On October 1, 2015, Christopher Harper-Mercer, a 26-year old fatally shot nine people and injured nine others on the campus of Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon. The shooting made our nation revisit the gun control issue. To be clear, this is not a new conversation. Mass shootings serve as a catalyst for national discussion. Based on data collected over the past decade, the conversation happens more often than we’d like. Since 2003, there have been 143 school shootings in the United States. There have been 45 school shootings this year alone. I’m always interested in hearing the rhetoric surrounding gun control when something like this happens. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” “Why are semi-automatic weapons available on the free market?”
As Christians, we live in a culture that’s non-Christian. It’s a culture that’s fallen, violent, and, at times, evil. There are Christians on both sides of the gun control debate. I’ve heard from many of them. And I’ve had riveting conversations with many of them. But after having those conversations I’ve landed one place and will remain there.
I don’t own a gun and won’t ever own a gun. And there are at least two reasons why:
1. Guns and the African American Experience
Part of my decision is based on my cultural context. I’m a student of history. Guns, in their original created state, were used to conquer. They were objects of colonization. When Europeans arrived in Africa to colonize it, a 10,000 person Zulu army met them and turned them back. The Europeans regrouped, reloaded and brought artillery in to kill thousands of Africans. The Gatling Gun came into being around this time. It was automatic. They didn’t have to reload it, so they were able to mow down Zulus by the thousands—eventually colonizing Africa.
Fast forward 400 years. There’s a new “Zulu Tribe”—in the inner city. As with African lands, cities are prime territory these days (hello gentrification). Guns are finding their way into urban communities at an alarming rate. There’s a new strategy. Have the “Zulus” kill one another. It saddens me that inner city kids have access to semi-automatic weapons (albeit illegally). How are they getting these weapons? They aren’t falling out of the sky. As of this writing, 2,035 people had been shot and wounded in Chicago. In Chicago, a person is shot and wounded every three hours. Every three hours! I can’t own a gun, in good conscience, when 12 year olds are gunning each other down less than 40 miles from me.
2. Scripture Asks It Of Me
The other part of my decision is based on my scriptural understanding of Christian witness in a fallen world. I want to approach this a few ways. First, by looking at a passage that seems to indicate that weapons or guns are okay. Second, by looking at a passage that seems to indicate that weapons aren’t the proper Christian response.
In one text, Jesus sends the disciples to preach the Good News. And he asks them to take a moneybag, a knapsack, and a couple of swords (see Luke 22:35–38). Why would he ask the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords? What’s the purpose there? Could he be advocating use of weapons? Not at all.
First off, it’s ridiculous for twelve men to defend themselves against a whole band of soldiers with just two swords. But Jesus said, “It is enough.” That’s crazy when you think about it. Two swords? Enough? But the original Greek gets to the sense of that phrase. It’s more like Jesus is saying, “Enough of this foolish conversation.” There has to be a greater purpose than self-defense or arming oneself going on here. Context shows us that Jesus is saying, “Take swords with us…because I have a lesson to teach”.
And a few verses later, he teaches that lesson! When the disciples were surrounded, one of them (good old Peter) struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. Jesus condemned the act and healed the man (see Luke 22:49–51). Jesus doesn’t just rebuke them and move on. He doesn’t just call Peter’s action out…he touches the man’s ear and heals him. It’s a teaching moment. Jesus had them bring two swords with them ito teach them about violence and the necessity of non-violent resistance. He wanted to them learn about a non-violent response to evil.
I know what you’re saying. Look John, we aren’t talking about non-violent resistant to persecution as church members. We’re being practical here. We’re talking about protecting our family. We’re talking about a society who could care less if I was a Christian. And I get you. I guess my question is: Does that really matter? Is there a difference in how we govern ourselves in our households and in the world? And what do we do with Matthew 5? We can’t ignore it.
““You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39, ESV)
Do not resist? Turn the other cheek? What? Jesus, obviously you didn’t had kids or a wife. Is Jesus being insensitive here? What’s his point? It’s simple. Extend mercy and grace. You can’t extend either to a dead person.
I remember the story of a woman in Atlanta who talked a potential school shooter out of killing a school full of kids. She saved both their lives and his. And she credited that encounter to her faith in Christ. If our resistance is limited to shoot first ask questions later, do we miss those moments?
A Godly, Non-Violent Heritage
The counter to that argument is this: Whose life is more important? Some random person or my family’s? Which is a valid point. Most of us would say, hands down, our family. So if it’s us or them, it’s going to be them. Honestly, I don’t have Scripture for that. Or maybe I do (the whole Book of Acts comes to mind—people who faced death every day). Or maybe I have real life examples of people who practiced this all the time. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose family was subjected to so much hate and attempts on their lives, that it became normal to see bricks fly through their windows or to have their home firebombed to try and force them out. In fact, Dr. King applied for a gun permit at one point. He never obtained the gun though, saying: “How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection?” He went with a less violent form of protection, employing unarmed guards to watch his home while away.
What kind of less violent forms of protection are available to us today? I’m a descendent of an entire movement of people who made a conscious decision not to arm themselves in order to serve as a witness. Even in the face of real threats. And look at us. We arm ourselves today in suburban neighborhoods because of what we perceive as potential threats.
I want to close with the words of Rep. John Lewis, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement:
“Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity. African Americans in the 60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”
If I just took that last sentence and plopped it down at the end of the Book of Acts, you’d think it was in the canon of Scripture. You’d think that Luke penned those words after what the Christians in the First Century had experienced at the hands of an unjust system.
“They made a conscious decision to use faith as their shield and the power of compassion as their defense.”
It might sound “super spiritual”. It might sound irrational. It might sound counter-cultural. But I think I’ll stick with that approach. In light of the violence happening around our country, putting down the weapon—or refusing to pick one up—has to start somewhere.