“It’s important to note first of all that the right of self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself. He once told his disciples that he would be “numbered with the transgressors,” and that as a result their own lives could be endangered because of their association with him. He therefore counseled them, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). You can’t get more legitimacy than that. A legal principle rooted in the teaching of Christ is pretty tough to beat.”
Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association,”When America HAD to Pack Heat to Church” 1
In the week since the tragic shootings in Oregon and Connecticut, there has been a lot of talk about violence in entertainment, access to mental health care, gun control, and other things that might be “part of the problem.” As we seek to find solutions that will make it increasingly difficult for these kinds of tragedies to be repeated, I’ve noticed Christians on all sides of these complex issues are turning to the Bible to find support for their particular point of view. Unfortunately, much of what I’m reading online and overhearing in conversation is little more than folk theology 2, which may make the conflicted individual feel better, but has little to do with trying to faithfully interpret the Bible and apply it in our context today.
For example, take a look at the quote above. It comes from a post by Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association. He’s been maligned in the media of late for his statements in the wake of the shootings in Connecticut, asserting that when prayer was banned from schools, an environment was created in which God’s presence was no longer welcome, thus allowing the shootings to happen. 3 The post in which this particular quote appears was written weeks before the Sandy Hook massacre, in response to the murder-suicide of Javon Belcher, a Kansas City Chiefs football player, in early December, 2012. In the post, Mr. Fischer asserts that the problem with the murder-suicide in Kansas City was not that there were too many guns involved, but not enough. If Belcher’s girlfriend had been armed, perhaps she’d still be alive. After all, he surmises, it is her God-given “right” to defend herself, even through the use of deadly force. For support of his claim, Mr. Fischer turns to the Bible and pulls a single verse out of Luke 22. His interpretation and application of this verse is indicative of the kind of folk theologizing that is dominating much of the Christian conversation these days.
Let us look at this so-called biblical “right of self-defense” a bit closer. Did Jesus, as Mr. Fischer claims, command his followers to arm themselves in order to defend themselves against coming persecution? If so, can this “right to self-defense” be imported into our present-day gun culture and applied as a Christian ethic (or even command) for gun ownership? An examination of the passage in Luke 22 will show that Mr. Fischer’s use of Scripture is careless and his resultant claim is false. While one may attempt to point to other passages in the Bible which seem to make allowances for God’s people to use weapons, one cannot say that Jesus ever taught or endorsed the use weapons.
In the passage referenced by Mr. Fischer (Luke 22:24-38), Jesus has just finished the Last Supper and is warning his disciples that in the coming days, they will face all sorts of persecution because of him. He tells them that, in contrast to the last time he sent them out (Luke 10:1-24), this time they will be on their own in the world, without Jesus’ supernatural provision. Just after he gives the cryptic command in verse 36 for his followers to “buy a sword,” comes this:
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” he replied. (Luke 22:38)
There were at least eleven disciples with Jesus at this point (Judas had recently departed), likely more. We know that Jesus was often surrounded by followers in addition to the twelve apostles. Even if we assume that just eleven of the disciples were with Jesus (which is unlikely) and even if we take Jesus’ command for to buy a sword literally (also unlikely, as we will soon see), Jesus seems to be telling his followers that two swords among the twelve of them was “enough.”
