Early Sunday morning, April 12, 2016, forty-nine LGBTQ people (pictured above) were shot dead, and fifty-three more were wounded. They were gunned down in the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida by a homophobic, hatred-obsessed, historically violent man. He tried to legitimate his hate by dedicating this act to ISIS, but there is no evidence that he was actually in contact with this terrorist organization, that it funded him or helped him in planning his attack–or for that matter, that he was even Muslim in much more than name.
In the days since, some (such as Mr. Trump) have blamed Islam, while others have blamed the victims. Still others have wondered why, despite having been investigated by the FBI for voicing sympathy with terrorist groups, and even being on a terror watch list until 2014, this person was legally able to buy “a SIG Sauer MCX rifle — a spinoff of the military-style AR-15 — as well as a 9-millimeter handgun at a Florida gun shop about a week before the attack.” After four attempts by the Senate to pass legislation calling for universal background checks and barring persons on the terror watchlist from legally purchasing weapons had failed, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse wrote:
Not one senator in either party believes that someone who presents a serious terrorism risk should be able to waltz into a gun shop and legally buy powerful firearms. Yet partisanship, a reluctance to compromise and the influence of powerful special interests again prevented lawmakers from achieving a consensus, as four plans went down on Monday to entirely predictable defeats.
It was just the latest instance in which lawmakers agreed that something needed to be done on an issue of national importance, but were unable to find a way to do it in Washington’s hyperpolitical atmosphere.
Others have responded to these same questions with a fervent defense of the Second Amendment, and of their own personal gun ownership. As Chris Williams notes, many of the most passionate defenders of their personal right to bear arms identify as Evangelical Christians:
[S]ome of the most enthusiastic and passionate gun lovers also are followers of Christ. Whenever this debate rears its head, the most passionate gun supporters in my social media feed are often those who are also outspoken Christians. I once had a youth pastor friend who, when he heard about a shooting, said that it would never happen at our church because he’d be carrying his gun in service . . . I see Christian friends on social media post about how excited they are to buy a new gun and boast about their stopping power. I know there are likely men and women in our church who carry concealed weapons. And I see Christians boast on Facebook that if they’d been in that nightclub/church/movie theater/school, they’d have had their gun on them — and things would have been different.
So, do the teachings of Jesus legitimate open-carry Christians? There are a number of passages where Jesus addresses the use of the sword. Matthew 26:51-54, Mark 14:47-49, and Luke 22:49-51 all describe one of the people with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drawing a sword against those who came to arrest Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave; John 18:10-11 says that the assailant was Peter, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. In all of these passages, Jesus opposes this violence. Indeed, in Matthew 26:52, Jesus says, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”
Yet, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.” Does this passage legitimate Christians arming themselves? Probably not, as Luke’s version of this saying demonstrates. Luke 12:51 reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division” (Greek diamerismon). Apparently, Luke’s version of this saying provides an interpretation of what “the sword” means in Matthew’s version. In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin. Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families. Jesus is not calling for his followers to take up the sword against their opponents.
But then, there is Luke 22:35-37:
Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” [see Luke 9:3]
They said, “Nothing.”
Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one. I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals [Isaiah 53:12] Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.
This saying, found only in Luke, conflicts with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere–as Jesus himself acknowledges. Still, some Christians base their ownership of weapons, and their advocacy for gun ownership, on this passage. Indeed, even Chris Williams, in his blog cited above, says (apparently regarding this passage):
Yes, I realize Christ also at one point advised his disciples to buy a sword. I don’t think the Bible can be used as pro or against owning a gun. But I think Jesus’ attitude toward violence and retaliation speak volumes about what our attitude should be about these things.
Could Luke 22:36 preserve an old memory that Jesus did call for his followers to take up the sword? Reza Aslan claims that he did just that:
Jesus had warned his disciples that they would come for him. That is why they are hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords–just as Jesus had commanded. They are ready for a confrontation. . . Resistance is useless, however, and the disciples are forced to abandon their master and flee into the night (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2014], 146).
On the other hand, Evangelical blogger Preston Sprinkle lists several commentators who argue that in this passage, much as in Matthew 10:34, the sword is intended metaphorically:
The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the ‘sword’ signals” that “the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution,” which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.”
Following this statement by Jesus, the disciples run a quick inventory, and tell Jesus that they have two swords. Jesus replies, Hikanon esti: “It is enough” (Luke 22:38, NRSV) But what does that mean? Is Jesus saying that two swords will be sufficient? Given that there were eleven of them, that seems unlikely–at least, if this passage actually is about Christians arming themselves against their enemies. Another possibility is that Jesus is calling an end to the discussion–perhaps because the disciples have understood him too literally: the CEB renders this phrase, “Enough of that!”
The reference to Isaiah 53:12 in this passage, where the Servant of the LORD is “numbered with poshe’im“–that is, “rebels”–could lead us to Luke’s point. Perhaps Jesus’ followers need to be “armed” because, to fulfill this passage of Scripture, Jesus must be taken from among armed resisters. Their resistance is only a token, however, meant symbolically to fulfill the prophecy. Later at Gethsemane, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” (Luke 22:49). But when they do so, Jesus rebukes them (see the discussion above)–in fact, in Luke, Jesus heals the slave’s wounded ear (Luke 22:51).
Whatever Luke 22:35-38 may mean, then, it is clear that Jesus opposes the use of the sword even here. Therefore, whatever legal or moral arguments we may make regarding the use or possession of weapons, we will have to leave Jesus out of them. Jesus, after all, seems little concerned about personal rights–his own, or anyone else’s! He calls for those who follow him to love their enemies, not to arm themselves against them. Let us hold the victims of this hate crime in Orlando, and their friends and families, in our hearts, as they are held in God’s heart. Let us pray for peace, and work for justice, confident that God’s love abides, and will triumph.