From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

I recently tweeted this:

Since my Twitter link to my Facebook page, the conversation continued there. Head to my page in the event that you’re curious, but suffice it to say a *conversation* ensued that has everything to do with what Jesus has to say about violence, self-defense, and killing in general.

Then, today at church we prayed for victims of gun violence:

We cry out to you [God], heal our land from the scourge of gun violence. In the coming days and weeks as our leaders debate solutions, Lord we ask that you grant us the voice to speak truth to power and demonstrate sacrificial compassion to the hurting.

That’s a good summary of the prayer I have mirrored in my soul as I write, so please forgive any sentiment you read that may come across the wrong way.

Now, some biblical background, since I’m a person of faith and since I call Jesus my Savior and my God.

Jesus / Swords

In our discussion, the point was made that Jesus tells his followers to purchase a sword in Luke 22:36. Here’s the ESV version of that verse:

36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Now we are reminded this is is Jesus talking. When it came up, I was reminded of the more intense moments Jesus has, namely his clearing out of the temple. There are couple Gospel passages that feature this event, so here’s one from John 2:13-22, which includes his use of some kind of whip:

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Do we have the makings of a religious zealot?

Does Jesus actually belong to the radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow Rome through the use of force? Is he a sicarii, a dagger person, who wants to quietly knife centurions and government officials that cause so much taxation and injustice toward the Jewish people?

Reza Aslan thinks so. He makes his case in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013]. He bases his case in large part on Luke 22:38, where the disciples apparently possess two swords, and Jesus responds by saying, in the ESV translation, “it is enough.”

Ok, two swords is enough? To overthrow an empire? To defend a group of Jewish men against a large armed force that would come to take Jesus?

I think not. 

You can disagree with me, but it seems two swords isn’t quite enough to take on the Jewish temple guards in addition to the Roman legions who really held the regional power.

Jesus confronts Peter just verses later, telling him to put away his sword. Here’s Luke 22:50-53 [ESV]:

…one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.

So why does Jesus say “it is enough” in Luke 22:38?

It’s a good thing we can study language, since this is all about how words are being used. In the Bible, the phrase Jesus uses is written in Koine Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament. It looks a bit like this:

Ἱκανόν ἐστιν

Literally, at face value, it means, “it is enough.”

Maybe you’ve said to your kids, or to your partner, or to a friend, “hey, that’s enough!” “That’s enough of that!”

“That’s enough!” is a far better rendering of Jesus’s words, for he clearly insists they put away their swords only a few verses later as the authorities close in to take him to his death. He even goes so far as to heal the gentleman affected by his disciple’s act of defense [the dude lops off an ear].

“That’s enough!” is precisely what the NIV and NLT translations contain, so I guess I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

Various grammatical configurations of that same phrase, Ἱκανόν ἐστιν, can be found in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it most often means “that’s enough of that!”

Ok, but what about Jesus instructing his followers to purchase swords in Luke 22:36?

For starts, I thought I’d look into a commentary. This is from the New American Commentary, and the citation is at the end of this post:

And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned. See 20:20–26, “Context.” The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).*

This author, with his biblical scholarship background, renders the idea of “buying a sword” as a metaphorical preparedness for future suffering and spiritual conflict. Early church history reveals a great deal of death among early Christians; volumes have been written on the subject, and the blood of martyrs has indeed been a source of faith for many.

Other readers, such as my friend and former teacher, Peter Simmonds, take this passage as literal. He thinks Jesus is simply telling his followers to buy swords and defend themselves out on the road. That’s certainly possible.

