In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, it occurred to me that Christian voices have been awfully silent on the issue of guns. Initially there was a flurry of religious commentary laying the blame for the Newtown shootings on something other than guns, as though guns were also innocent victims of Adam Lanza's evil intent.
Mike Huckabee said the shootings occurred because God had been removed from our schools, suggesting that the failure of public schools to provide a good religious foundation for Lanza was at fault.
A radio personality named Bryan Fischer took it a step further, saying that God didn't protect the children because prayer is not allowed in schools, suggesting that God is so angry about this that the children had to pay the price.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing soldiers' funerals and blaming all of society's ills on acceptance of gays and lesbians, tweeted that "God sent the shooter." Apparently, Mr. Phelps believes the Christian God is an angry God, one who required the sacrifice of children to appease him.
To say that Newtown happened because of a lack of school prayer or acceptance of gays and lesbians is ludicrous. Still, other than these voices I've not heard many prominent religious figures talking about guns, pro or con.
Guns are a touchy subject for us religious folk, and we're not sure exactly how to jump into the debate. A significant number of loving, active Christians own guns for sport, hunting and self-defense. My church and my family are full of responsible gun owners. Nevertheless, what exactly is a Christian perspective on guns and gun ownership? What does the Bible have to say?
Maybe more pointed questions are in order: What kind of gun would Jesus carry? Would he prefer a certain kind of semi-automatic? What example did he show when it came to weapons?
Well ... Jesus didn't carry a weapon. And he famously taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers." He didn't mean peacemakers who were packing.
Jesus tells us not to repay evil for evil, but to bless our enemies and turn the other cheek. At one point, as Jesus was being arrested, a disciple tried to protect him by cutting off a soldier's ear with his sword. Jesus healed the wounded soldier, then chided the disciple, saying that those who live by the sword will surely die by the sword. Does this mean that Jesus was against owning weapons?
For those of us who seek certainty, he confounds us on this question. Near the end of his ministry, being one of his disciples had become a dangerous vocation. So he told them to carry a sword for self-protection while spreading the Gospel. If they didn't have a sword, they were to sell their cloak and buy one.
One disciple responded in a very American way. If one sword is good, more is better. Excitedly he told Jesus, "Look, I have two!"
Jesus replied, "That's enough."
So ... Jesus refused to carry weapons, allowed his disciples to do so for protection, but opposed stockpiling them.
After Jesus' execution, Christian example shifted to living unarmed. We are told, both in Scripture and Christian tradition, that the apostles became more like Jesus in eschewing weapons. All of them were beaten, arrested, tortured and killed (except John), as they offered little or no resistance. Since then, Christians from the Franciscans to the Quakers to the Mennonites to Martin Luther King Jr. have provided a strong, non-violent, non-weapons-bearing Christian witness.
Of course, there are those who appeal to the Old Testament, in which a number of biblical characters wielded weapons. For centuries nations have used these passages to justify wars, abusing the Bible in order to support their causes while ignoring the simple First Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."
The Bible is filled with imagery and instructions to put down arms and turn swords into plowshares. The Bible isn't against self-defense or national defense, but it clearly sees an obsession with weapons and self-defense as eventually leading to destruction.
It also suggests that Christians who obsessively accumulate weapons probably aren't placing Jesus' teachings at their core. Their love of guns seems to grow stronger than their love of God and of people.
Actually, that statement may be inaccurate. It may be that their fear of assault from criminals and of the potential tyranny of governments is stronger than their faith or their inclination to imitate the model of Christ. But even when it comes to fighting tyranny, the biblical example of Christ, the apostles, the prophets and so many others is to stand against it with faith, not by stockpiling or brandishing weapons.
This leads to a deeper issue for Christians who own guns. Which holds more sway over their lives, the Bible or the Second Amendment?
Many Christians who yearn to get prayer back in public schools, or build nativities in front of city halls, or post Ten Commandment plaques in courthouses place the Bible over the First Amendment clause that forbids the government establishment of religion. Yet many of them then put the Second Amendment over the Bible when it comes to purchasing, possessing and stockpiling guns.
Christians face a dilemma when it comes to guns. Would Jesus agree with the National Rifle Association's approach to preventing future Newtowns by encouraging more people to wield guns? Does the Bible support this? In fact, do Christians consider even Jesus and the Bible when working through this issue?
It certainly could be argued that Christianity is entirely consistent with possessing guns for hunting and self-defense. But being Christian also means resolving problems peacefully, to the point of willingly giving up possessions and obsessions for the welfare of others. Should Christians be willing to limit, or even forgo, their access to guns, especially if it might reduce gun deaths?
Christians are called to be healers and peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to bless their enemies and to respond to evil with self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence. How do guns fit with these teachings? Can we love guns more than we love people?
These are questions with which Christians, and non-Christians, must grapple.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish is pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople and an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (www.ngrahamstandish.org).