“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one,” Jesus once told his disciples. Also Jesus: “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” and “turn the other cheek.” These words exemplify the very different portraits of Jesus that Christians have when it comes to issues like gun control, gun rights, and self-defense.
Is it ethical to defend oneself or one’s family? Does Jesus want his people to be packing?
By the numbers only, most Christians support stricter gun control laws. According to a national tracking poll of Americans from Morning Consult—following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida—approximately 62 percent of all Christians “strongly,” or “somewhat,” support “stricter gun control laws in the United States,” while 33 percent do not.
In fact, the majority of Christians (Protestant or Catholic) appear to support stronger gun laws to varying degrees: Protestants (60 percent), Roman Catholics (67 percent), and evangelicals (58 percent). But this is not the same as saying these Christians oppose gun ownership, self-defense, or justified wars.
The reality is more complex.
For example, according to data from Pew Research analyzed by Christianity Today, most white evangelicals who own handguns also carry (65 percent), but most evangelicals also support stronger restrictions for things like mental health issues (89 percent), background checks at gun shows (80 percent), or bans on assault-style weapons (63 percent).
Theologians, however, do not live by statistics alone; they look to the Bible for God’s overall message. So why do Christians come away from the same Bible with different perspectives on the issue of guns and self-defense?
First, there are those passages where Jesus advocates a nonviolent approach to one’s enemies, such as “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’,” preaches Jesus in Matthew 5:38-39. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
But these non-violent passages may not be the final word on the subject.
When Jesus warns his disciples that things are about to get rough—meaning he is about to be arrested and crucified—he tells them in Luke 22:36-38, that “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” The disciples take him literally and say, “here are two swords,” and Jesus tells them “that’s enough.”
Shortly after this, however, there is a plot twist; when the high priest arrives to arrest Jesus, Peter takes out his sword and cuts off the ear of the priest’s servant. Jesus doesn’t congratulate him on his swordplay. Instead, he heals the ear and says “No more of this!” (22:47-53). In a parallel telling of the story, Jesus tells him, “Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
So which is it? Does he want the disciples to defend themselves with swords (guns, for the modern Christian) or not?
Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America believes he does.
According to Pratt, the Second Amendment’s statement that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is literal and sanctioned by God.
“The Founders considered that self-defense and the ownership and carrying of guns is a God-given right,” Pratt tells The Daily Beast. “And there is a basic principle regarding the protection of life found in the Book of Proverbs [25:26]: ‘Like a muddied spring or a polluted well are the righteous who give way to the wicked.’”
“In that Act, all military age men were required to have a military long gun,” says Pratt. He adds that while this doesn’t include artillery, “the idea was that whatever every soldier had to own, so every man had to own.” And this is because, as he sees it, the Republic’s founders believed God intended individuals to defend themselves.
“Christ made the same point to his disciples shortly before he was murdered by the Romans,” adds Pratt, pointing to Christ’s command to buy swords in Luke.
More than a theological ideal, there are also practical applications of this reading of the Bible—like protecting one’s church during worship.
Pastor Jeff Ryan of Calvary Bible Church in Rogers City, Michigan, sees no reason for the Second Amendment to be “revoked or changed.” It is essential for maintaining liberty, he tells me, though he supports “reasonable regulation” when it comes to keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals or the “mentally unstable.”
“I serve two churches,” says Ryan, who also acts as an interim pastor at a small church in a farming community. “I know of one person who carries in the smaller, rural church.”
For reasons of protecting his congregation, Ryan’s not opposed to congregants carrying during worship, though safety remains an open conversation.
“A couple of years ago,” says Ryan, “we faced a situation where a mentally unstable man was threatening me and others, and we were uncertain of his whereabouts. One man came to me privately before the service to let me know he carried, and he would sit in the back and watch the door during the service (which he continues to do). At my primary church, in that situation, we locked the doors and called someone (an off-duty deputy, the son of a member) to be present on those two Sundays during the crisis. But on a normal Sunday, I do not know of anyone who carries, though we would welcome that from our known members.”
Physical threats against churches is not unheard of, and last year First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas was the target of such an armed attack. In that instance, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 individuals, wounding 20 others. He was eventually shot by an armed neighbor while fleeing.
When asked about Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek, Ryan sees that as forbidding vengeance. He understands concealed carry in church as a “safety measure.” It is one thing to not seek personal revenge, he says, but that “doesn’t mean that we just let evil people run rampant in our community or in our churches. It’s about letting God be God and leaving it to him and his ways to right our wrongs.”