So, I thought I’d check another commentary, an older tome translated from its original German. The original publishing date was 1872. Here’s the English translation of the commentary on verse 36:

Vs. 36. Therefore He said.—Οῦ̓ν subjoins the opposite of their acknowledgment, that at that time they did not lack the least thing. He that hath a purse, let him take it, ἀράτω: Let him not leave it at home, but take it with him on the journey, in order by so careful a preparation to assure himself against any possibility of a lack. Even so let him who possesses a wallet, hasten to avail himself of it. And he that hath not, neither purse nor wallet, let him sell his garment, which he otherwise would at last expose to robbery, and buy—not a purse or a wallet, but what is now more indispensable than clothing and food—a sword. Self-defence is now not only an urgent necessity, but the first necessity of all. This last word we have to understand, not in an allegorical, but in a parabolical sense. If one understands (Olshausen) the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17), he is then also obliged to give to the garment, the wallet, and the shoes a spiritual signification. Our Lord will simply, in a concrete pictorial form, represent to His disciples the right and the duty of necessary defence, in order that they may, by the very opposition to the former command (vs. 35), finally come to the consciousness that an entirely peculiar danger shall break in upon them.**

Oosterzee insists we read Jesus’s command in a parabolic sense. He likens the sword to the spiritual sword referenced in Ephesians 6:17, a passage that uses military language to refer to our spiritual defense against the power of spiritual forces within a dark world.

If I were to go back even further, to early church manuscripts on the subject, they would reveal similar things. To be sure, one could probably dig up scholars who have come to a different conclusion on the topic, but the point stands Jesus is concerned here about spiritual self-defense, not about promoting sword ownership in the 1st century or gun ownership in the 21st century.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus’s disciples were almost all killed for their allegiance to Him.

Indeed, every time we read Scripture, we take it into context; a text without a context is a pretext! In this context, I agree with the commentary in reading the command to purchase swords as metaphorical, for Jesus commands his disciples to put away their swords so immediately. Jesus so radically condemns violence elsewhere in the Gospels that this command to buy swords sticks out like a sore thumb. When taken literally, doesn’t square theologically with Jesus’s central teachings.

One more thought on that matter. Most American Christians would not read Jesus’s strong moral injunctions as literal. For example, the whole bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle and how that’s about how challenging it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God [Mt. 19:24/Mk. 10:25/Lk. 18:25]. That subject hits a bit close to home, so we tidy it up as metaphorical. Point made?

Even a cursory glance through the Sermon on the Mount forces one to reconsider how we are to approach violence and even self-defense. Don’t murder, and don’t even call someone a fool! Forget an eye for an eye; turn your cheek! Love your enemy and pray for those who seek to harm you!

If Jesus’s encouragement to buy swords in Luke 22:36 is to be taken literally, it’s a theologically frail case, and it doesn’t hold water when taken alongside the rest of Jesus’s words-or with early church history. There have been volumes written on Christian non-violence, and this post only alludes briefly to some of the highlights. There exists a lively debate on the subject, of course, and I would enjoin you to be a part of it.

But I do join a host of others who are on similar biblical and theological footing, so if you want to read more, here is a great list to get started.

Now, about the land of the free.

Our American Context / Politics / 2nd Amendment

All of that said, I am a 21st century American. It’s no longer a sword debate; it’s a gun debate. Now let me put my cards on the table. I’m a white guy from the American Midwest-Northwest Michigan in particular; I grew up reading the NRA magazine which featured [I’m guessing it still features this, though I no longer read the magazine] personal stories of how guns helped people defend themselves in their homes and businesses; I also went to a primarily white, evangelical church, which contained plenty of NRA supporters as well as many who held to an opposing viewpoint on guns.

I even owned a gun for about a decade, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

I grew up hunting with my dad, and given the chance, I’d hunt tonight [opening day in Michigan for rifles was four days ago!]. I wholeheartedly support gun hunting, and I especially appreciate how hunting is local, and how the meat is organic, grass-fed-and typically really cheap when you put together all the factors.

I digress.

My Personal Journey

Anyway, hunting aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty that everyone loves to philosophize about: that hypothetical moment your house is suddenly invaded by a hostile enemy seeking to kill you and do terrible things to your kids and wife.

It’s a very unusual scenario for most NRA members and law-abiding gun owners, but it’s an important ethical question nonetheless. As I reflect on this question, I consider my own experiences, which can be excellent teachers.

