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Deliver Us from Evil (in a Hail of Bullets)

January 14, 2013
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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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. susan permalink
    January 14, 2013 2:21 am

    I do not understand how you can hunt animals with a bow. This is cruel. I am done with your blog. There is nothing I want to know from you.

    • Eric permalink
      January 14, 2013 5:27 pm

      There are any number of things I expected to get grief for from this post. This wasn’t one of them. I’m happy to discuss the morality of hunting and of the use of primitive weapons in hunting. However, I gather that you are not interested in such a discussion.

      • January 22, 2013 8:48 am

        Eric, you obviously missed the perfectly obvious fact that shooting an animal with a gun isn’t an act of cruelty.

  2. Mom/Susan permalink
    January 14, 2013 9:35 am

    I thought this was very insightful; you cut right to the heart of the matter. Thanks!

  3. January 14, 2013 7:23 pm

    This is a great post Eric. I think that your central thesis is both sound and well argued. I especially like the Old Testament passages that you chose.

  4. January 14, 2013 8:42 pm

    Coincidentally, the article I’ve written for my own blog’s upcoming Wed. post is about feelings, and I used this very issue (and fear) to illustrate. I think I’ll add a link to your article since it relates so well to mine.

    Two arguments I come across that oppose your points here (other people’s arguments, not mine) are (1.) God Himself is violent, so the Bible is iffy or contradictory on the morality of it, and (2.) God no longer protects America since we’ve kicked Him out of our schools, government, and homes. Increased violence is the very “proof” of that, so we’re on our own.

    I agree that the matter isn’t as simple as people make it seem; and I, too, don’t like the tone of the current shouting match, especially from those who call themselves Christian.

    Great post; well done.

    • January 14, 2013 10:19 pm

      I would present the following brief answers to the two points you bring up:

      1) While God engages in acts of violence God we are not supposed to emulate God at all points (for instance, we do not demand that people build temples to us). We are supposed to emulate Jesus who was notably non-violent and who never speaks of violence in a positive way. The world honors people who kill to defend the things of the world, the Church has long honored those who die.

      2) “God no longer protects America” assumes that God was once in the business of protecting America. I think God got out of the national defense industry a long time ago. Moreover, the logic of this claim is pretty weird. Either God has decided not to protect America but He makes an exemption for His faithful or He’s sick of all of us. If the first then God still protects you. If the second, you have much bigger problems.

  5. John permalink
    January 15, 2013 3:59 pm

    I have two primary issues to debate regarding this article. The purchase of weapons after the mass murder of innocent children may have been out of fear, but the fear isn’t “fear” for one’s life; it is a fear that President Obama is going ignore our 2nd Amendment and make it more difficult to purchase weapons. Citizens “fear” our President more than they fear criminals. Secondly, I constantly hear the argument that one should not purchase a weapon, because if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. However, this same Jesus told His disciples to take up the sword. Peter told Him “we have two swords.” Jesus said this is enough. There comes a time when the citizenry is to take up its “sword.” Politicians and many pacifistic individuals want to remove the “sword” from society. When that happens, only mass murderers will have weapons of mass destruction.

    • Eric permalink
      January 15, 2013 5:53 pm

      The uptick in gun purchases after mass shootings isn’t a new phenomenon. If it were dependent on who were President we should expect to see it only when Democrats held office but we don’t. I also think it serious unlikely that the President can enact anything beyond rather mild changes to the gun laws but that’s my reading of the political situation and not the theological one.

      As to the second, I think it’s instructive that Jesus did NOT tell his disciples to take up the sword. On one occasion (Luke 22:36) he tells his disciples to buy swords but when they show him two swords for the twelve of them he says that is enough. There are no instance in which Jesus actually commands one to “take up the sword” unless you are using this idiom only in its extremely literal sense, to pick a sword up. Perhaps you can find a passage in the New Testament where a Christian uses violence and is commended for it but I can’t think of one. I also can’t think of a single Christian martyr who died fighting.

      The end of your case is confusing. Certainly nations use violence all the time but what does this have to do with Christian living? Nations do all sorts of things that Christians shouldn’t and the conduct of nations cannot be a guide for Christian life. Moreover, your mention of weapons of mass destruction seems to imply that you reject just war theory which rejects WMDs for their lack of proportionality or distinction between combatants and civilians. I’m left wondering whether you think there are any special limits that a Christian operates under in regards to violence or if you accept common Western morality as a guidepost for Christians in this regard.

      And, of course, “When that happens, only mass murderers will have weapons of mass destruction,” is a fear-based statement. It is a declaration that when only mass murderers have weapons of mass destruction God will not protect us and we will wish we were better armed.

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