Deliver Us from Evil (in a Hail of Bullets)
Just about a month ago a disturbed individual opened fire in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, killing several teachers and a number of children. While this act of violence was horrific I didn’t write anything about it here. Horrific violence happens all the time all over the world and the occurrence of such horror in America poses no exceptional theological questions. If the tone of this blog were more pastoral, or if I attempted to comment on news events more, I might have written something about the problem of pain but I didn’t. (If you happen to want the closest thing I’ve ever done to addressing the problem of pain it’s here.) However, the Newtown shootings have had longer-lasting ripples that do bring up issues of Christian conduct that I am interested in addressing. Specifically, after the shootings America began a national conversation, or screaming match, about guns and gun violence. This screaming match continues today – right before I wrote this I saw yet another email providing the “real” statistics on guns and violent crime.
Sooner or later I intend to write some on the issue of just war which will inevitably touch on large issues of organized violence and the structures that manage violence. This won’t be that article. Instead, I wish to address a smaller aspect of violence and ask about Christian responses to the Newtown shootings that involve guns. Specifically, should your response as a Christian be to arm up, do nothing, or disarm completely?
Much like I did in what might be the last time I addressed something that was happening in the news I intend to ask this question from an internal perspective. Whatever the larger issues of guns in America what does it do to your soul to buy a weapon and prepare to use it?
If, after the shootings, you went and bought yourself a gun, or started carrying a gun you already had, or applied for a concealed-carry permit, or in any way expanded the area of your life that is connected to firearms, you probably acted out of fear. Gun sales jumped dramatically after the Newtown shootings, as they always do after a mass killing in the US, but nothing about this incident actually signaled a greater reason to fear than before. Mass killings have occurred at about the same rate with about the same death toll for a long time. Acting out of fear certainly wouldn’t be logical but would it be morally problematic? Yes.
The conversation about guns in America is mostly one of safety. There are some issues about hunting but that hasn’t been the focus of these talks. (Disclaimer: I am a hunter, although mostly a bow-hunter.) For Christians safety is ultimately about Jesus. When we act out of fear we are acting as if we do not trust Jesus to watch over us. Now, there are real and legitimate questions about our responsibility for our safety. If you walked into a bad neighborhood with expensive clothing and electronics on you and got mugged then I would suggest that you weren’t trusting Jesus so much as abdicating responsibility. However, there is a real level on which Christians are supposed to trust God instead of weaponry.
In Joshua 11:6 the Lord instructs Joshua to destroy the chariots and war-horses he captures. In 1 Chronicles 18:4 David captures a thousand chariots and hamstrings all but a hundred of the horses that pull them. These actions are portrayed as good actions. Why? Because they show trust in God. Chariots were the ultimate weapon in the Ancient Near East, highly mobile platforms that generals and kings would ride upon, shooting immensely powerful composite bows at their enemies. While chariots did eventually fall prey to better infantry weapons and tactics and the rise of warriors mounted on a single, larger horse, when Joshua and David led Israel chariots were the best weapon available. However, both men destroy these weapons to show their trust in God. As long as God guarded Israel then Israel did not need hundreds of chariots. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses but we trust in the name of Yahweh our God.” One simple application of this logic is that a modern-day Christians should probably avoid putting too much faith in weaponry.
The New Testament adds another dimension to this issue. Jesus’ famous words to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword,” seem to be a stark condemnation of the use of violence. Indeed, the use of violence is always morally problematic. We commonly accept the logic of our world that it is better to kill than to die but is this actually Christian? If Christ preaches a message of love do we not endanger this message by a willingness to resort to violence? There has certainly been a sense among many missionaries that it was better to be killed by hostile tribes and go to Jesus than to kill people who had never heard the gospel. Ultimately, our Lord Himself chose to die for sinners rather than defend Himself. The train of logic that concludes that it is acceptable to ignore this example and act as the world does seems fraught with theological difficulties.
There are obviously many more issues in all of this (like the defense of others), some of which I will treat whenever I get around to discussing just war. However, I am uncomfortable with the tenor of a lot of this talk of guns. Should Christians really prepare to kill others out of an amorphous fear? This seems very unlike the actions of people who believe in an all-powerful God of love. Honestly, if I asked you which supernatural entity would provoke people to kill others out of fear I’d hope you’d say the devil. Obviously, this is a surface-level case. Despite this, I don’t think it can be easily dismissed. If your actions look bad and feel wrong you need pretty good reasons to engage in them. I don’t think those reasons are present here. Instead, I think the evidence suggests that arming up looks bad precisely because it is against what Jesus taught.