“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
- Matthew 26:51-52
Recently, a woman I’ve known for some years was talking about various social issues in America today, including the evils of gun violence and the responsibility of Christians to support gun control. She made all the obvious points: horrible gun violence, easy access to guns, and the obvious need to limit that access, before crowning her argument with the unassailable claim, “Jesus was a pacifist, and anyone who really wants to be His disciple would be a pacifist.”
That statement certainly sounds good, as in, virtuous. The woman is not the first person I’ve heard make such an argument on behalf of Christ. Nor was she the first to suggest true disciples of Jesus should take a stand for gun control legislation. However, pacifism and gun laws are two different issues, related only by the fact of human violence. Conflating the two doesn’t help us think clearly about either, since both issues are complex and deserve more than facile proof-text answers. Neither does attaching our opinions to Jesus give us blanket authority on public matters.
In the passage above, Jesus was admonishing His disciple – identified as Simon Peter in the Gospel of John – against fighting His arrest. Shortly before His arrest, Jesus told His disciples to sell their cloaks to buy swords, which may have been why the disciple went for his sword. Had Simon Peter fought the hostile crowd, he likely would have been killed in the ensuing fight. Wouldn’t it have been a shame if Jesus had been killed by a crowd in a fight that was instigated by His disciples? (That’s not actually possible because that was not God’s purpose in becoming incarnate.) Even so, there is a larger truth to Jesus’ words that we cannot deny. Violence breeds violence. We should actively work to diminish violence, and we should not instigate violence.
As for pacifism, Jesus didn’t exhibit a great deal of interest in the Roman Empire, in Roman law or Roman military might. He said wars would come, acknowledging that wars would be a fact of human existence. Sure enough, wars have occurred throughout history among every sort of people, tribe, and nation. Wars are how nations stay in existence, grow wealth, and attain needed resources. Are they good? Well…sometimes, they can be fought for good reasons, the Civil War comes to mind, as does World War II. Mostly, wars are effective means for accomplishing ends determined to be the worldly good by those who decide such things. Unless you rule a nation, then for our purposes, what wars really are is a fact, a reality of human history, and a promise for our human future.
The language of war is inescapable if we trust the revelation in Scripture. The terrible violence of the Cross is correctly understood as our Lord’s war against the evil one and his dominion in God’s creation through human beings. The war was won decisively when Jesus rose from the dead, defeating the last enemy of human life, but battles continue for the salvation of every human being who ever lived or will live. The whole of every Christian life is lived within the context of the cosmic battle between the Lord of all creation and life, and the demonic forces of the evil one seeking to capture and destroy human beings, the image of God. When it comes down to each of us, we must choose on which side we plan to fight. Because truth brings division, Jesus knew He would be the cause of conflict – Jesus Himself, not worldly greed or power. Spiritual warfare, however, is, well, spiritual… until it becomes physical.
That brings us to the issue of gun violence, as it’s called, and laws for gun control. The greatest danger of our day is not the threat of global war, changes in climate, bad education, medical experimentation, or any of the other looming threats spawned by utopian progressivism. The greatest danger of our day is our failure to grasp the depth and breadth of human sin in tandem with the reality of evil and demonic powers. If everyone were aware that human beings are not basically good, that we can be encouraged to be very, very bad, then we would approach today’s grand, futuristic visions for tomorrow with a measure of humility and trepidation. Even our highest ideals are subject to the limitations, prejudices, and ignorance of the human mind.
Guns are not the solution to the problem of human sin, but they are sadly necessary to restrain evil and for the preservation of human life. Moreover, the Second Amendment exists so citizens can defend themselves against government control and overreach. That some people use guns to murder does not negate the real threat to human life that comes through unchecked government power over the population. One has only to look at the events of recent years to know human beings are more interested in power, money, and control than we are interested in truth. What makes the American Republic unique among all other governments in history was the founders’ awareness of the need to limit the reach of power, greed, and control, because they are known corrupting influences.
Guns are tools – powerful tools – but still, only tools. Violence is a human trait, not a tool trait. Consider the box cutter violence of 9/11, for example. More people were killed by a few boxcutters than in any mass murder by guns in the history of our nation. I realize that, generally speaking, it’s easier to use a gun than a box cutter to kill many more people in much less time, but the point is not what a gun can do. The point is what people will do to one another when they want to be violent and to do harm.
