On the Arming of "Serious" Christians

In response to latest mass shooting in Oregon on October 1, 2015, which left nine more innocent people dead, Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey weighed in by encouraging Christians to take up arms: "I would encourage my fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit . . . Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise." Ramsey noted that the targets of these mass shootings are "Christians and defenders of the West;" hence the call to arms for followers of Jesus.

Ramsey's counsel harmonizes well with what passes for conventional wisdom regarding violence, self-defense, and self-preservation, on both the personal and global levels. We have stand-your-ground laws in our local communities, and the U.S. seems to be perpetually at war with enemies that we perceive to be threats to freedom and democracy. Thus, there is clear precedent for Ramsey's advice to resort to violence when we feel threatened and afraid. The problem is that he issued this call directly to "Christians who are serious about their faith," yet his suggested course of action does not conform to the teachings of Christ himself.

Jesus gave some commands to his would-be followers that seem to contradict conventional wisdom regarding self-defense and responding to enemies. "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matt. 5:39). He continues, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:43-45). On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus admonished his disciple Peter against using his sword in self-defense. "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matt. 26:52).

We can all acknowledge that these are difficult and demanding teachings. After all, when one does not resist an evil person, but instead turns the other cheek, it is possible that he will receive a second slap. And when a person loves her enemy, there is no guarantee that the enemy will return the good will. Jesus refused to defend himself or allow others to defend him with force, and we all know how that ended. The teachings may be even more challenging when we have become accustomed to keeping weapons for purposes of self-defense. We tend to put our trust in weapons and violence and derive from them a sense of safety and protection. Isn't this, after all, the gist of Ramsey's advice? Get a gun so that you are better able to protect yourself? Jesus' last point about people who use weapons being killed by weapons seems to expose the falseness of the sense of security we draw from an ability to do violence.

Nevertheless, it can be difficult to let go of even a false sense of security, especially when we are afraid. It is tempting to quickly dismiss Jesus' teachings as spiritual rather than physical, to claim he was using hyperbole, or to insist that he did not really mean what he said about not resisting an evil person. We could disregard the teachings as unrealistic, ineffective, irresponsible, or even naive, and have no further consideration for them. Moreover, it's not hard to find other scriptures that support the use of violence in self-defense, so we could cling to those as we interpret Jesus' words as essentially irrelevant to how the world really works.

The early church, however, at least for the first 300 years or so, seemed to agree that Jesus meant what he said and that violence was prohibited for his followers. Lactantius of Bithynia wrote, "Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal." Tertullian wrote, "But how will a Christian war, nay, how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed, still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier." At the very least, church history, stained as it is by the blood of countless saints who chose faithfulness to these difficult teachings over protecting and preserving their own lives, compels us not to quickly assume that Jesus did not mean exactly what he said.

A literal application of Jesus' teachings about violence is enough to make anyone uneasy, particularly when we are confronted by a new mass shooting every few days or weeks. It seems clear enough that Ramsey's remarks were prompted by fear. We see another shooting on the news and think, "What if that happened to me? How can I protect myself and my family?" At this point, however, other teachings of Jesus become less enigmatic and more comforting as we refuse to resist evil on its own terms. "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows." (Matt. 10:28-30). Do not be afraid, Jesus says over and over again in all four gospels. Do not abandon the teachings out of fear for your own safety: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt. 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24). That is, even if our lives are taken from us, Jesus promises that the loss is but an illusion. Is this not what we proclaim every time we eat the bread and drink the cup? Incidentally, Jesus ties this teaching about not acting to save our own lives to faithfully following Jesus to the cross. (Matt. 16:24). It is easy enough for modern American Christians to spiritualize such teachings, forgetting the many Christians who have willingly suffered and died, many on crosses of their own, for their discipleship to Jesus. Self-preservation, it seems, is not a Christian virtue. Faithfulness is.

In calling Christians to take up arms, Ramsey has failed to reckon with some of Jesus' most challenging instructions, commands that strike at the very heart of the gospel. He is encouraging Christians to place their trust in the wrong thing. I am reminded here of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, when threatened with death, refused to submit to fear, instead placing their trust in God to deliver them. They acknowledged, however, that God might not deliver them, that He might allow them to suffer and be killed at the hands of wicked men. Even then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to allow their actions to be dictated by fear of death. Faithfulness to God was their guiding principle. It should be the same for Christians today. Contrary to the advice of Lt. Gov. Ramsey, Christians have no need of handgun carry permits. They have already died to themselves, and their lives are hidden with Christ in God. Whom shall they fear?