Inspired by the most recent occurrence in an endless array of mass shootings — this one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — students across the United States recently walked out of their classrooms in a peaceful and organized protest against the status quo in regulation of firearms. Their courage has churned once more the national dialogue surrounding gun control. Much verbiage, some of it even longer than 140 characters, has already been spilt by politicians, parents, policy advisors, special interests, teachers and other concerned citizens.
In tuning in and overhearing the debate these last few weeks and indeed these last many years, I have noted a particular turn of phrase. There is frequent reference to one’s “God-given right.” That phrase is almost always an allusion to the Second Amendment and the right is ostensibly “to keep and bear arms,” to own a gun. Or two. Or several.
Pastors rightly use caution when weighing in on such issues, in part because there is a perception that pastors should not be political. While that notion is misguided, we do well to remain outside of partisanship while in our official capacity. We also have the responsibility of speaking into controversy in ways that do not sever our pastoral relationships with those in congregations who may not agree. Yes, pastors must choose not only our words with care, but also the timing of our words or even the absence thereof. But sometimes, the choice to speak and what to say is really quite easy.
When one refers to the Second Amendment as one’s “God-given right,” that one has trod blatantly into my ecclesiastical back yard and I know good and well they’re packing heat. Though 33 states in the U.S. would give me the right to stand my ground with deadly force, in this instance I’ll do so only with my laptop and my Bible (which in full disclosure is on my laptop).
The Bible seems to be the most reasonable place to look for evidence that this right to bear arms, located within the founding papers of a civil government, is God-given. I can limit our search at the outset by conceding that there is a great deal of “keeping and bearing arms” throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (sometimes called the Old Testament). We could take the presence and use of weapons and the constant warfare within those texts as a tacit sanction on God’s part, but the uncorrected presence of a particular idea or behavior within scripture ought not to be understood as God’s approval. Unless you support the purchase of people as property, the sale of children for gain, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, or any number of other bizarre practices, you agree with me on this point. So let us limit our search to texts which contain God’s explicit support of one’s right to bear arms.
I can think of a couple of texts that could be understood that way, but only if they are taken from the cold, dead hands of the contexts that bear them. In the Gospel we call Matthew, Jesus proclaims, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” There you have it. Jesus Christ, National Sword Association spokesperson, clearly articulating his intent to bear arms, and therefore, the right of all people to do likewise. Of course, he complicates matters 16 chapters later. Confronted by agents of the state who are clearly trying to silence him and are armed to the teeth, he commanded one of his followers who had drawn his sword to put it away. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” Jesus says. It is his way of saying that violence only breeds more violence.
As it turns out, that mention of bringing “not peace, but a sword,” comes at a moment when Jesus is sending his 12 disciples out into a world that will greet them and his redemptive message with hostility. His words border on apocalyptic. The sword is not literal. It does not tear away the flesh of people, but of the systems that marginalize and destroy lives, namely the Roman Empire. The disciples are getting a come-to-Jesus speech from … well, Jesus.
The other text where Jesus seemingly supports the bearing of Arms is in the 22nd chapter of Luke, where he tells his disciples to buy a sword. Luke’s imagery is ever more cryptic than Matthew’s and has as its goal pointing out the fulfillment of a prophecy that said Jesus would be among the lawless. Buying a sword is what would qualify those he was with as lawless; bearing a weapon here is notably not lawful.
Of course, just as the presence of an idea within scripture cannot be taken as tacit support by God, so must the lack of explicit support for an idea within scripture also not be taken as tacit disapproval by God. If you send text messages, drive cars, watch television, or read your Bible on your computer, you agree with me on this point. For centuries Christians have informed their belief and practice on issues not explicitly addressed in the Bible by an attempt to adhere to the standard of Christ-likeness. That is, using the witness of scripture along with other modes of knowing God’s heart, such as spiritual discipline and prayer (experience), presence in faithful community (tradition), and rigorous study (reason), Christians have developed ways of being in the world that attempt to approximate God’s own ethic as embodied by Jesus. In a couple of weeks, congregations around the world will celebrate a culminating moment in the life of Jesus — the moment he defeated violence by laying down the sword and giving himself over to death, even death on a cross.
You see, the reason I know that the right to keep and bear arms is not a gift of God has nothing to do with the way I think God feels about guns or swords or bombs or drones or any other thing not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. It has to do with the way that I know God feels about rights — personal rights. The rights Jesus defended with his life were the rights of those marginalized by their class, social standing, gender, sexuality, ability, race or some other part of their identity. When it came to his own rights, he gave them away for the good of others. As for his right to self-defense, he said nothing against his accusers, he put away the sword. As for his right to life, he gave it away that others might live.
So what then of our right to keep and bear arms?
That may well be a right guaranteed to citizens of the United States, but for the love of God can we stop saying that it is God who gave it to us?