What Might Jesus Say about Buying a Gun?

What Might Jesus Say about Buying a Gun?

Olive trees in the traditional garden of Gethsemane (6409590197)
The Garden of Gethsamene

In the scuffle of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, there appears, in one of the disciples’ hands, a sword.  Did the disciples carry swords?  We wrack our brains.  If it was a Passover meal that Jesus and his disciples had just concluded, packing weapons would have been forbidden by Jewish standards.  Weapon carrying was neither done on the Sabbath nor Passover.  It doesn’t surprise us that the arresting mob comes clanking into the garden anxiously over-armed.  They had swords.   Jesus, with a hint of comedy, says, “Were you expecting a shoot-out with the Dillinger Gang this evening?”

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell this story as part of their Passion Narratives.  Unfortunately, they tell the story with enough variation to prevent us from drawing any sharp lesson.  Mark’s sword wielder isn’t even positively one of the disciples.  Matthew and Luke clarify that the sword bearer was someone on Jesus’ side, not someone from the arresting party.  We know from all four accounts that the sword cuts off a slave’s ear.  John names the disciple—Peter.   He also names the slave whose ear is cut off—Malchus.

Most importantly, we know that Jesus disapproves of the violence.

If Jesus hadn’t condemned the action, we would call Peter a “hero.”   Peter is ready to fulfill a promise that he made only an hour earlier when he said that he would “lay down his life” for Jesus. (John 13.36-38)    Peter is the lone warrior, sword drawn, ready to take on an armed mob, defending God’s greatest work in the world.  That’s heroism.

Peter is the lone warrior, sword drawn, ready to take on an armed mob, defending God’s greatest work in the world.  That’s heroism.

History, however, never comes to see Peter’s bluster as heroic.  Instead, the drawing of the sword is one more occasion when the disciples prove themselves to be out of step with Jesus’ values.  This succession of disciple goof-ups has been building through the last week in Jerusalem.  By the time the disciples get to Gethsemane every step they take is a misstep.   Back in the Upper Room, Jesus’ men insist that they will never abandon him.  They make this promise mere hours before they run away like rabbits into the underbrush to avoid the arresting party.  During the Last Supper, Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.   Peter makes a little scene, which doesn’t make him look very good.  Later, the disciples snooze as Jesus agonizes in prayer.   And now as the action peeks and the sword comes out, we see it as one more example of how out of whack with Jesus the disciples have managed to get themselves.

The troubling part of this episode in the garden, the part that surprises even the disciples, is that at the very point when Jesus most needed to be defended, he wanted to be defenseless.   The mob, which comes marching up Olivet to put an end to Jesus’ ministry, represents everything we despise.  The mob represents the Roman Empire, the imperial giant that crushes its little client, Judea.  The mob consists of agents from the religious big shots.  We learn here that the religion leaders have a little armed force that they can send out to do their bidding.   The whole episode is eerily like a lynching.  So when the good guy with a sword stands up to the bad guys with swords…well, it turns out that Jesus doesn’t like that.


The AR-15 Debate

Maundy Thursday this year, the holiday when Christians commemorate the Last Supper and events in the Garden of Gethsamane, takes places five days after the gigantic March for Our Lives protest in Washington D.C. and hundreds of other places.  As Easter 2018 approaches, a heated debate over guns engulfs the country.  What makes this debate a fresh development is that high school students, led by the survivors of the February 14, 2018 Parkland Florida massacre, have emerged as potent critics of the Gun Lobby and the cult of firearms in America.

At the center of the conflict is the AR-15, America’s widely available military-style rifle.  The AR-15 is the weapon that mass murderers reach for as their most lethal firearm available.   This gun, a human killing machine, is, significantly, the most popular rifle in this country.  Grandpa’s old under-over shotgun, which he oils up in the late Fall for duck season, is a quaint relic in comparison to the AR-15.  All of the recent mass shooting sprees, which have resulted in terrifying carnage, are the result of the availability, flexibility, rapid action, and accuracy of this weapon.

The story of the AR-15 pulls back a curtain to reveal the attraction that weaponry holds for many of us.  Shortly after WWII, Soviet Senior Sgt. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov developed one of the deadliest weapons to appear on a battlefield.  His rifle, the Kalashnikov rifle, was shipped or sold to places like China and significantly, Vietnam.   It was in Vietnam that American GI’s found themselves outgunned by this potent firearm.  To match the killing capacity of the AK-47, the United States developed the M16. A lighter semiautomatic-only version of the M16 crept onto the American civilian market shortly after. That gun was the AR-15.

The AR-15 was little known in those days.  But private ownership of military rifles hit the big time when one of the few civilian-owned AK-47’s was used to slaughter five elementary children and wound 29 others in Stockton, California in 1989.  Suddenly, and perversely, the Soviet gun and its American competitor flew off gun dealers’ shelves.  The next chapter in the AR-15’s popularity came in the 1980’s during the Crack Cocaine epidemic.  Urban drug gangs were able to gain access to and afford AR-15’s as the weapon that amplified the violence of those tumultuous years.  Realizing that the police were outgunned by the drug runners, ordinary citizens started purchasing AR-15s in significant numbers as protection against what seemed like an uncontrolled tide of violence.  Surprising numbers of Americans have been swept up in the automatic weapons arms race, which has littered the streets and neighborhoods of America with 8 million semi-automatic weapons.

Surprising numbers of Americans have been swept up in the automatic weapons arms race, which has littered the streets and neighborhoods of America with 8 million semi-automatic weapons.