In fact, most theologians who comment on this passage see Jesus’ command to buy a sword as an extreme figure of speech, used by Jesus to warn the disciples of the intensity of the coming persecution, not as a command to arm themselves. The disciples, dense as ever, took Jesus literally, at which point Jesus responded with a curt, “Enough of this!” The disciples didn’t get it (see Matthew 16:5-12 for a similar instance of the sometimes wooly-headed disciples taking Jesus’ metaphorical utterances literally). 4
Jesus never commanded his followers to engage in armed conflict. He made no caveat for self-defense, much less establish a “legal principle” of self-defense, as Mr. Fischer claims. When a disciple (Peter) drew a sword and cut off a man’s ear in self-defense just a few verses later, Jesus rebuked the sword-bearer and healed the one who’d been harmed. The collective witness of the early church is that Christians would die as martyrs before they’d fight back. Yet today, there are those who would twist the words of Jesus to imply exactly the opposite of what he meant. Why? Perhaps it is because sometimes it is easier to cherry-pick the Scriptures to support one’s views than allow oneself to be changed by the Scriptures in ways that are uncomfortable and unpopular. People all across the theological spectrum from left to right fall prey to selectively reading the Scriptures. Unfortunately, a folk theology rooted in making one feel better, remain comfortable, and preserve the status quo often leads people into beliefs that are patently wrong.
Let us not leave this talk of Jesus and swords there, though. The other passage that is often brought into this conversation is found in Matthew 10, where Jesus says,
Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).
Here is another verse that is commonly used to lend support to Christian engagement in violent conflict or in weapons use, and again the verse is misunderstood and often applied wrongly. Jesus is using a slick turn-of-phrase, a figure of speech called a mashal. 5 Once again, the subsequent verses in the passage serve to clarify the one in focus here. Jesus is saying that following him is a choice that will make one unpopular, even in his or her own family. 6 It will divide relationships along the lines of belief and unbelief just as cleanly as a sword separates bone from sinew. Choosing to follow Jesus will bring hardship and require humility and faithfulness. In saying that he is bringing “a sword,” Jesus is talking about the division 7 that results from belief; he is not advocating the bearing of arms.
This post is titled, “Did Jesus Command His Followers to Pack Heat?” The answer is, of course, “no.” But that’s not really a fair question, is it? After all, Mr. Fischer doesn’t make that particular claim. Instead he claims that “the right of self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself.” That claim is false. Jesus did nothing of the sort, not in the verse Mr. Fischer quoted, nor anywhere else. If anything, Jesus taught and modeled self-sacrifice, not armed self-defense. He taught his followers to “love their enemies,” to “pray for those who persecute you,” to “turn the other cheek,” and to forgive someone “seventy times seven times.” He chastised Peter for resorting to violence in his defense, and then Jesus went boldly and subversively to the cross. The book of Acts chronicles the martyrdom and persecution of Jesus’ followers, but does not chronicle any violent resistance. So, if one is going to search the Bible for support for the use of a deadly weapon in self-defense, or for any other reason, one will have to look outside the life and witness of Jesus.
This kind of folk theology undertaken by Mr. Fischer and others will continue to run rampant over the course of the next several weeks and months. As legislation is introduced that would modify, countermand, or contradict the way that the Second Amendment has been interpreted and applied in recent history, Christians on both sides of the issue will throw around Bible verses in support of their various positions. I ask that you would engage in responsible use of Scripture and the witness of church history as you participate in conversations about where we go from here. Do not be taken in by convenient folk theology, rather seek to engage in critical reflection on the whole of Scripture, on the Kingdom of God, and on the Prince of Peace.
- http://www.afa.net/Blogs/BlogPost.aspx?id=2147529878 ↩
- I take this term from Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s excellent work, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God. In it they define folk theology as “a kind of theology that rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of an informal tradition of beliefs and practices composed mainly of cliches and legends. . . . Folk theology is often intensely experiential and pragmatic–that is, the criteria of true belief are feelings and results” (Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology?, 27). ↩
- For my response to the notion that God’s presence is subject to human legislation, another bit of folk theology that is floating around right now, see my post on Facebook, and the ensuing conversation in the comments thread, here: https://www.facebook.com/tattooed.preacher/posts/10151338830415498 ↩
- -William Barclay says of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples, “Verses 33 to 38 with their talk of swords is a strange passage. But what they mean is this–Jesus was saying, ‘All the time so far you have had me with you. In a very short time you are going to be cast upon your own resources. What are you going to do about it? The danger in a very short time is not that you will possess nothing; but that you will have to fight for your very existence.’ This was not an incitement to armed force. It was simply a vivid eastern way of telling the disciples that their very lives were at stake” (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, 269-270).
