Can a Christian Own a Gun for Self-defense?

Some religious people--dubbed "pacifist-aggressives" by Eugene Volokh--attempt to use the force of law to make other people live according to a pacifist philosophy. In a new article for America's First Freedom, I address the claim that the New Testament compels pacifism.

Some caveats: 1. It's a large PDF file. 2. The article presumes, for the sake of argument, that everything in the Gospels and the Book of Acts is literally true. 3. The thesis of the article is refutation of the claim of a pacifist mandate, rather than arguing that Gospels/Acts provide clear instruction on all issues regarding self-defense or defense of others. 4. The article does not address non-scriptural arguments for pacifism--such as the Quaker belief that a person who conscientiously listens to his inner light will eventually discern pacifist principles in his own heart.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Weapons of Jesus and the Disciples:
  2. Can a Christian Own a Gun for Self-defense?
Weapons of Jesus and the Disciples:

One of the unexpected ways that has helped me as a writer and researcher is the very interesting reader analysis that I receive for articles that were written for a different publication. For example, the Rocky Mountain News website has an on-line forum for reader comments about my bi-weekly media analysis columns. But the comments posted there tend to very short, and often consist of not much more than simply agreeing or disagreeing with what I wrote. In contrast, when I create a short post of the VC, with a link to the column, VC readers will often offer many extended comments, some of which provide additional insights into the topic. It's an unexpected, and constructive media synergy.

As many VC readers know, I also write frequently for America's First Freedom, one of the NRA member magazines. AFF has no on-line published feedback for articles, and only some of the AFF articles are ever posted on the AFF website. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest AFF article, regarding whether the New Testament mandates pacifism. Unsurprisingly, many of the comments were very interesting. I'd like to address some issues raised by the commentators:

1. Since the NT plainly sanctions state violence (e.g., Romans 13), does this, in itself, negate all Christian pacifist arguments? My article, because of space limitations, only addressed the Gospels and Acts. I agree with the commenters who assert that it's intellectually plausible for the NT to sanction state violence, while requiring Christians to abstain from all violence--including by not serving as violent state actors. (That's separate from the question of whether the NT requires Christians to be pacifists in the first place.) The bifurcated view has the support of some eminent early Christian writers, such as Origen, as well as later ones, such as the great 20th century pacifist writer John Cadoux, who wrote that that he was rooting for the Allies to win WWII, even while arguing that Christians shouldn't participate in the fighting. Cadoux, Christian Pacifism Reexamined (Oxford, 1940), p. 141.

In practice, this view was sustainable only while Christians were a minority, without the responsibilities for running a state; in modern times, it's practicted only by Christian sects (e.g., Mennonites) who function as a small pacifist minority within a larger non-pacifist society.

2. Whether Jesus cleansing the Temple with a whip is really an anti-pacifist example. Reinhold Neibuhr, in his famous essay rejecting Christian pacifism, started off by saying that he was sick of people using the Temple cleansing as an anti-pacifist proof text. It's an issue I couldn't address in the magazine article, due to space limitations, but here's why I still think it's a story which tends to undermine pacifism (although it doesn't tell us anything about lethal force):

Even if you accept the etymological point that Jesus' whip was probably an animal control device, and you also infer (from silence) that he never hit anybody, Jesus still entered the Temple, damaged other people’s property, and frightened people into fleeing by brandishing a weapon, using it against innocent animals, and implicitly threatening people if they dared to remain in the Temple. It is hardly the behavior of a meek person who never does anything violent.

The great pacifist historian of the early church, John Cadoux, pointed out that all four Gospels use a Greek word meaning "to cast out," and the word is repeatedly used elsewhere in the New Testament in non-violent contexts, including a man removing money from his purse. C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (N.Y.: Seabury Pr., 1982)(1st pub. 1919), pp. 34-35; Luke 10:35. Cadoux continued that the word used in the cleansing of the Temple "need mean no more than an authoritative dismissal. It is obviously impossible for one man to drive out a crowd by physical force or even by the threat of it." Cadoux, p. 35.

Well not really. One man using a weapon, even a non-lethal weapon such as an animal scourge, can often clear a room pretty quickly. Especially if the other people in the room are unarmed, surprised, and (as disarmed subjects of a foreign dictatorship) used to being be submissive to force. The room-clearing is all the easier if the man with the weapon has a strong and fearless personality. It even easier if the man is backed by a wildly cheering crowd in a religious frenzy (such as the crowd that had, in Matthew’s version, just welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem and proclaimed him the messiah).

3. What kind of swords the disciples carried. Some commenters have engaged in a discussion of whether they were machetes, which might be true, although I don't see that changing the point of the story. Some additional facts about the sword issue:

The Apostle Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3). It's possible that, as a state actor, he might have been exempt from the Roman prohibition on Jewish sword-carrying, which was enacted sometime between 35 B.C. and 5 A.D.

The typical Roman sword of the Republic was the gladius Hispaniensis, whose blade was approximately thirty inches long. In the first century A.D., the gladius was replaced by the Pompeii-type sword, whose blade was only sixteen inches. "The Roman Sword In The Republican Period And After." The latter type of sword would have been relatively easy to carry concealed, especially under loose garments.

In 1694, the Quaker author Thomas Maule tried to refute the pro-weapons implication of the Two Swords text by arguing that the law is the first sword, and Jesus is the second sword. This is an imaginative symbolic reading, but it is utterly contrary to the sense of the passage to assert that there were no real swords involved. A sermon during the American Revolution addressed the Quaker claim:

I think I need not stand long here to confute that impertinency of a conceit that these were spiritual swords....Indeed I could hardly be brought to believe they [Quakers] did hold such an error, if I had not been informed by a person of credit, who assured me he had it from the mouth of one of their speakers or teachers.
O horrid blasphemy! Purchase the spirit of God, or the sword of the spirit, or a spiritual sword, with the price of an old garment. Surely if this was true, then the purse and scrip must be spiritual too, and these bought by selling of old garments; and yet they would be such spiritual swords as would cut off carnal ears and such as would be both visible and sensible, and two of them would be enough.
A Moderate Whig (probably Stephen Case), "Defensive Arms Vindicated and The Lawfulness of the American War Made Manifest" (published in 1783, delivered in 1779), reprinted in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1990), p. 765.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Weapons of Jesus and the Disciples:
  2. Can a Christian Own a Gun for Self-defense?