The first of which comes from sometime in my college years, when I learned in-person that one of my uncles had received his concealed-carry license, which allowed him to carry a small weapon in most public places. I remember asking him, “would you really shoot someone if they broke into your house?”

He replied, “yes Ben, I’d shoot them, and I’d shoot to kill. I have it from good sources that it’s a legally bad idea to simply maim someone; they could sue the shirt off your back. I’d shoot to kill and not ask questions.”

I was taken aback. I cannot imagine the moral weight of killing someone, especially with no questions asked. I’m sure there is another home-defense ethic that departs from my uncle’s view, but hey, a lot of people agree with him.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in sub/urban Grand Rapids. It was urban yet suburban, you see? Anyway, I walk home from work one day and there’s caution tape across my sidewalk. I asked the cops if I could return to my house, and they let me through. I soon discovered, through my roommate, that he had heard gunshots just minutes prior.

The story was ghastly.

My next-door neighbor, Gary, and his estranged adult son became involved in a dispute. Four shots later, he killed him in his own living room.

Dead. 

The gravity of the act set in for me a couple weeks later when I noticed Gary moving new couches in. Maybe it was coincidence and Gary needed new couches, but it certainly seemed as if they had been soaked in his own son’s blood. Did Gary have to kill his son? Was there another option? Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer.

Fast forward again. I’m married now, living in true urban Grand Rapids. One night we notice some things out of place, and Kaile is freaking out about whether someone had come into our house. We locked the doors, called the police, and nothing came of it.

That is, until a few weeks later. As we returned from church, I saw my young neighbor climbing down a ladder. He was in a real hurry, and I confronted him. “Hey, where are you going with that?” “Oh, the other neighbor said they needed the ladder!” I didn’t buy it, so I asked a few more questions and promptly went inside to call the police.

Sure enough, our home had been entered, at least once and probably several times. And it was almost certainly the same group of kids both times.

A few months later, I finally decided since my hunting career appeared to be going nowhere and my convictions about shooting someone-even in self defense-had slowly changed, I decided I’d sell my gun [responsibly]. I simply cannot read Christian Scripture and square the act of shooting someone, even in one’s home, even in self-defense.

That’s just me, mind you.

Now, let’s reverse to when I was finishing up 8th grade. There’s an NRA catchphrase and bumpersticker that originates in the mid-seventies:

“I Will Give Up My Gun When They Peel My Cold Dead Fingers From Around It.”

Charlton Heston later re-popularized it during a pro-gun speech in May 2000 [8th grade for me]:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!‘” 

NRA.Heston

Unsurprisingly, it showed up on the NRA I read in my home not long after the speech.

There’s a real connection in our country to the 2nd Amendment, and not without some compelling arguments. It’s treated almost as a sacred text in some circles. Among the primary examples is this: if fair gun control laws are extended, criminals won’t obey anyway!

Well if that’s our logic, let’s not have speed limits either, since criminals [and many of us!] routinely disobey those too!

I grew up around a community that embraced this cold-dead-hands attitude. And though I challenge aspects of this mentality, I have respect for those who done the ethical work and searched their conscience to conclude that they would indeed use a gun, in an extreme circumstance. Though I disagree and have lots of reasons for my own beliefs, I respect their conclusions.

They have the right, after all.

Gun Control / Research / My Conclusion

That said, I posit the politics related to taking a closer look at how guns are sold and the 2nd Amendment is carried out [remember, its’ phrasing begins with “A well regulated militia…”!] is a different thing entirely.

There is research that correlates the total number of firearms with total deaths. Go do the search, please don’t take my word for it; but it’s real. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. I recently got some pushback for making this observation, and the line of thinking was this:

“That is undeniable, but it is little different than saying there is a correlation of drowning in countries with higher proportions of pools, lakes or ponds. I think it’s a red herring. …The real question would be: is there a correlation between the total number of guns in a city/state/country and the violent crime rate? Or the total suicide rate? If guns kill people, it should follow that there would be more killing where there are guns, and less killing where there aren’t guns. Similarly, there should be less violent crime where there are less guns. I posit that talk about gun deaths and gun suicides doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we’ve been told to believe.”