But if there is anything obvious in American Christianity, it is that there is more than one way to read the Bible. Not all Christians agree that Jesus’s teachings allow for a concept of justified force.
Dr. Ron Sider, distinguished senior professor of theology, holistic ministry & public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary and author of Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, believes that Jesus taught pacifism.
“It is quite clear that Jesus was teaching in a context where many of his Jewish contemporaries wanted the nation to rise up in an armed rebellion against Rome,” Sider tells me, but “Jesus clearly says, I don’t want my disciples to kill; I want them to love their enemies” (Matt. 5:44).
According to Sider, the idea of a just war and the right to self-defense appears in Christianity after Emperor Constantine legalized the faith in the Edict of Milan in 313. Until that time, he says, “every Christian writer that writes about the topic of killing, whether it is abortion, capital punishment, or war, says that Christians should not, and do not, do that.”
In the hundred years following Constantine, he says, things changed. It is only with the highly influential theologian, St. Augustine that the idea of a just war—fighting to defend one’s nation—appears. Though, even then, he adds, Augustine did not believe in killing for personal vengeance.
Sider says that the “vast majority of scholars” do not see Jesus as advocating for buying swords in Luke 22:36.
“I mean, it’s just absurd to think that two swords would be enough even for twelve disciples,” says Sider. “And furthermore, just a few hours later, one of the disciples (Peter), in fact, uses a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant when they come to arrest Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him in a general way, saying, those who use the sword will perish by the sword.”
Daniel Kirk, pastoral director at Newbigin House of Studies, also believes that an American vision of individual gun rights and self-defense is not the same as Christ’s.
“As an American,” says Daniel Kirk, “my current view is that the Second Amendment gives us the right to defend ourselves against government forces. The firepower required for this in the twenty-first century cannot be safely kept in a home. People should have the right to own military grade weaponry that is always stored and locked in armories with their local well-regulated militias, national guards, etc. Hunting and self-defense are other issues that we need to separate from conversation about our Constitutional rights.”
“As a Christian,” he clarifies, “my position on guns is not a reflection on particular verses but the overall Jesus narrative. In both the gospels and the New Testament letters the self-giving love of Jesus to the point of death defines faithful Christian ethics. Devoting oneself to instruments designed for the purpose of taking human life is a non-Christian practice.”
When it comes to Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords—and his disciples response that they have two—Kirk and Sider believe the disciples are missing the point and that Jesus is speaking symbolically about troubling times ahead.
“The disciples, who are forever misunderstanding the suffering nature of Jesus’s mission, try to use the sword for self-defense,” says Kirk, “but Jesus persists in his life-giving mission of holistic restoration….It was not an abandonment of his non-coercive deployment of power in favor of armed revolution or even violent self-defense.”
Kirk adds. “The story of our salvation is trusting God to the point of death. How can choosing to send someone else to their death be an expression of faith?”
Larry Pratt disagrees with this view of Jesus, noting that Christians who point to passages like Jesus’s rebuke of Peter after he cut off the servant’s ear are ignoring a parallel telling of the story in Matthew 26:53-54. There Jesus reminds Peter that if he wanted to defend himself, he could easily call on his Father and immediately have at his “disposal more than twelve legions of angels.”
“The context makes it clear that these were not timeless commands such as ‘Don’t murder,’” says Pratt. Jesus chided Peter because his actions ignored why Christ was being arrested in the first place—“only the death of the Son of God could pay for man’s sin,” says Pratt.
What these individuals have in common is the belief that God wants them to preserve life. The question is, whose life? In any case, the decisions come with serious ramifications and responsibilities.
For example, when asked what Sider would do if an intruder threatened the life of his family, he said that while he thought such a situation would be extremely rare, he would have to follow Jesus’s command for nonviolence and trust God.
“In a situation, where somebody was threatening to kill my wife or children, I would pray fervently. I would express love to the person, and I would say, ‘In the name of the risen Jesus, Lord of history, I command you to stop.’ And if I died, and my family died, I would trust that would be a better outcome than my trying to kill such a person.”
For others, however, protecting life means living with other choices.
“It is part of caring for our people, just as a parent may choose to do in their home in caring for their family,” says Jeff Ryan. “Our mission is to preach the gospel of the kingdom of Christ, but that does not take away the right to defend ourselves.”