Packing heat in Jesus’ name? Three things he might say about that…

FalwellJrConvocation

My first reaction to the comments Jerry Falwell Jr. made about guns and shooting “those Muslims” was to wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. Or following the same Jesus.

Falwell probably didn’t intend for his remarks to be taken as a serious theological reflection on Christianity and the use of violence. And that’s the problem.

There is a distressing lack of reflection behind these comments. What do we find when we hold them up to the words of Jesus and see how they compare?

There are three things Jesus said that I think are worth considering, as we evaluate the prevailing attitude toward guns and our willingness to use them on enemies perceived and real.

1. “That’s enough!”

In defending Falwell’s remarks, some have appealed to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. The argument put forward is that these swords were intended for self-defense; therefore Jesus must have been OK with his followers using lethal force in at least some cases.

The problem is, this view doesn’t hold up in view of the larger context:

  • Jesus made it clear why he told the disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53, a passage predicting the Messiah would be falsely associated with evildoers, despite committing “no violence.” How can a call to arms fulfill a prophecy about a Messiah who doesn’t fight? Answer: it doesn’t because this is not a call to arms. Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kind of Messiah the world expects—not to mention the kind many of us seem to expect—and the kind of Messiah that God gave us.
  • The disciples respond by telling Jesus they already have two swords—which, according to Jesus, is enough. If the intent was insurrection or self-defense, how are two swords among twelve people supposed to be enough? Answer: they’re not, because they were never meant to be used for violence.
  • Zack Hunt raises another important point: if Jesus really intended for his disciples to carry (and possibly use) swords, “Why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in?” And why is there no criticism in the New Testament for their apparent failure to take Jesus’ words at face value? Answer: because that’s not how Jesus meant for them to take his words.

Jesus’ response to the disciples that night—“That’s enough!”—is emphatic. It’s a rebuke. Even after three years with Jesus, his disciples still don’t get it.

Apparently, neither do we.

If the context of Luke 22:36 doesn’t make it clear that Jesus is not endorsing violence, then the next thing he says about swords ought to.

2. “Put your sword back in its place.”

Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him with a sword… likely one of the same swords that was presented to him earlier that evening.

Jesus does not simply condemn violence on this occasion—as if there were a temporary cessation of the normal rules permitting violence while he allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus denounces the futility of all violence everywhere:

All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

This is nothing new. This is what he’s been saying his entire ministry. In Luke 13, when he’s told some insurgent Galileans have been slaughtered by the Roman governor, he warns: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

He’s not talking in generalities. He’s not talking about “perish” as in eternal destiny. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent of your bloodlust—if you don’t renounce the urge to fight violence with violence—you will meet the same end as your Galilean compatriots.”

All who draw the sword.

Back in Gethsemane, as Jesus is led away, he asks what ought to be a simple question: “Am I leading a violent uprising, that you have come out with swords and clubs?”

The obvious answer is no. The questions we should ask are:

What does it look like to walk in the footsteps of a Messiah who refused to fight?

What does it mean to be imitators of Christ when people come at us with swords and clubs? Or when we’re afraid they might do so?

3. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

 I had a t-shirt with this phrase on it when I was a kid. I thought it meant we weren’t supposed to behave like the rest of world: we don’t listen to the same music, watch the same movies, or have sex the way the world does.

The truth is, being a Christian does mean being different from the rest of the world. But the stakes are much, much higher than that.

Jesus spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor—the same governor who slaughtered those independence-minded Galileans. Pilate was trying to get at whether Jesus imagined himself a king—and therefore, whether he was a threat to Rome.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. Hardly the most reassuring answer he could have given, under the circumstances. But what makes his kingdom “not of this world”? The fact that his followers don’t take up arms.

“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

Kingdom-cross-gun

What Falwell’s words—and the support for them—reveal is that we really don’t want to do things God’s way. We don’t really like his plan for the world. We don’t care for his blueprint for the kingdom.

What it shows is that we don’t trust Jesus enough to take him at his word. We don’t think all those things he said about enemy love actually work.

Most of all, it shows we don’t want to walk the path Jesus walked—a path that leads to a cross. But as my friend Tim Gombis writes, there is no other path for us to walk:

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

The kingdom God envisions comes by way of the cross, not through the barrel of a gun.

Images: YouTube, Claudio Ungari on Flickr (modified to add text) / CC BY 2.0

12 thoughts on “Packing heat in Jesus’ name? Three things he might say about that…

  1. Thanks for this, Ben. I’ve been wondering how much of a role people’s belief in the end-game plays into statements like Falwell’s and the response he received. If the end-game is to get to heaven, is Armageddon, is a Jesus who comes back to earth ready to wage war against all who don’t believe in him, Falwell’s enthusiasm is less surprising. This is all so very different from Jesus’ message. And shows that what we believe really does matter, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Ben…this is completely wrong. You cite passages which supposedly support you argument, but have nothing to do with the right to defend yourself or bear arms. You have also completely taken the Scripture out of context and I suspect you know that you have just to support your point of view. This is shameful. For instance, you citing of Zack Hunt shows your manipulation of the data. First, Peter was carrying a sword! Also in Luke 22:36-8, Jesus instructs his disciples to buy swords! The centurion whom Jesus commended carried a sword. It is very simple…the statement is false.

