Romans 13, Michael Dunn and gun-toting citizen vigilantes

Racial beliefs and tensions, combined with libertine gun regulations and “stand your ground” laws, are a toxic mix.

David Gushee

Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee

Once again a white civilian has used a gun to kill a black civilian in Florida. Once again a jury has failed to convict the white man of any crime against the now-dead black man. Once again the media, social and otherwise, has erupted. Once again black Americans cry out that the verdict is an appalling confirmation of the relative worthlessness of black life in racist America. Once again white Americans, including many Christians and church leaders, either dissent or remain largely silent. Meanwhile, many conservative white Christians, recently including the leaders of the Georgia Baptist Convention, press for more rather than less freedom for civilians to arm themselves in public places such as churches and universities.

It is now clear, to me at least, that the combination of racist beliefs and racial tensions, together with all-too-free gun laws pressed by gun rights absolutists, together with the disastrous shifting of law and culture signified by “stand your ground” laws, has worsened an already dangerous and bloody situation when it comes to gun violence. All of this is diametrically opposed to Christian values.

Racist beliefs mean that in some cases fearful white people enter public space already having learned contempt or fear of black males, especially those they size up as dangerous due to certain cultural markers. Racial tensions mean that what might have been routinely irritating or uncomfortable social interactions that just happen in life immediately take on racial overtones that would not have been there otherwise. Libertine gun laws mean that in some cases people holding racist beliefs, facing conflict situations that involve racial tensions, arrive at such situations locked and loaded. “Stand your ground” laws, which both reflect culture and shape culture, have lowered the bar when it comes to the meaning of self-defense and have confused juries in the limited test cases we have seen, including the Michael Dunn case just decided.

The result is an extraordinarily dangerous environment, especially for young black males. But to some extent we all need to be afraid of the possibility of finding ourselves in a public space having conflict with someone — because they might be holding a gun, they might (say they) think we are dangerous, and they might shoot us — as in the Tampa movie theater shooting in January.

That some white Christians would respond to this situation not by challenging white racism, not by pleading for racial reconciliation and measures to ease interracial tensions, not by calling for stricter gun laws, not by challenging Stand Your Ground both as law and cultural reality, but instead by calling for even more guns in public spaces strikes me as the height of idiocy, not to mention obvious infidelity to Jesus Christ. It marks a staggering capitulation to seductive ideologies of race, violence and security.

It also flies entirely in the face of Jesus’ teaching: Jesus blesses the humble, the merciful, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who bear up when persecuted. He teaches non-retaliation and active conflict resolution. He rejects eye for eye and tooth for tooth and instead calls on us to love and forgive our enemies. He speaks of God’s love for all. He honors Samaritans and Roman centurions, tax collectors and other rejected ones.

Perhaps Jesus and all that love and forgiveness business is rejected as not relevant in the “real world.” (Good luck with that approach when you meet him on the other side.) Maybe my white Christian brethren would prefer the harder-nosed Paul. What about this popular Pauline passage, then?

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (Rom. 13:1-5).

In Romans 13 Paul offers a brief for government authority as God-given source of public order. It is “the authority” (state/government) that terrorizes the evildoer. It is the authority that seeks to maintain public order. It is the authority that bears the sword. All kinds of problematic interpretations of this passage have bedeviled Christian history, but in light of the chaos of self-armed citizen vigilantes the passage offers fresh insights desperately needed right now.

Paul’s vision is certainly not of every citizen in the Roman Empire locked and loaded for the next street fight. It is instead of a strong, well-trained state authority that keeps public order through its monopoly on both authority and arms. Every evildoer quails before that authority. Every innocent is told to relax in the face of that authority, which offers protection and not harm toward them. Christians are told to obey and even honor that authority.

Obviously, we all know of how wrong government can go. But the impulsive and sometimes vigilante bloodshed in our cul-de-sacs, gas stations and movie theatres reminds us that the anarchy of armed, untrained, gun-wielding citizens, in a context of racist beliefs and racial tensions, is also a problem. Police departments and militaries have authority, training and accountability. What authority, training and accountability do our street-corner problem-solvers like Michael Dunn have?

My analysis is that lobby-driven and fear-driven gun-rights absolutism has weakened the God-given role of the state in keeping public order. It has instead helped create a reversion to a Wild West type environment where fearful citizens leave their homes armed and ready for battle — just in case. That’s socially disastrous. It certainly violates Jesus’ teaching. And it is the antithesis of Romans 13. We must turn away from this path, now!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.