Thursday, August 23, 2012

God and Guns: Do they Go Together?

In the wake of the recent shootings in Aurora and Washington, many Christians have questioned whether it is  time to have a fresh conversation about the availability of guns in our culture and its possible correlation to the violence.  Of course, broaching that subject in the United States is always sure to ignite a firestorm, and some of our brothers from abroad demonstrated that they were not averse to that fight.  The most prominent of these brothers was Alan Hirsch.

For the record, I love Alan Hirsch.  God has used Alan's writings to challenge me in fresh ways for the past 10 years, and without his influence on my life and ministry, I would be far less effective in what I seek to do for Jesus.  Additionally, I appreciate Alan's willingness to speak counter-culturally to my country.  As a native Aussie, he has often possessed a wise outside voice and American Christians should pay attention when he speaks.  Though I felt his words following the tragic shooting in Aurora were ill-timed, I appreciate his passion to see the culture in which he now lives (he currently resides in Los Angeles) redeemed.  Furthermore, he is right when he says that American culture is saturated with violence that demeans human beings and our God, in whose image they are created.  I agree with him that we are a nation awash in violence, from video games to crime to our own national propensity to think that nearly every foreign policy problem can be fixed by flexing our military muscle.

That said, Alan and many others made two strong claims in the wake of the most recent shootings.  First, they believe that the proliferation of firearms in the United States has a direct correlation to the amount of violence that occurs here.  Second, they ground their call for strict gun control in the view that Christians should never resort to violence because such action is always--always--contrary to the spirit of Jesus, who instructs us to "turn the other cheek."

As a follower of Jesus who has been positively influenced by Hirsch for years, these statements gave me pause.  I'm a Christian, a minister of the Gospel, and a gun-owner.  (Actually, I own more than one!)  Are these identities irreconcilable?   Certainly they can be, but must they be?  Or, as Darrell Cole astutely asks "How can Christians reconcile God the Warrior with God the Crucified?"

In light of all this, I wanted to take a moment to speak to my pacifist friends in the larger body of Christ who believe guys like me are a living contradiction.  But before I explain how I reconcile my faith in Jesus and my strong belief in our nation's second amendment, let me say the following to my pacifist brothers and sisters:

1. You are right to point out that our nation has grown too war-hungry.  Too often when our leaders decide to take us to war, American Christians are more worried about being "good patriots" than we are followers of Jesus who must sometimes condemn unjust violence, even when it is waged by those in authority.
2. Contrary to the stereotype, the pacificsts I know are VERY tough people.  Inherent in living the pacifist lifestyle is that you must, if necessary, be able to take a beating.  Though I disagree with you, I have an enormous respect for the sacrifice you are willing to make if necessary, to truly and consistently live your faith.
3. We need your voice in regard to how we interact with our government.  Alan is absolutely right that "civil war" resides in too many hearts in the United States.  Where government authority is concerned, the first responsibility of the Christian is to submit, not rebel.

So if I truly believe this, why am I not a pacifist?  Why do I think its OK to own, and if necessary use, a gun?

1. "Turn the Other Cheek" doesn't mean becoming a doormat for bullies.  I hear that question all the time.  "How can someone who follows Jesus truly "turn the other cheek" and at the same time own a gun?"   In the spirit of "The Princess Bride" I can only answer by saying "You keep using that verse.  I do not think it means what you think it means!"

In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus is speaking about the propensity of self-justification and "getting what is ours."   A "slap on the cheek" in the 1st century was the way you personally insulted someone.  It wasn't a hard or physically abusive slap, but simply a cultural way of insulting the dignity of another.  So when Jesus refers to "slapping on the right cheek," He isn't saying we should always take a beating.  Instead, He is saying that when we experience personal insult, we should refrain from returning insult.  In our vernacular, Jesus is saying "let it go!"

This is a far cry from the way this text is often abused.  The command to "turn the other cheek" is far from an unqualified command to never defend yourself or others.

That said, this command would certainly speak to any inclination we might have to "get even," including any employment of violence we may desire to use to achieve our goals.  If someone insults me personally, slanders my name, or treats me as beneath them, I have no right under the Lordship of Jesus to shoot them, hit them, or for that matter, to do anything to them. Furthermore, I would challenge any follower of Jesus who believes it is their "American right" to kill someone for stealing their private property.  Depending on the state you live in, you may indeed have that right, but exercising it may result in disobedience to Jesus.

 But using a firearm to defend yourself or others from a vicious attacker is a far different scenario.

