Article  Human Dignity  Citizenship

Should Christians Bear Arms, Turn Cheeks, or Both?

Martial-arts trained priest provoked dissent from his bishop for encouraging parishioners to take concealed pistol license classes at his church last month. Rev. Edward Fride has since cancelled the classes, but the ministers’ differing approaches to neutralizing personal threats of violence offer Christians a quick gut-check on whether their self-defense ethos is biblical and rational, or at least in progress toward both.

Bishopric statements obtained by the Detroit Free Press stressed that “guns and gun lessons do not belong in a Catholic church,” and that Lansing Catholic Bishop Earl Boyea “has never given permission for anyone to carry a concealed weapon in a church or school in the Diocese of Lansing.”

The diocese was responding to a letter Fride recently sent to parishioners titled, “We’re Not in Mayberry Anymore, Toto!” (invoking icons as orthodox as The Andy Griffith Show and The Wizard of Oz):

… It is very common for Christians to simply assume that they live in Mayberry, trusting that because they know the Lord Jesus, everything will always be fine and nothing bad can happen to them and their families. Those who have followed the Lord Jesus for more than 20 minutes, however, have often experienced first-hand that the reality of living in a fallen universe can be very different. How to balance faith, reality, prudence, and trust is one of those critical questions that we struggle with all our lives. Pretending we are in Mayberry, while we are clearly not, can have very negative consequences for ourselves and those we love, especially those we have a responsibility to protect. …

Unity in the body is important—one could argue more important, if Scripture is consulted—than protecting life and limb, so we wish the parish and diocese speedy reconciliation and mutual understanding.

But since lives may be at stake, we can’t dodge the question ourselves, especially when arguments apparently made from Scripture turn out to be less than scriptural. Bishop Boyea’s position presumably rests on a statement made by him in 2012, relayed to the Free Press by diocese spokesperson Michael Diebold:

“We are followers of Jesus Christ, who raised not a hand against those who mocked, tortured, and finally murdered him. … While we grasp both the Second Amendment and the legitimate right of some persons to defend themselves, our churches and our schools are dedicated to a far different approach to life’s problems.”

If the Gospels are to be trusted, the bishop’s appeal to precedent falls both wide and short. All four Gospel writers note the incident of Peter hacking off the ear of a soldier sent to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. All but one records Jesus’ subsequent rebuke of Peter:

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Mat. 20:52-54)

Perhaps this is what the Bishop means—that the 10 remaining disciples (sans Peter and Judas) made peace rather than war because Jesus has just told them not to fight.

But that cannot be. The disciples do not make peace. They run away.

According to Mark, which scholars regard as the earliest Gospel, as well as Matthew and John, the disciples’ restraint (if one can call it that) was due to their nearly unanimous abandonment of Jesus at his arrest—not to beatitude or blessed devotion. Exceptions are the “young man” (presumably John) who followed Jesus from a distance after fleeing (naked) from the soldiers, and Peter, who kept even greater distance than John and denied association with Jesus three times before breakfast (and then wept bitterly).

Lest we miss an obvious message in these texts (which aim to report facts, not to convey a theology of self-defense or pacifism)—these disciples had far greater needs than weapons control, advice, or policies. If nothing else, these passages show that their (and our) political problems and spiritual shortcomings required a real Messiah.

End homily. What to conclude from this?

Golf clap for Bishop Boyea for acknowledging the legitimate, constitutionally protected right of Americans (he says only “some” but we’ll roll with it) to defend themselves, and for pursuing what he genuinely believes is a better approach to self-defense than encouraging Americans to go armed.
Thunderous applause for Fr. Fride for proactively engaging to educate and protect his flock from increasing violence amidst budget cuts to armed police response, and for warning his flock that when Jesus said that we should “be wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” he didn’t mean “wise as doves.”
Crickets for Bishop Boyea basing his “different approach to life’s problems” on a puzzling, if not rusty, interpretation of classic Gospel texts, particularly those showing Peter fighting when he shouldn’t, followed by Peter and everyone not fighting because they are too busy abandoning, denying, or betraying Jesus.
An alternative interpretation of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. Although Jesus tells the fisherman not to fight, he gives his rationale: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Jesus’ rationale renders his command situation-specific, not prescriptive. Neither Fr. Fride nor nearby Detroit can summon up that many angels in time for the next gang bang. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” we are told—but this does not mean that all can or should be imitated (how’s your carpentry?). Moreover, with the exception of the biblical book of Revelation, no Scriptures are likely to be left unfulfilled by your resisting arrest or surviving an attack. The passage is moot in this debate.
But what about “turn the other cheek”? Now we’re cooking. But check the context. Jesus says the former in a section of his Sermon on the Mount denouncing retaliation—vengeful action taken against a person to evoke a flawed sense of retributive justice. Self-defense couldn’t be further from that.
But what about “love your neighbor as you love yourself”? You must. Just don’t forget to love your neighbors while you are loving your neighbor. Ask your spouse or child or the stranger next to you on the subway how loved they would feel by your not protecting them from rape or robbery or worse.
Lacking a biblical mandate on the subject, Christians are reasonably free to develop different theologies of self-defense, provided they coalesce with Scripture. A good place to start is with Jesus’ statement to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” while praying, “God help us.” He has.

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