These are some great points. To take it piecemeal, at least we are in agreement about the essential facts of the matter. More guns=more gun deaths. But is there higher homicide? Well.. yes, there is, at least according to a study conducted between 1980 and 2010. Read it for yourself.

There’s more pushback, to be sure. There are plenty of stories, as I mentioned earlier, about responsible citizens defending their homes and businesses. It is true that guns can be used responsibly, and this does happen regularly. But that does not outweigh the deaths. This gets interesting, because it is politically charged, and there are agendas at stake. Here’s an article to get some conversation going.

But that’s, you know, “liberal media.” 

Let’s try putting on our thinking caps and seeing this from another angle. Let’s say, hypothetically, we all get our concealed permit licenses and .38s or 9mms or .45s. Pick your style, revolver or modern semi-auto, whatever floats your boat. Would crime decrease? Or would criminals simply arms themselves more heavily and plan a bit better? Would communities come together and begin to trust one another more? Or would society begin to splinter more, even, than what we see presently?

According to the research to which I have alluded, this hypothetical society with at least one sidearm per person would actually have more crime than our current setup. And I dare to say there would be a lot less trust of one’s neighbor.

And I’ll add this: do we really want to live like that? Do we want do distrust our neighbor with such vehemence that we all carry weapons? I get that there are particular situations where this kind of distrust follows logically. Some of us live in unsafe areas. However, of the many responsible gun-owners I know, every single one lives in a safe area. This whole vigilante-justice/defend-my-family scenario rarely happens.

I’ll take that a step further. I often hear suicide-related conversations going this way: “if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll find away; even if they don’t have access to a gun, they’ll use pills or jump off a bridge.” Yeah, there is some truth to that; the human will is a powerful force indeed. Guns make it easier, but if the will is there, it’s insuppressible.

But let’s use that same they’ll-find-a-way logic in the case of someone like Adam Lanza, the perpetrator at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. He killed his mom, then proceeded to use her gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, to kill 20 kids between 6 and 7 years old, plus 6 adults, not including his mother.

Hopefully that point is sinking in: the people-kill-people/they’ll-find-a-way-if-they-want-to logic works both ways. Adam wanted to kill, so he found guns to do it. If we ignore the link between the total number of guns and the total number of deaths, we miss an important point: access to guns makes a difference, even if we’re the good guys. For those of us with kids, the Sandy Hook shooting was terrifying. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I do now, and I cannot imagine the horror involved.

All of this said, I continue to respect the gun owner who keeps their arsenal under lock and key, and who is careful about gun-related security. And as I have also said, I do agree that guns can be a perfectly useful tool. Some part ways with me on this point, but while I don’t particularly enjoy the phrasing of the Second Amendment as a “right,” I have no problem with responsible gun ownership.

It’s just a bit jarring when so much of our world has no access to food or water and we Americans are quibbling about owning guns as a “right.” So many have not the “right” to even drink water while we insist on the “right” to have guns. Maybe we could think of it more like a privilege.

And I do question the necessity of such powerful guns as were possessed by Adam Lanza’s mom. Semi-automatic assault rifles? Is that a real need for the typical hunter? Well, no, it’s not. And I understand they will not be peeled from anyone’s cold, dead hands anytime soon. Shooting guns can be can be lots of fun, I have enjoyed trap shooting and target practice as much as the next person. But that does not mean they are not a liability.

Consider the story of a friend I went to high school with years ago.

He is a veteran, gun enthusiast, and fierce supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That said, his service in the military has for him, as for many, come at a cost. He wrote courageously in a social media thread about his responsible use of firearms during dark seasons in his life:

“…I will say this, personally the times when I’ve felt on edge, when I’ve felt the severe urge to end myself, I’ve given my firearms to a friend until I get back to a better place. And that just goes with good training and knowing oneself. Did getting rid of my firearms for a couple nights make the problem go away? Fuck no. Because I knew there were any number of ways I could still take my life.”

