As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,” http://www.nytimes.com, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.
What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.
To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.
So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 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.”
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:
“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 children of your Father in heaven.”
Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!
For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.
It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?
If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)
Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”
The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate? Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”
This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.
I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.
So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!