    You completely pull the context of Peter’s use of the sword into never never land. The whole point of the passage was not to condemn the use of the sword against aggression, but to reprimand Peter. Jesus had told the disciples that he was to die, but specifically Peter rejected that message and was called SATAN for rejecting the message. Peter was getting in the way of God’s will to save humanity on the Cross from separation from God. This is why Jesus rebuked Peter.

    You completely misrepresent “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This has nothing to do with self defense…nothing. It has to specifically do with what was happening in Jerusalem at the time Jesus made the statement. Many Jews were looking to overthrow Rome by force. Jesus was taking a specific stand against that (probably why Judas turned on Jesus). You know that this is true. This is the same error as those that look at the Ten Commandments and cite, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Well, there are lots of scenes of killing in the OT including God commanding Joshua to wipe out women and children. The context of the issue has everything to do with unjustified killing or going against God’s plan. God’s plan was to send Jesus to the Cross, not overthrow Rome.

    I am not being rude, but the arrogance you showed in the post prompted this response.

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    • “This is the same error as those that look at the Ten Commandments and cite, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.'”

      What, you mean the error of thinking “thou shalt not kill” actually means “thou shalt not kill”?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jesus spoke against violence many times. He told us plainly not to resist evil men but to turn the other cheek. I believe the commandment which says not to kill actually means murder in Hebrew, but I could be wrong. We are to love our enemies, not kill them. It is a lack of trust in God to carry a weapon. How many people will use that weapon when they lose their temper or fire it accidentally and kill someone. If God lets us die at the hand of terrorists, we should accept that. It is up to God how we die, and he will be with us through it all. It is a shame how God’s name is dragged through the mud by well-known Christians like Falwell.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ben,

    I agree with you and Tim that Mr. Fallwell’s words did not reflect Christian peacemaking and love to enemies. You also don’t seem to believe a Christian can, in good conscience, use a weapon to love their “neighbor” by protecting them, potentially with lethal force.

    When you mention that the disciples bought swords to fulfill prophecy, do you also notice that Jesus to Peter to put down his sword so prophecy would be fulfilled (that he would die)? I think this speaks to the fact this every situation is unique. Christians have to apply God’s commands of love your neighbor and love your enemy in situations that might conflict.

    Again, Christians have to consider their motives for doing things, especially carrying a weapon. I do believe we should generally be peaceful people, but Jesus gives us examples when he was not peaceful, does he not? Our motives should never to be to “teach someone a lesson” like Mr. Fallwell said, but I believe a Christian can have righteous motives in protecting innocent people, even if it comes to using lethal force.

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    • Hi Ron, thanks for sharing. I appreciate a lot of what you have to say.

      In particular, the way you frame the issue is really helpful: what do we do when the command to love our neighbor and the command to love our enemy seem to conflict? It’s further complicated by the fact that, for Jesus, your enemy IS your neighbor—that was the point of the parable of the good Samaritan.

      That said, I think there are circumstances where a Christian may have no choice but to use force. If someone attacked my family, I would do everything in my power to protect them. If someone is the target of sexual assault and they are able to fight off their assailant, I think they should do so. In such cases, the best way to love your neighbor is to protect them from harm, if you can. (And perhaps the best way to love your enemy in these cases is to stop them—even forcefully—from violating human life.)

      At the same time, I don’t think this should translate into Christians carrying weapons on them wherever they go—for a variety of reasons. Just because force be necessary in some situations, that doesn’t mean LETHAL force is appropriate. For me, carrying a gun indicates a willingness to take another life. It leaves too much to a person’s judgment/restraint when things get tense. (Remember the vigilante who shot at a shoplifter at a Home Depot recently?) It puts that person and their loved ones at greater risk of an accident—a risk that outweighs whatever slim chance there that (a) they will find themselves in a situation where they genuinely need a gun for protection and (b) that they will manage to use it effectively/safely/successfully.

      BTW, you’re right that Jesus tells Peter his arrest had to take place in order to fulfill prophecy. So in that one sense the situation was unique. But as I noted above, Jesus also told Peter that all who respond to violence as he did would be destroyed by violence. That statement was not unique to the events unfolding around Jesus; it was a universal statement on the futility of retributive violence.

      Also, I’m not aware of any examples where Jesus was not peaceful—specifically, of where he was physically violent toward another person. Yes, we have the scene in the temple—which is a good reminder that “nonviolent” does not mean “passive” or “pushover.” But none of the gospel accounts provide any indication that Jesus was violent toward another person. He turned over tables…and in John’s account, he used a whip to drive the animals out of the temple. (There is no indication that he used it on people.)

      Again, I appreciate the thoughtful pushback…thanks for the dialogue!

      Like

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  6. Thanks for so thoughtfully putting this together. I think that anyone who uses the title ‘Christian’ should understand that we are called to love our enemies, and, if we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, turn the other cheek. I especially like your second point about Jesus in the Garden. Thank you so much.

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