The Son of God became incarnate in Jesus because human beings need to be saved – from ourselves and from the evil one. Far more than any of us, Jesus knew the depth of human depravity and complicity with evil. He chose to take our sins upon Himself so that in His blamelessness, our sin would be revealed and healed. This is the discussion we need to have, not a discussion about gun usage. What is sick in the human soul that we want to hurt and/or destroy others? And what is the solution for that sickness of the soul? The answer is the salvation of the Cross of Christ Jesus.
Jesus’ death was a revelation of human violence, not a statement on pacifism or weapons that can harm. Yes, Jesus said the sons of God are peacemakers, and indeed, we should be committed to bringing peace. The peace of which Jesus spoke, however, was not peace between good and evil, but peace between God and humankind. Jesus was a peacemaker because He defeated evil and built a bridge of peace between God and us, the creatures of rebellion. When we believe laws will control violence and limit death, we believe that human beings possess more power to influence evil than our Lord did, even attempting to reconcile good and evil, which our Lord would never do.
Should Christians run out and buy guns then? I am not suggesting anyone buy a gun, but I am saying that platitudes are irrelevant and often irrational. Personally, I do not think that I could ever aim a gun at another person and shoot. I pray that I am never put to the test. We cannot afford to be naïve, though. I may be willing to turn the other cheek if someone harms me, but I would be far less willing to look the other way while someone I love is being hurt. Would I shoot someone trying to harm my grandchild? Probably… We can hate that guns are necessary. We can hate that human beings are violent. We can repent of our ineffectual witness to life, to truth, and to good, and we can confess and weep if we are required to take another life. But we cannot call ourselves righteous because we close our eyes to the presence of evil and the harm it does to all within reach.
Was Jesus a pacifist? The answer must be no. He waged divine war against evil in eternal matters, and His followers must war against evil in temporal matters. While you or I have the right to choose martyrdom for ourselves, we do not have the right to inflict martyrdom on others by ignoring evil. We stand against evil powers in prayer and worship, in fasting and study, in fellowship together and in care for the least, the lost, and the truly vulnerable. As our last resort, we also stand against those powers physically – with guns if necessary. To choose otherwise is to allow evil to prevail over the weak, the infirm, the widow, and the orphan.
Gun control laws treat symptoms not the disease. You can think through the issue of gun ownership for yourself. Buy a gun or don’t. Be for gun laws or not. These are choices each of us can make, but using Jesus as an appeal for gun control is a misuse of the Gospel. The Gospel addresses the whole complex reality of humanity, not just twenty-first century America. Really, twenty-first century America is a stellar example of the corruption and wickedness from which God desires to save us, as well as the ineffectual superficiality of social Christianity.
When the lion lays down with the lamb, then guns will no longer be necessary. That will happen only when Christ returns at the end of the age. Until then, we must struggle against evil in every manner we can. The most effective means of standing against evil is to tell the truth for, as Jesus pointed out, the father of lies is the devil. All around us is a sea of human suffering – people drowning in despair and overwhelmed by waves of anger and futility, adults accessorizing with children who are then tossed about and left to flounder without direction. If the children of God united as a force for Christ in the world, so much good could be done, so many lives saved. That is where we should start – with speaking the truth and an outpouring of Christ’s love, with sharing of the Gospel as we share our food, clothing, and shelter, with offering the promise of hope and life, of mercy and grace. But as Nehemiah and his crew rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem with one hand and held a sword in the other, we too need to be aware that when we strive to build the Kingdom, we will war with the enemy.
Never go in search of violence, and never choose violence as the first response. But let’s not be naïvely sanctimonious either. Human nature subject to evil, even unwittingly, is capable of great cruelty and destruction. Out of love for the least among us, let us stand firm against evil. We should work tirelessly for peace between God and every person, even as we accept that peace with evil is as unattainable as it is undesirable.
I pray that you and yours do not encounter violence of any kind. I pray that I and the people I love do not either. But I also pray for eyes to see what is necessary to see, however unpleasant that is. May we abide in Christ, Who is Truth, so that in His joy we will be beacons of light in dark world – until He returns and darkness gives way to everlasting, Uncreated Light.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau