Cross and the Gun
by David Codrea
It's no secret that many of the major
churches support gun control, and tell their parishioners that gun ownership is wrong and
inconsistent with God's commandments.
It's also no secret that our nation's Founders were, for the most part, deeply religious men. Yet they found no conflict between their understanding of the Scriptures and their insistence that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
So what gives? Who should we listen to?
Will gun wackos like me find ourselves damned?
The following is not meant to be a sermon or an attempt to persuade anyone to embrace religious tenets of any faith. While I will explore some Biblical passages, the intent is to examine the contention of some that forsaking the means to resist violence is in concert with God's will.
Not that I consider myself an authority on that topic; but everything which follows can be examined and evaluated based on the merits of the arguments and the documentation cited. And then, like everything else that people of free will must do, you'll need to decide for yourself what you think makes sense.
Also, you will notice that this is written, of necessity, from a Catholic perspective. In fact, I believe you will find it applicable to Protestant considerations as well, and consistent with commandments presented in the Torah. Unfortunately, I do not have the breadth of knowledge to go further afield and explore the issue in light of Islamic or other doctrines, except to note that theocracies based on such religions always seem to be well armed.
Luke and the North Hollywood Shoot-out
The Tidings, the Catholic weekly journal of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, published an editorial in which they concluded that "we must redouble our efforts to get rid of guns." I wrote an editorial reply centering on biblical justification for bearing arms, which was published, albeit with several crucial paragraphs deleted by the editor.
My unabridged response follows:
Your editorial "Increasing Officers' Firepower Misses Point" misses several points itself. The North Hollywood gunmen were never convicted for "possessing an arsenal of automatic weapons." Legal ownership of automatic firearms has been strictly licensed by the national government since 1934; were the claim true, this pair would be in federal prison today.
The call for "more sensible gun control laws" and the charge that the NRA has "defeated or watered down virtually every piece of legislation" is also belied by the facts. To date, over 20,000 gun control laws are on the books at the federal, state and local levels, with no effect whatsoever on gun availability to or use by criminals. The only people who obey such laws are the ones being victimized.
Demonizing categories of guns by labeling them "Saturday Night Specials" (which, according to civil rights leader Roy Innes of the Congress of Racial Equality has its origins in the racist term "N-town Saturday Night"), or "assault rifles" (which denies the moral concept of their defensive deployment) is a disingenuous strategy to erode the right to keep and bear arms by one arbitrary classification at a time.
Citing "murder" statistics does nothing to demonstrate the beneficial effects which lawfully-owned firearms provide. Studies from the Florida State University (which have been peer-reviewed and reluctantly accepted as valid by a top anti-gun criminologist) demonstrate that for every murder committed with a gun, over 160 citizens successfully fend off a criminal attack with a firearm, most of the time without firing a shot. Further studies from the University of Chicago show a dramatic drop in murders and rapes in those states which have enacted non-restrictive concealed weapons permit laws.
Still, the most troubling point which the editorial missed has nothing to do with gun laws or statistics or classifications of firearms, but rather with issues of faith and obedience to Scripture. Referencing Luke 22:36, where Jesus says "... he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one," results in a conflict between editorial opinion and the Lord's word.
Adding to this incongruity are the circumstances of the statement, as well as the target audience: the occasion was the Last Supper; the commandment was issued to His Disciples. Further reading shows them
informing Jesus that they have two swords, which He deems "enough" (Luke 22:38). It seems that He not only expected the men in His command to be armed, but that He assumed the role of tactician in determining the adequacy of their armaments.
Indeed, when beset upon at Gethsemane by an armed mob, the Disciples asked Jesus if they should "smite with the sword," and one, not waiting for instruction, did just that, severing the ear of a priest's servant (Luke 22:50). This incident is retold from different viewpoints in Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, and John 18:10, where we find the impetuous swordsman to be none other than Simon Peter, the first Bishop!
At this point, Jesus ordered Peter to put
up his sword and healed the hapless servant's ear, saying "they that take the sword
shall perish with the sword." This would appear to contradict His earlier instruction
unless, again, one considers the circumstances prompting such a remark, as well as some
possible motivations. The statement is not necessarily a repudiation of bearing arms in
self defense; if it were, His earlier commandment would have been inconsistent. However,
if one considers His observation to be a condemnation of bearing arms for the purpose of
unjust aggression, it takes on the qualities of both parable and prophecy, for which He
was noted, as well as makes sense, as evidenced by the likely fate of those who traffic in
violence (think about it-what's the leading cause of death for urban gang members?).
Also remember that Jesus and His men were surrounded by a horde bearing "swords and staves," so, again, it would be a statement of fact to acknowledge that resistance by so few against so many would be suicidal. Additionally, one must consider that Jesus' earlier prayer at Gethsemane had led to acknowledgement that His will would not "take away this cup" (Mark 14:36), resulting in acceptance that the impending ordeal was necessary to fulfill His life's purpose. Finally, had Jesus not stopped him, Peter would certainly have been killed, which would have also thwarted his life's mission and the grand design which Christ prophesied earlier: "...upon this rock I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18).
By now it might not be out of line to ask why The Tidings has jumped on the gun control bandwagon, condemning gun ownership when the Bible says Jesus commanded his men to carry weapons. He ensured that their weaponry was adequate and His hand-picked lieutenant not only carried a weapon, but had no qualms about using it protectively and defensively.
Considering that our freedom of expression
and religion were won and preserved at the point of a gun, and the same Constitution which
guarantees these freedoms also recognizes our right to keep and bear arms, I can only ask
why any Catholic would stump for gun control? Especially when the passages cited above
seem to indicate that the Object of their worship would command them otherwise, and that
the founding Primate of the Church was himself armed?
Part 2: Luke and the Berkeley Alternative
The following week, The Tidings published a letter by the Rev. Patrick Mullen from that wellspring of left- leaning social activism, Berkeley, California. Not surprisingly Father Mullen refuted my interpretation of the Scripture. You'll see his key points in the text that follows. Bottom line, he thinks I'm all wet.
Here is my response to Father Mullen:
Dear Father Mullen,
Thank you for your thought-provoking rebuttal to my letter. It was my intent to stimulate debate on the gun control issue in front of a readership which probably doesn't run across my point of view very often; a debate certainly seems to be what I got.
I will say that many of the points which you covered were addressed in my original letter, and were edited from the published version.
If I may borrow your technique, I will paraphrase your main points as follows: 1) I am simplistic in my assumption that Jesus commanded His disciples to buy swords. According to Catholic researchers, the sword was a metaphor for spiritual preparedness; and, 2) Christians have no moral use for firearms. It is better to follow the example of Jesus and go to the slaughter without resistance.
Not having read the dissertations of the researchers you cited, I am unable to comment on the level of research which they have devoted to Luke 22:36-38. I am, however, prepared to disagree with their conclusions, especially if they were reached for the reasons cited in your letter.
I must confess that I find it curious when scholars set themselves up as better capable of understanding the meanings of Christ's words than the men who lived with Him; men who heard Him speak plainly and in parable
on numerous occasions, and over the course of His ministry, and who would presumably know the difference. When He spoke of a "sword," they thought He meant just that! And when they said they had two, He didn't say "What are you doing with those things? Get rid of them!" He said "It is enough."
Actually, looking at the Greek source for this passage, the word used was "machaira" (makh'-ahee-rah), and it was a very special kind of sword. Derived from the root word "mache" (mach'-ay), meaning fighting, strife, combat, of those in arms, battle, etc., the machaira was a short thrusting weapon, designed for close infighting. This also allowed for concealment, a requirement when you consider the need for discrete deployment of weapons under Roman occupation, plus it was readily affordable by common people- kind of the "Saturday night special" of its day. This specificity as to type of sword also makes the metaphor theory a bit less plausible- if I tell you to get a gun, I may be speaking figuratively; if I say get a .32 cal. semi-automatic, your options for interpretation become less clear.
As for the assertion that "two swords for a group no less than 12 would clearly have been insufficient," I must ask insufficient for what? They were going forth onto city streets, not to a battle. Prudence would dictate having the means of defense at hand, but that doesn't require having the entire group bristling with weaponry. Still, they routinely journeyed between towns on roads where the rule of law gave way to highwaymen. They traveled within towns, in the worst sections, where thieves and cutthroats plied their trade. Jesus was a controversial figure- groups of fanatics sought to stone Him. As a parallel, we can look at controversial religious leaders from our own civil rights struggles who routinely had (often illegally) armed bodyguards among their entourage.
And, perhaps this is a nit, but your conclusions are represented as the result of biblical scholarship, so their accuracy is essential; the group Christ spoke to was "less than 12." To be precise, it was 11-Judas had already left on his errand of betrayal.
To me, it is key that Jesus knew His men were armed and never commanded them to disarm. And even if we allow for His speaking metaphorically by telling the disciples to prepare for the time to come, He gave examples of utilitarian items (a purse to keep money in, a bag for necessities and a sword for protection).
Father Mullen, it is my contention that if the Church agrees with your analysis of keeping and bearing arms, it should (and could) forbid their private ownership by Catholics. What we find, instead, is "in a world marked by evil and sin, the right of legitimate defense by armed means exists (Vatican Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace)." And we find Saint Gabriel Possenti, a 19th-Century Italian monk who displayed "astonishing marksmanship" in saving a young girl and his monastery's village from a gang of mercenaries.
The wisdom of heeding the Council, and of looking to Brother Possenti as an example of the legitimacy of armed defense is borne out by studies from the University of Florida, which have been peer-reviewed and found valid by a top anti-gun criminologist; armed citizens deter around 2.5 million crimes each year. Further studies from the University of Chicago demonstrate that states which have enacted non-restrictive concealed carry laws show a dramatic decrease in murders, rapes and aggravated assaults.
To suggest that 2.5 million crime victims and thousands of murder, rape and assault victims never lift a hand in their own defense seems to me an invitation to genocide. Indeed, consider the words of Maurice Markhoim, one of "Schindler's Jews" who observed, "At the time, if someone told me 'you gonna die anyway,' and give [sic] me a gun in my hand, I would go and kill. But there was nobody who gave us a gun."
Should Mr. Markhoim have followed the example of Jesus and gone unresisting to his grave? Were the Allied liberators of concentration camps wrong to do so under force of arms? Would this century's 57,000,000 disarmed victims of state-sponsored genocide, from Ottoman Turkey to present-day Rwanda, agree with your conclusions that there is no justification for an armed citizenry in contemporary times?
Casting out the buyers, sellers and lenders from the temple shows a Jesus willing to initiate appropriate physical confrontations. That He did not resist the cross speaks not for pacifism, but of necessity to fulfill His life's purpose. The innocent casualties of crime and holocaust are not required to drink from that cup. In the words of a 1747 Philadelphia sermon, "He that suffers his life to be taken from him by one who has no authority for that purpose, when he might preserve it by defense, incurs the Guilt of self murder since God has enjoined him to seek the continuance of his life, and Nature itself teaches every creature to defend [it]self."
I doubt that I convinced Father Mullen to embrace my philosophy. I don't even know if this prompted him to say a prayer for me. Still, until he, or someone else in the religious gun ban camp does a better job of refuting my arguments, I'll just have to keep blundering along trying to discern some sense of reconciliation between my beliefs, my intuitions and my observations.
And I'll keep my sword.
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