2. Force is sometimes justified, especially if employed to defend the weak.  If injustice is being suffered by the weak and helpless, that is a different matter, and in such a scenario, it behooves us to remember that the same Lord who commanded us to "turn the other cheek" also turned over tables in the temple, cracked a whip and physically drove thieves out of God's house!  The same Jesus who warned Peter about improper dependence on "the sword" is prophesied as Himself coming back wearing a robe that is drenched in the blood of His enemies.  If violence is always inherently wrong, then you and I are worshiping an imperfect Savior.

To quickly resort to the use of violence is a sinful abomination.  But if there is an imminent threat to your wife and children, misapplying Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" is also a sinful refusal to defend the weak.  I don't want to hurt anyone.  But if faced with the choice of having my wife and children abused or taking the action any Christian husband and father should take to defend them, I will choose the latter course every time!

3. In many cases, greater force would curb violence.  The answer to violent acts like that which took place in Aurora Colorado is not to take guns out of the hands of those who lawfully possess them.  The answer is for the state to exercise its God-given authority to terminate the life of the man who so thoughtlessly murdered innocent people.  Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the fact that shootings are the fault of the shooter, not Smith & Wesson, Glock, or H&K.

I understand that there are people who love Jesus, and are, in good conscience, on both sides of the "death penalty" debate.  I may take up that subject in more detail in a later post.  For now I will simply say that the environment that breeds such horrific behavior should not be ignored, but individuals must be held responsible for their own actions.  And sometimes, the only way to put an end to unjust violence is force.

4. Violence is always unfortunate, but not always evil.  In fact, I would contend that most who condemn all violence are unwittingly supporting violence that might otherwise be stopped.  If a classroom full of children is being held hostage by a madman, to condemn police for targeting the perpetrator is to encourage the slaughter of innocents.  If a rapist has set his sights on a woman in a desolate parking lot, condemning her for carrying a concealed weapon for protection is, whether you intend it or not, granting the criminal a perfect environment to commit a horrific act of violence.

All over the world, human beings created in God's image and likeness are trafficked as slaves.  Those who deal in this unspeakable trade have the hardest of hearts, and their intent for profit is, literally, murderous.  Simply speaking against them isn't enough.  In many cases, even the laws of the countries in which they operate are such that their victims will never find peace this side of heaven....unless someone is willing to use force.  I want peace as badly as my pacifist friends.  But genuine peace, as it is portrayed in Scripture, requires more than simply the absence of violence.  It also requires the presence of justice.

It is on this point where I find the greatest paradox with Alan Hirsch.  Hirsch was quick to condemn the "gun culture" in North America, and cast his condemnation against the backdrop of the assumption that all violence is inherently wrong.  Yet this is the same Alan Hirsch who publicly endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election.  This is the same Barack Obama who voted against the "Born Alive Infant Protection Act," and thus wants it to remain legally permissible, not only to murder unborn children, but to murder them even minutes after they are born if the abortion attempt is botched.  I understand that Alan's support of the current incumbent is based on a wider platform of issues than this, and respect his views on those issues.  Still, it is impossible to be more violent than this, or to commit this violence against a more vulnerable section of the population.  In light of this, I find it difficult to take his condemnation of "violence" seriously.

Like Alan and others, I long for a world where violence no longer exists.  Unfortunately, this isn't heaven.  This is earth, and its an earth filled with sin.  Alan is correct that "violent hearts" are many, especially in the United States.  He is correct that it is these violent hearts that cause much of the anguish we see on the news each night.  As a Christ-follower, I stand with him in wanting to see an end to this.  I just happen to believe he is mistaken to think that the way to end criminal violence is to take away the ability of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves and those whose safety and well-being they are responsible for.

Our current system of government grants this right of self-protection to the populace as well as those who wear a badge.  Certainly there are times when, as a Christian, exercising a American right would be contrary to the spirit of Jesus.  But where the right to bear arms is concerned, taking that right completely away is not the answer.

But that's my view, and I recognize, and respect, that there are others among our global Christian family.  With this in view, and with the recognition that there is no clearly "Biblical" position on gun control, perhaps the best text to which we can appeal is Romans 14.  Those like Alan Hirsch are, where guns are concerned, "weaker brothers."  As one who holds a different view on this issue, my responsibility to them is not to cause them to stumble by trying to force them into my way of thinking.  If some Christians believe it would be wrong for them to own and possibly use a firearm, then they shouldn't have one, and I shouldn't bring guilt on them for not having one!  Conversely, since there is no prohibition in Scripture against owning a weapon, or using that weapon in self-defense or the defense of others, Paul's words in Romans 14 for my pacifist friends are clear.  "Who are you to judge the servant of another?"

