My first reaction to the comments Jerry Falwell Jr. made about guns and shooting “those Muslims” was to wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. Or following the same Jesus.
Falwell probably didn’t intend for his remarks to be taken as a serious theological reflection on Christianity and the use of violence. And that’s the problem.
There is a distressing lack of reflection behind these comments. What do we find when we hold them up to the words of Jesus and see how they compare?
There are three things Jesus said that I think are worth considering, as we evaluate the prevailing attitude toward guns and our willingness to use them on enemies perceived and real.
1. “That’s enough!”
In defending Falwell’s remarks, some have appealed to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. The argument put forward is that these swords were intended for self-defense; therefore Jesus must have been OK with his followers using lethal force in at least some cases.
The problem is, this view doesn’t hold up in view of the larger context:
- Jesus made it clear why he told the disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53, a passage predicting the Messiah would be falsely associated with evildoers, despite committing “no violence.” How can a call to arms fulfill a prophecy about a Messiah who doesn’t fight? Answer: it doesn’t because this is not a call to arms. Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kind of Messiah the world expects—not to mention the kind many of us seem to expect—and the kind of Messiah that God gave us.
- The disciples respond by telling Jesus they already have two swords—which, according to Jesus, is enough. If the intent was insurrection or self-defense, how are two swords among twelve people supposed to be enough? Answer: they’re not, because they were never meant to be used for violence.
- Zack Hunt raises another important point: if Jesus really intended for his disciples to carry (and possibly use) swords, “Why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in?” And why is there no criticism in the New Testament for their apparent failure to take Jesus’ words at face value? Answer: because that’s not how Jesus meant for them to take his words.
Jesus’ response to the disciples that night—“That’s enough!”—is emphatic. It’s a rebuke. Even after three years with Jesus, his disciples still don’t get it.
Apparently, neither do we.
If the context of Luke 22:36 doesn’t make it clear that Jesus is not endorsing violence, then the next thing he says about swords ought to.
2. “Put your sword back in its place.”
Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him with a sword… likely one of the same swords that was presented to him earlier that evening.
Jesus does not simply condemn violence on this occasion—as if there were a temporary cessation of the normal rules permitting violence while he allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus denounces the futility of all violence everywhere:
“All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
This is nothing new. This is what he’s been saying his entire ministry. In Luke 13, when he’s told some insurgent Galileans have been slaughtered by the Roman governor, he warns: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
He’s not talking in generalities. He’s not talking about “perish” as in eternal destiny. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent of your bloodlust—if you don’t renounce the urge to fight violence with violence—you will meet the same end as your Galilean compatriots.”
All who draw the sword.
Back in Gethsemane, as Jesus is led away, he asks what ought to be a simple question: “Am I leading a violent uprising, that you have come out with swords and clubs?”
The obvious answer is no. The questions we should ask are:
What does it look like to walk in the footsteps of a Messiah who refused to fight?
What does it mean to be imitators of Christ when people come at us with swords and clubs? Or when we’re afraid they might do so?
3. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
I had a t-shirt with this phrase on it when I was a kid. I thought it meant we weren’t supposed to behave like the rest of world: we don’t listen to the same music, watch the same movies, or have sex the way the world does.
The truth is, being a Christian does mean being different from the rest of the world. But the stakes are much, much higher than that.
Jesus spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor—the same governor who slaughtered those independence-minded Galileans. Pilate was trying to get at whether Jesus imagined himself a king—and therefore, whether he was a threat to Rome.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. Hardly the most reassuring answer he could have given, under the circumstances. But what makes his kingdom “not of this world”? The fact that his followers don’t take up arms.
“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”
What Falwell’s words—and the support for them—reveal is that we really don’t want to do things God’s way. We don’t really like his plan for the world. We don’t care for his blueprint for the kingdom.
What it shows is that we don’t trust Jesus enough to take him at his word. We don’t think all those things he said about enemy love actually work.
Most of all, it shows we don’t want to walk the path Jesus walked—a path that leads to a cross. But as my friend Tim Gombis writes, there is no other path for us to walk:
The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.
The kingdom God envisions comes by way of the cross, not through the barrel of a gun.
Images: YouTube, Claudio Ungari on Flickr (modified to add text) / CC BY 2.0