As those of you who have been reading this series know, thus far I have been systematically working through passages of the New Testament that are used by pro-gun advocates to promote their agenda of owning and using guns. To see those posts, click HERE. In spite of the fact that a number of people have commented on these posts with antagonism to what I have to say, not one person has yet offered a well-researched, well-argued or solidly-grounded argument of refutation. In this post, the seventh in this series, I want to continue working toward a theology of guns in the manner I have been doing thus far. In short, here I want to deal with a misused passage that pro-gun advocates attempt to use to justify their claims.
In particular, here I want to address a statement that is, in many ways, used more frequently than most others. In fact, I heard someone make this claim just yesterday saying, "I'm a Christian woman but I'm also a pre-school teacher. You had better believe that if someone came into my class and tried to hurt my students I'd shoot and kill them on the spot." Again, this line of thought is not at all uncommon. In fact, this argument can be traced as far back as St. Augustine, that is, to around the fourth century CE. In a writing titled "A Reply to Faustaus the Manichean" (22:74), Augustine said the following:
The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way. Otherwise John, when the soldiers who came to be baptized asked, What shall we do? would have replied, Throw away your arms; give up the service; never strike, or wound, or disable any one.
Of course, Augustine's argument is terribly flawed here as it is an argument from silence. Indeed, he commits the logical fallacy of putting words in (or taking words out of) John's mouth. He essentially builds his theology on what was not said, which is quite a terrible way to go about doing theology. Unfortunately, Augustine has many heirs in this regard still today! Problematically, he says very similar things in his commentary on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount such as, "For how great violence is necessary, in order that a man may love his enemies..." (15:40). One of the more troubling aspects of this is that here, Augustine completely misunderstands the ethic of non-violence that Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, Jesus' remarks to "turn the other cheek," "walk the extra mile" (Mt 5:38-41), etc., seem to be completely lost on Augustine and again, many of his heirs living today.
Even more, Augustine attempts to spin Mt 5:39, a passage about abstinence from violence, into its exact opposite, namely, a passage promoting self-defense. It is this issue, the issue of self-defense, that the school teacher mentioned above is getting at. And it is the matter of self-defense that I hear more pro-gun advocates, especially those who also identify themselves as Christians, appeal to almost more than anything else. Even in some of the comments on the posts throughout this series, I have had folks make remarks about it being their God-ordained duty to defend themselves, their family, and others who might be receiving the unjust end of injustice. In large measure, I think, we have St. Augustine to thank for this erroneous thinking.
The fact is, in Mt 5:39 Jesus is not offering his followers a model of self-defense or any kind of violent defense. That passage says this: ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ. Interestingly enough, most English translations render this as "But I myself say to you, 'Do not resist the Evil One.'" There is one problem with such translations, however, namely that the term ἀντιστῆναι (from ἀνθίστημι), when set within the larger context of its use in the Bible, especially the Septuagint (LXX), does not simply mean "to resist," but rather "to resist forcefully" or "to resist violently" or even "to attack." For example, in Num 10:9 this term is used and refers to "the opposition who attacks you." Likewise, in Dt 9:2 the term is used and refers to "attacking" or "fighting" the Ammonites. This term is a Greek compound word, which literally brings the ideas of "against" and "to stand" together, and gives us the concept of "to stand against," as in one army standing against (fighting) another. The point is this, as Walter Wink once noted: The verb doesn't mean to "stand still" but rather, to actively take a stand against, that is, to act with force or violence.
So, what are the ramifications of this for Mt 5:39? Well, first of all, instead of rendering the passage in a watered-down manner such as "Do not resist the evil one." we would be more correct to translate it with its fuller force as "Do not violently resist the Evil One." In short, if Jesus' command is not to resist the Evil One, then that makes little sense! Obviously he is not saying, "Go ahead, submit to the Evil One, I don't mind; it'll be fun." Such a view does not square with Jesus' other commands to flee evil and avoid it at all costs. Instead, what Jesus is saying is, "Do not use the evils of violence to resist violence." Or to put it into simpler English: "Do not use violence to try to stop or end violence." The implications here square well with Jesus' statement made later in Mt 26:52 that "Those who live by the sword die by the sword." Jesus' equation works in a perfectly logical and consistent manner: Violence breeds violence. Put a bit more colorfully, Jesus' command to not use swords and violence to try to stop violence would sound, in our modern day culture, something like, "Do not use guns and violence to try to stop violence."
You see, Jesus understood something that Mr. LaPierre of the NRA can't seem to wrap his (brain)washed brain around, namely, this very simple equation. It is basic math: 1 + 1=2. Violence + Violence = More Violence. Nonviolence + Nonviolence = More Nonviolence. Peace + Peace = More Peace. What does it say about the level of ignorance in this country that people cannot grasp the truth of such simple equations? And further, what does it say about those who call themselves Christians one minute but at the same time, at the drop of a hat, they're ready to load up a weapon and shoot and kill someone? I'll tell you what it says, it says that people are so blinded by a culture of death and violence that they lack the very basic skills to be able to understand that the way forward is peace and peacemaking...at all costs!
Please hear me when I say this: Jesus did not leave his followers with a theology of self-defense. Just as well, Jesus never sanctioned the use of violence in any circumstance, even when they themselves were being treated violently and unjustly or when that might have been the case with others. The myth that "God has given me the duty to protect my family with guns and violence" is just that, it is a myth. It is a myth that is more American and Augustinian than Christian. It is a myth that can find much of its origins not only in Augustine, but also and especially during the presidency of J. Edgar Hoover, who launched the American "War on Crime" and in the process, created a propaganda machine that made Americans nervous and afraid. It was Hoover who created narratives about thieves, bank robbers, kidnappers, etc., that were meant to frighten Americans so that they would trust in and cling to federal and state intervention. In fact, it is out of this movement that the whole modern day concept of the American armed police force grew. How ironic is it, then, that police are so often these days appealed to in the context of debates about gun control?!?
I will say more about Hoover, the concept of self-defense among Christians, and violence in forthcoming posts. And yes, I have quite a few more posts to come in this series! For now, however, let it be known that in addition to the passages already cited in the previous six parts of this series, Mt 5:39 is actually a passage that comports well with the rest of Jesus' thinking on peaceful and non-violent engagement. Imagine that!