Last Saturday, at the March for Our Lives gatherings over a million Americans marched in the streets of most large cities to express anger and grief over the results of America’s militarized civilian arms race.   Similar supportive marches cropped up in several countries worldwide.  Marchers are pressing  legislators to pass laws, which scale back the numbers and lethality of these rifles.   Basically, the answer to the violence is to scale back in a measured way the arms race.  Disarm the deranged and immature.  And lock down schools so intruders with weapons can’t sneak in.

Another answer to the threat of attack our children face, is more firepower.  The thinking holds that if even a few adults in schools, maybe a few teachers, were to carry handguns themselves, they could shoot an assailant before he could slaughter great numbers of children.  Harking back to the AK-47 threat, the solution to being outgunned is to arm up and answer bullets with bullets.

God’s Purposes are Always Working Out

The question that hangs in the air in the Garden of Gethsemane wafts through America’s conflict over assault-style rifles is how much self-defense do we need?  How much danger threatens our homes, our churches, and our own lives?   How much danger does the Christian movement face right now?    Is armed resistance appropriate in places in the Middle East where Muslim majorities are shoving their Christian neighbors out of their countries?   What about armed defense of the most precious operation imaginable, God’s project to minister to the world in Jesus’ life?  Does not that project need to be protected when attacked by armed men?

Jesus doesn’t think so.  “Put away your sword, Peter.”  Does this little remark from Jesus signal that Christianity is a pacifistic religion and that all violence is forbidden?   I’m not sure.  I don’t think that we get clear guidance on that question from the sword incident in Gethsamene.  We would certainly be stretching the intentions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to pluck out Jesus’ scolding of Peter in Gethesmane and use these words to buttress any campaign to outlaw weapons.  “Put away your guns, America?”  That doesn’t work.

…The world that we live in is more genial and generous than we commonly assume…

What the incident does reveal is Jesus’ openness to let life happen to him without extraordinary efforts at self-defense.  He goes to the Garden much like a person wanting to catch a plane.  Jesus could easily hide.  Maybe diving into the bushes and holding his breath until Judas and his mob left would have staved off his arrest and eventual execution.

Jesus doesn’t try to change the unfolding catastrophe of crucifixion at the end of his work in this world.  It is as if he has decided that God the Father is steering him toward the best of all possible outcomes.  And he’ll do nothing to disrupt that story-line.  Of course, Jesus is terrified about the ordeal he is to undergo.  We see his terror as he prays.  No human, even Christ himself, could face the humiliation and the ending of his life without dread.  But with iron self-composure, Jesus gives himself over to what is unfolding.  Jesus refuses to slip out of Jerusalem and hole up in the caves of Galilee, a favorite haunt of bandits.  He refuses to make a break and run away while Peter holds attackers at bay.

The power that goes with Jesus throughout his work with various people in the places that he visits is the other persons of the Trinity, namely the Holy Spirit and God the Father.  Remembering their presence molding the world around Jesus, helps us make sense of several of his comments.  In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his listeners to relax about getting food and clothing.  Just as God feeds the simple birds and clothes the fields with wild flowers, so likewise he looks after the bodily needs of his people.  If this is true, then the world that we live in is more genial and generous than we commonly assume.

Jesus sends his disciples out on a little mission excursion at one point.  But he urges them to not bother with extra cash in their pockets and clothes in their baggage.  Again, Jesus is banking on the presence of God to insure the success of the mission.  The disciples’ anxious packing of extra clothes and emergency cash is pointless.

How much danger am I really in?

By the time Jesus and his disciples get to the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples and the reader of the gospel stories are ready for a new level of confidence in God’s management of the world around.  Even under armed attack, resistance is unnecessary.  Of course, we know this to be gloriously true given how the next three days unfolded.  Once Jesus was in custody, he doesn’t continue his practice of ministry.  He says little, or nothing according to one of the gospel accounts.   He doesn’t heal or perform miracles.  Some other power carries forward the work of redemption, presumably through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the Father who carries his creative work forward in the management of the events as they unfold.  Jesus is entirely passive.  And his work, nevertheless, is gloriously powerful.

The Character of the World

We’re not going to get gun regulation from Jesus’ words, “Put away your sword, Peter.”  What we do get in this fleeting episode in Gethsemane is a reminder about the character of the world that was created by God and continues to be improved by him.   The question is personal.  How much danger am I really in?  For most of us, danger from violence, even in a nation with 8 million AR-15 rifles and tens of millions more hand guns, is not a daily problem.

How much danger are we in if we throw caution aside and blurt out in the hearing of someone who demands our conformity some deeply held opinion?  Even if the worst retaliation comes to us.  How might God actually work with that situation?

I refuse to be afraid any more.

I met one of my neighbors the other day.  We stood on the sidewalk and exchanged mundane observations about the trash pickup and cars parked on the street.  Speaking about some topic that I’ve forgotten, she said, “I refuse to be afraid anymore.”  Those words lingered with me.   I got no impression that she was living recklessly and that we would be seeing notices of her funeral.  My impression was that she had reached a stage in life where she was going to say what was on her mind.  She was going to spend her time in ways that pleased her and to impress her neighbors.  “I refuse to be afraid anymore.” That’s what this fleeting incident means to me.  It means that even when bad things happen they often turn out for the good.  It means that there was something fresh about casting aside the everlasting need to calculate what will keep us safe.

That’s how Jesus lived.  When God walked in the world he didn’t do so walled off from people or experiences.  He didn’t armor-up or pack a weapon to defend against some people.  He trusted what came his way.  He never teaches us straight out, “don’t touch a weapon, walk on the dangerous side, live on adrenaline.”  But he lives far more vulnerably and transparently than I would have guessed.


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