I just read a post on National Review arguing that Christianity is in part about armed self-defense and the Second Amendment. I kid you not. Christianity is now apparently compatible with the gun lobby. For some reason, this particular statement from Jesus – one of the most famous in all of human history – doesn’t appear in the post:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
The great drama of the Passion requires absolute nonviolence in the face of even immense injustice. Not only did Jesus not resist the violence done to him, he refused even to offer a word of self-defense in front of Pilate. When Peter used a sword to cut off the ear of one who had come to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus’ response is unequivocal:
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people… Jesus said [to Judas], “Do what you came for, friend.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
He then heals the wound created in self-defense. The whole point of Christianity, on a personal level, is a refusal to use violence even in self-defense and even when one’s own life is threatened. For centuries, this radical nonviolence was celebrated by the church in its canonization of martyrs who chose to be mauled alive by animals than submit to the civil order’s paganism. Martyrdom was the first and ultimate form of nonviolent resistance to injustice and, like the Christian-rooted civil rights movement or Gandhi’s campaign for independence, it was precisely this staggering refusal to defend oneself, the insistence on being completely disarmed, that changed global consciousness. It was what made Christians different. It’s what made Martin Luther King Jr different. To use Jesus as an advocate of armed self-defense is almost comical if it were not so despicable.
I can see much more worldly arguments for physical self-defense, course; it is at the core of the modern Hobbesian and Lockean model for Western civilization. In a fallen world, there is also a case for just war (but one that Aquinas had to come up with, for Jesus was uninterested). Machiavelli went even further – but there is a reason he is associated with evil, and remains one of Christianity’s greatest intellectual foes. And I can see David French’s point about defending one’s family. But here’s another news alert to the allegedly Christian right: so far as we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus disowned his family in public in his teens and abandoned them on his ministry, telling his disciples to abandon theirs – and their entire source of income – as well. Jesus, we are told, said the following words – outrageous today, unimaginably heretical in its time:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
This man is now a symbol for “pro-family” and “pro-gun” Republicanism. And yet he had no property to defend, no wife to protect, no children to keep safe, no house to live in. He never carried a weapon and rebuked his friends when they used one against a mob armed with clubs and swords about to arrest and torture him to death. He was homeless, completely dependent on the good will, shelter and food of others. He was, as today’s Republicans would say, a “taker”. But of course, it is in giving that you receive in Christianity. Jesus inverted the entire maker-taker paradigm. So no, congressman Ryan, you cannot be a disciple of Ayn Rand and Jesus of Nazareth. In any way whatsoever.
In my view, Jesus should not be dragged into any of our current policy debates. The issue of gun control in this country at this time is complex and worth debating in civil and secular terms. I think we can make things a little safer, but given the ubiquity of guns and the Constitution of the US, I wouldn’t expect much that doesn’t end up making things even worse. Bishops who pontificate on this in political contexts are equally violating Jesus’ apolitical spirit.
But when Jesus’s example is used to defend violence, to celebrate self-defense, to find ways to look away from the mass murder of children, beware. Jesus’ response to unspeakable violence was unconditional surrender and yet more still:
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
(Painting: The Taking Of Christ by Carravaggio)