Friday, July 20, 2007

Did Jesus defend our right to bear arms?

According to a feature entitled “God Not Guns,” broadcast on July 13, 2007 on the PBS program Religion and Ethics, a number of white Evangelical Christians oppose gun control and even find a passage from the Bible that they claim supports their view that Christians have a right to arm themselves. One minister interviewed on the program was Pastor David Whitney of the Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Maryland. He says the American public would be surprised at how many pastors favor guns. Churches, he said, “should be involved in helping arm and train people to use handguns effectively.” Members of his congregation, he says “understand that we have the biblical right of self-defense. Jesus said, ‘If you don't have a sword, go buy one’—for the purpose of self-defense.” So let's examine this “biblical right of self-defense.”

A quick search for the word sword in a Bible concordance shows that there is only one passage in the Bible where Jesus apparently endorses the purchase of a sword, namely, Luke 22:36-37:

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet. Whoever has none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with the lawless.’ For that which concerns me has an end.”

There is a saying that a text without a context is a pretext, so let us examine the context of this passage.

The passage occurs in the context of Luke's narrative of the Passover feast that Christians commonly call the Last Supper. Peter has just declared that he will follow Jesus to prison and even to death, at which point Jesus says that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows. He then asks his apostles whether they lacked anything when he had earlier instructed them to go forth without purse, wallet and shoes. They say they lacked nothing. He then delivers the lines cited above

According to notes on this passage in Luke in The HarperCollins Study Bible, the line “He was counted with the lawless.” refers to Isaiah 53:12

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

The passage in Isaiah occurs in a chapter describing the sacrificial lamb.

Isa 53:3 He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we didn't respect him. 4 Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering; yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.

Immediately after Jesus refers to this passage in Isaiah, his apostles say that they have two swords. Jesus replies simply “That is enough.” Enough for what? Enough for defending Jesus and all twelve disciples from the Romans who were coming to arrest him? The aforementioned study Bible suggests that the passage means that the swords are emblematic; perhaps two is enough to fulfill predictions in scripture.

That the swords were not be be used for self-defense becomes clear in the rest of the narrative that immediately follows. As Luke tells the story, Jesus twice warns his disciples not to fall into temptation. Then the arresting party arrives, and one of the apostles draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Jesus instantly responds to this act of violence by healing the person who has been attacked with the sword. In the version of the story told in Matthew 26:52, Jesus instructs the armed apostle “Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword.”

Taken all together, this dramatic event in the life of Jesus hardly sounds like an endorsement of carrying weapons for self-defense. It is not clear how Pastor David Whitney could get such a message out of these passages. At best, his interpretation of the passage he cites seems far-fetched, perhaps motivated more by a desire to conform to the predispositions of his Maryland congregation than by a desire to portray accurately the teachings of Jesus.

P.S. Maryland, by the way, is a state that does not regulate the sale of rifles or shotguns and where no permit is required to purchase a rifle or shotgun. Apparently the lawmakers of the state agree with Pastor Whitney's views that guns need not be controlled; whether their thinking is based on Biblical considerations only God knows.