I really appreciate the honesty. And I’ve expressed my sincere gratitude for the sacrifices of veterans in this very blog; my concerns are not about that.

Yet, though I am thankful my friend gave his guns to a friend during a trying time, I fear there are many who share not the same restraint. For example, Devin Kelley, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church massacre who took the lives of 26 people ranging in age from a mother and her unborn child, a toddler, teens, adults, and elderly.

Yes, many of us know that a gentlemen shot at and wounded Kelley then pursued him on the freeway before he crashed his SUV a few miles later. Yes, maybe if people in the congregation were carrying, they could have stopped him.

So let’s all beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears and kill that next attacker..? That is the response of so many, and I see why. There is a potential to save some. But my concern is that what we may gain hypothetically will be lost in reality. 

Despite our concealed carry laws and the staggering 310 million guns owned in our country, not a single mass shooting in the past 33 years has been stopped by a responsible gun owner. Not even Sutherland Springs-they were close, but still too late.

Continuing the vigilante/defend-my-family conversation, here’s something I recently saw on Twitter:

Now this, at least in my experience, is the typical mentality that so often goes into a typical philosophy of self-defense. Rarely is it, “oh goodness, I hope never to have to make the decision to kill, even if it’s in self-preservation.” So often it’s what you see here. So often the American philosophy is, “oh, just wait until I get my chance to show ’em who’s boss.” 

Just like driving a car [especially a powerful one] gives us a sense of control and aggression [consider our problem with road rage], carrying a gun also gives us a feeling of power. And according to a 2014 FBI study, it also makes one 8 times more likely to be shot and killed in an argument than be killed trying to stop a crime.

I guess real life isn’t quite like the movies.

Even Christians have this smug I’ll-stop-the-bad-guy mentality, and as you read above, even pastors. “They better know God because they would be meeting Him that day.” Thanks for capitalizing Him, pastor, that’s grammatically respectful of God. But what’s with the egotistical attitude?

Would that it were not so common.

And I’m not saying he is outside his rights whatsoever. As I said, I respect those who have come to the conclusion that they would, under extreme circumstances, shoot to defend themselves. But I am saying this kind of smug self-confidence fueled by a firearm has absolutely no place among the people of God. 

My hope for the average non-Christian American is to consider the research and go about the conversation thoughtfully. So many are already doing this. My hope for my fellow Christians is to do the same, but to go further by considering the example of our teacher, mentor, and Savior, Jesus, who laid down his life for ours. Keep your guns, if that’s your honest conclusion, but please put away the smug attitudes and remember the false sense of power guns can grant their owner.

Picture Jesus carrying a Smith and Wesson .45 and you have to admit it’s a strange image.   I admit that I wonder what the world might be like if we were as devoted to Jesus’s teachings in the same way we’re devoted to 18th century constitutional literature.

Now let’s go back to personal experience. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “wow, this guy doesn’t even care about his family, he wouldn’t defend them.” That would be a logical thing to wonder. Well it’s not something I have glossed over. True, I have done pretty well over the years. We have only been broken into twice, and it was just kids. I was pushed off my bike a while back, but verbal deescalation did the trick. But I guess I honestly haven’t been in a life-threatening situation.

I’ll gladly answer the age-old hypothetical question by telling you the conclusion I’ve come to based on my convictions and life experience. I’d first do my best to help my family escape a life-threatening situation. I’d try to deescalate verbally. I’d phone law enforcement if possible. I do not keep much cash around or valuables. I’m no Schwarzenegger, but I can grapple and I am trained to physically restrain another person, and in the unlikely event of an attack I have no problem using the physical agency I have been given.

Though all of this is helpful, it wouldn’t help me if I was cornered with my family in my apartment without a phone. If that were to be how I would meet my end, I guess I’d pray in my soul while shielding my wife and our two toddler boys, and do my best to absorb the bullets with my physical body.

And if I didn’t make it, emergency services would have to peel my family members, alive or otherwise, from my cold, dead hands. 

***

 

 

 

*Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 555). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (pp. 342–343). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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One thought on “From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

  1. […] My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.”  […]

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