So let's continue conversations that sharpen each other's iron.  Let's continue to contend for justice together. Let's continue to work on our violent culture together with the Gospel.  But let's not toss salvos at each other.  That's a politician's game.  And followers of Jesus are called to a higher level of play.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Joel. Thank you, especially for reminding us of the always important context of scripture. Your points are well rooted in correctly applied scripture.
I happen to agree with you wholeheartedly, but it is good to be reminded of the importance of unity within the body regardless of personal nonessential convictions.
I also liked the reference to the line from my wife's favorite movie. (Grin)

MB in Greenville

Marty Duren said...

Very well done. I excerpted it and linked back from my blog. Biblically informed, thoughtful and considerate.

Art Rogers said...

Phenomenal post, Joel. Praying for you daily, bro.

cb scott said...

I don't think Alan Hirsh has been where I have been or has seen what I have seen. Had he, his perspective would, in all probably be different.

I shall always thank God for the hard men who stand watch in places where dogs and snakes won't crawl so I can sleep safely, along with my children, at night.

And if perchance an enemy escapes those hard men who stand watch, I shall always be prepared to fill the gap as long as God gives me strength and maintains the "talent" for it He gave me.

Kent said...

Let us not forget that at least two of Jesus' disciples, Peter and another who is not named, carried swords. Certainly Jesus was aware of this yet he never told them to dispose of them. Further, when Peter cut off Malchus' ear at the time of Jesus arrest Jesus told him to "put up his sword or, put it back in its place....." not to throw it away. Clearly Jesus was not opposed to several of his disciples going about armed. Let us also remember David when he faced Goliath. God did not need David in any way in order to defeat Goliath. God could have struck Goliath dead without any help from any man. But he required David to go out, stand before Goliath and at least start to fight as an example to the rest of the Israelites. Too, David was confident God would strengthen him but he did not know when God would choose to "show up". Hence he picked up five stones (or perhaps he knew Goliath had brothers) preparing to continue the fight until God chose to help him. The point is - David still had to go out and fight. If God required this of David why would he expect less of us?

Rolando Castro said...

Joel, I agree with you in some aspects of your post. I believe people should be able to own firearms if they want to. But that shouldn't be with out restrictions at all. You know how easy is for anyone in the US to buy a gun. There's no screening at all. We make more investigations and put more obstacles, when someone wants to plant a church than buying a revolver.
Love you brother and I'd like to keep the conversation

. said...

Thanks for stopping in Rolando!

You and I agree that there should be screening that prevents felonious criminals, or the mentally incompetent, from obtaining firearms. I'll even go further and say I'd have no problem with a proficiency test to ensure that someone purchasing a gun knows how to be safe with it.

That said, I have to contend with your assertion that "there's no screening at all," and that I "know how easy it is for anyone in the US to buy a gun." Though the stipulations vary from state to state, I've purchased firearms in Maryland and can tell you that the screening is VERY tight! Furthermore, no one under the age of 21 is allowed to buy a firearm of any kind in Maryland, so in the case you reference on Facebook, the kid who was in possession of this shotgun had to have gotten it from an adult.

The answer, in my view, is not to make it harder to get a gun in Maryland. My experience suggests its already VERY hard to purchase a firearm in this state, almost to the extent that it violates the 2nd ammendment to our Constitution. Neither myself or my wife are allowed to carry a concealed weapon in this state, even though we are law-abiding citizens, and have proven to be able to handle ourselves with a weapon. How much violence could be stopped short if MORE of the public was armed, not less? How many women get raped each year who could have otherwise protected themselves? In an ideal world, I don't want to see anyone get hurt, but since we have violence, I want to read more headlines that say "Good girl lives, Bad guy dies."

Since we have very little information to go on in the Perry Hall case, we really can't discuss that case intelligently. But I can tell you this. Whoever allowed this young man to gain access to a shotgun should be held accountable. The young man should be held accountable. My 12-year old son can handle himself with a shotgun, and has possession of a .410 that he received for Christmas last year. But the ammunition is locked up in a separate location, he doesn't shoot it unless he is with me, and I know where that weapon is at all times. Such is the responsibility of anyone who owns firearms, and if I abuse my liberty, I should be held accountable. But other's liberties should not be taken away simply because someone else abused theirs.

But adding more restrictions to an already over-restricted state and preventing law-abiding citizens from doing what our Constitution guarantees them a right to do is not, in my view, the way to stop this violence.

Thanks for your input friend.