Thus far in my series "Toward A Theology of Guns: A Christian's Perspective" I have dealt with three passages in the New Testament that folks often try to use to build a cumulative case to argue that it is okay for Christians to carry weapons and engage in violence. Today, I want to continue on in the same manner and deal with the argument that since Jesus healed a centurion, he must have been okay with swords and violence. First, however, I want to briefly summarize the previous three posts.
Post #1: In this post I showed how fallacious interpretations of Lk 22:35-36 are often used to contend that Jesus promoted the use of swords among his followers. I set my argument within the context of the ancient Hebrew "Two Swords Tradition," which, in Luke's account, Jesus is tactfully and purposefully subverting or overturning. Thus, Lk 22:35-36 cannot be used to argue that Jesus was okay with violence or his followers wielding weapons. I also showed how it is a false analogy fallacy to attempt to equate a sword with gun here.
Post #2: In this post I argued that the theological tenet of "Incarnation" is grounded in the principle, practice, and ethos of peace and peacemaking. I set this again within the context of the discussion of Luke's Gospel and once more spoke of Lk 22:35-36. In the overall scheme of Luke's narrative, peace is a (if not "the") guiding theme. In working toward a theology of guns, I showed how the incarnation resists any and all types of violent acts by those who call themselves followers of Jesus.
Post #3: In this post I showed that the argument "Jesus was violent in the Jerusalem temple, therefore I can be violent when needed too" is terribly flawed. I showed how the Greek text of Jn 2 (esp. Vv. 15-16) has often been mishandled to promote such views and how, actually, this narrative is not violent at all. Instead, Jesus, simply acted like any shepherd or overseer of a herd or flock of animals would have. In fact, he is "saving" the animals. In this story he does not make a "whip" and he does not hit or strike humans. I also showed here how the attempt to equate a "makeshift whip" with guns is incredibly fallacious.
In today's post, I want to address the frequent appeal to Mt 8:5-13 (cf. Lk 7:2-10), the story where Jesus encounters and heals a centurion, that tries to use this passage to argue that Jesus was okay with the use of weapons and violence. There is no need to cite the story in full here (click the references above to read them) but here's the line of thinking that is used, which I alluded to above:
Jesus healed a centurion.
Centurions carried swords.
Therefore, Jesus must have been okay with swords.
(Therefore, Jesus doesn't mind if I carry a gun.)
This argument is quite easy to debunk. Let me offer a number of points. Firstly, what we have here is the simple logical fallacy known as "Jumping to Conclusions" (some might also classify this as a "Hasty Generalization"). The problem with "Jumping to Conclusions" fallacies is that they quickly draw conclusions without taking into account easily accessible and relevant data. An example of jumping to a conclusion would be: "She wants to adopt a baby. Therefore, she must be infertile." In this instance, a person has jumped to a conclusion without asking if the woman might want to adopt because she has a burden for the world orphan crisis, or if she does not want to endure the pain of child birth, or perhaps if she herself was adopted and was so moved by that experience that she wanted to do the same. In short, the jump to a conclusion was an ignorant move because it failed to take into consideration relevant data. The woman might not have fertility issues at all and she may have different motivations for adopting that what the person has concluded.
When it comes to the story of the centurion, nowhere in Matthew's story is it reported that the man is carrying a sword or any other weapon. Might this be why Jesus did not say anything about the sword? Is there any proof, after all, that centurion's simply carried swords around all the time when not in battle? Was the centurion still "active duty"? Did Jesus know the man was a centurion, that is, was it obvious to him? Was it only after the story was recorded that the Gospel writer found out the man was a centurion?
One has to also come to terms with the fact that the Gospel writers all had purposes and agendas when writing. It would have made very little sense in a story where Mathew wanted to emphasize faith and healing to simply insert a comment about a sword. In fact, it would have likely detracted from the overall point of the story. Might we say, then, that this could be another reason why the sword is not mentioned? What we must be careful of doing when reading the Bible is falling into logical pitfalls. In addition to the "Jump to Conclusions" fallacy mentioned above, many people when engaging this story also fall into the "Argument From Silence" fallacy.
The problem with an argument from silence is that, like jumping to a conclusion, it draws a conclusion based on a "lack" of evidence. An important thing to keep in mind here is that this argument often cuts both ways. For example, the person who wants to argue that it is okay to carry guns because the centurion carried a sword and Jesus healed him, praised his faith, and didn't rebuke him, must also realize that Jesus encountered zealots, prostitutes, and other people with sketchy pasts and often didn't rebuke them. For example, while Jesus rebukes one political zealot on the cross, he praises the other. An argument from silence would conclude then that political zealotry of the dangerous sort this man practiced in the past was okay and should be practiced by Jesus' followers today. In Lk 7:37 Jesus meets a "sinner" (αμαρτωλος) and ends up taking up for her. Using the same flawed logic one would read this story and conclude that Jesus was okay with sinning. This, as we know, is just not the case. In the story of the centurion, it might be the case, as noted above, that he doesn't have a sword, after all, it is not mentioned. Or, again, maybe he ceased being a centurion after his encounter with Jesus. These too, are arguments from silence really contribute nothing to the conversation and thus, should be avoided, as should the arguments put forth that advocate a pro-weapon and pro-violence Jesus based on his meeting with the centurion.
Another thing that readers of the Bible really need to understand, and this is a point that is lost on way too many folks, is that there is a great difference in things that are prescriptive and descriptive. I made the point in an earlier post in this series, for example, that just because the Bible describes Judas as attempting to commit suicide via hanging himself, this is not a prescription for all readers of the Bible to go and do likewise. I also made the point that just because the Gospels describe Peter as having a sword, this is not a prescription for everyone to follow his lead. Instead, Jesus is the example we emulate. In the same way, then, just because the centurion in Matthew "might" have had a sword (he is NOT described as having one), this is not prescriptive for how to act. I'll say it again: Jesus, who NEVER donned a sword, is the example to follow.
So, it turns out that to disprove the claims put forward by pro-gun advocates that Mt 8:5-13 is proof that Jesus is okay with weapons and violence (ergo he is okay with Christians owning and using guns today) has no legs to stand on. In fact, it doesn't even take hard exegesis to prove this, it just takes a little bit of close reading and logic. Thus far, then, I have shown that neither Lk 22:35-36, Jn 2:13-25 (and its parallels in Mt 21:12-13, Mk 11:15-17 and Lk 19:45-46), nor Mt 8:5-13 can be used to advance the thesis that it is okay for Jesus to own guns, use guns, or participate in acts of violence. In addition, I have shown how the concept of incarnation as well as the prevalent theme of "peace" in Luke's account, run contrary to such claims. As I continue this series, I will continue to show that this is the case across the whole of the New Testament.