords, he replied that two swords were enough?

    1. Marcia, I have a post on Luke 22 ready to go early next week, so I won't tip my hand. But I will say that the "it is enough" line is key to understanding what Jesus is saying.

  3. Michael and HIS Angels fought against the dragon and his angels ... and won.

    If Michael had not fought ... they would have lost.

    What are the weapons ... ? ... Truth of Righteousness ... and a self-Sacrificing and self-Giving LOVE that does not submit to annihilation at the hands of evil.

    The Jews of old ... fought ... or they would have been slaughtered.

    CHRIST had to allow HIMSELF to be killed ... but ... otherwise would have resisted HIS Horrible and Cruel death by Crucifixion ... except that HIS Submission bought our Forgiveness through HIS Blood.

    Christianity would have been entirely over-run and annihilated by Islam ... if they had not fought back ... with both the Mass and the Rosary ... and with weapons too.

    GOD Bless.