-Similarly, Leon Morris writes, “The disciples did not understand. They spoke in terms of this world’s arms and said they could muster only two swords. Jesus’ response, ‘It is enough,’ means not, ‘Two will be sufficient’ but rather, ‘Enough of this kind of talk!’ It is a way of dismissing a subject in which the disciples were hopelessly astray” (Morris, Luke, 310).
-Noted New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says of the passage, “It brings to a climax the misunderstanding and earthly-mindedness of the disciples which has already figured three times in the dialogue, and which stands over against the promises and warnings of Jesus. . . . the disciples fail to understand; taking Jesus literally, they produce two swords, and Jesus has to rebuke them for their lack of comprehension–a lack that will become even more evident when Jesus is arrested” (Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 823-824).
-Finally, Darrell L. Bock: “Jesus’ final words make it clear that circumstances are changing. Opposition to the disciples is rising. Where before Jesus had sent them out empty-handed yet they were provided for (9:1-6; 10:3-4), now they will have to take provisions and protection for their travel. They will have to procure a sword. . . . The disciples take Jesus’ remarks literally and incorrectly. They note that they have two swords, but Jesus cuts off the discussion. Something is not right, but it is too late to discuss it. As the arrest will show, they have misunderstood. They draw swords then, but Jesus stops their defense in its tracks. He is not telling them to buy swords to wield in physical battle. They will have to provide for themselves and fend for themselves, but not through the shedding of blood. They are being drawn into a great cosmic struggle, and they must fight with spiritual swords and resources. The purchase of swords serves only to picture this coming battle. This fight requires special weapons (Eph. 6:10-18). . . . Jesus is about to exemplify the walk of the innocent before a hostile world. His success is not indicated by his withdrawl or even his survival; it is indicated by his faithfulness” (Bock, Luke, 354-355). ↩
- “that is, a paradoxical saying, one that sounds unbelievable! That it is contrary to prevailing opinion is indicated by the opening words, ‘Do not think that . . . ‘ Cf. 3:9; 5:17; John 5:45. What Jesus says here causes the one who hears or reads it to startle in shocked disbelief. The natural reaction to the surprising statement would be: ‘How can this saying be true? Is not Christ the “prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6)? Is he not the One who pronounces a blessing on those who make peace (Matt. 5:9)? If he did not come in order to bring peace how can the following passages be true: Ps. 72:3, 7; Luke 1:79; 2:14; 7:50; 8:48; John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19, 21; Rom. 5:1; 10:15; 14:17; Eph 2:14; Col 1:20; Heb. 6:20-7:2? Do not all of them in the strongest words proclaim Jesus as the Bringer of peace?’ We should remember, however, that it is the characteristic of many a mashal to place emphasis on one aspect of truth rather than on a proposition that is universally valid. . . . A little reflection will soon convince the earnest student of Scripture that there is a sense in which the coming of Christ into this world not only brought division but was even intended to do so. . . . Here ‘on earth,’ . . . the followers of Christ must expect ‘the sword.’ The word here is used to symbolize the very opposite of peace; hence, ‘division’ (Luke 12:51), resulting in persecution” (Hendricksen, William. The Gospel of Matthew, 474, 475) ↩
- “As Jesus concludes His commissioning charge to His disciples-turning-apostles, He makes it impossible for His followers to misunderstand what He demands of them. They dare not believe He is leading them into a trouble free utopia. ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). In Ephesians 6:17, Paul calls the Word of God the ‘sword of the Spirit.’ This sword ‘penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow’ (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but He is also ‘the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), and as every wise person has discovered, truth divides” (Lawson, LeRoy. Matthew, 145-146). ↩
- In the parallel occurrence of this passage in Luke, there is no mention of a sword. Jesus says, “Did you think I came to bring peace? No, I tell you, but division.” ↩