Mass Shootings: What Are Christians to Make of Them
Mass shootings. What are Christians to make of them? But before we answer this question, perhaps we should sharpen the question a bit, asking instead, What are American Christians to make of them?
The obvious motive for my writing on this subject is the report from El Paso, TX, where another mass shooting has left many dead and injured, not to mention many other traumatized by the sinful violence of the event.
If that weren't enough, I woke up this morning to hear of another mass shooting, this time in nearby Dayton, OH which reportedly has left 9 dead.
Oddly enough, both these shootings in far apart places - Dayton and El Paso are over 1,500 miles apart - both have a personal connection to me. El Paso is the home of several friends of mine from ThornCrown Ministries, while I personally know a man who currently serves as an officer on the Dayton police force. My friends are all safe, but clearly there are many people in both places who have suffered great loss.
The response from the news media and other Second Amendment foes is predictable: Guns are the problem and must be more strictly regulated. The ultimate goal of these people seems to be the complete disarmament of the American people.
As Christians, what are we to say to this? Certainly, in the wake of such tragedies it is tempting to go along with the anti-gun rhetoric. But we must ask, What does the Bible say about the right of private citizens to bear arms? Does Scripture prohibit private citizens from owning weapons, or does it support their doing so?
Another question related to this is what does the Bible say about criminal justice? Does the Bible call for crime punishment or crime prevention? How we answer these questions will serve to guide us as we evaluate the statements we see in the news concerning the El Paso and Dayton shootings.
The short answer to the first question is, yes, the Bible allows for private citizens to own weapons. To the second question, we answer that the Bible calls, not for crime prevention, but for crime punishment.
The Bible and Self-Defense
Very clearly, the Bible supports the right of self-defense. This right, as are all rights, are imputed to us by the law of God. The law of God says, "Thou shalt not murder." It is from this commandment that we derive the right of self-defense. That is to say, we have a right to prevent out own murder, or for that matter, the murder of others.
Exodus 22:2-3 speaks directly to this issues. "If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft."
Commenting on this passage, John Gills notes that,
...and be smitten that he die be knocked down with a club, by the master of the house, or any of his servants, or be run through with a sword, or be struck with any other weapon, to hinder him from entrance and carrying off any of the goods of the house, and the blow be mortal: there shall no blood be shed for him: as for a man that is murdered; for to kill a man when breaking into a house, and, by all appearance, with an intention to commit murder, if resisted, in defence of a man's self, his life and property, was not to be reckoned murder, and so not punishable with death: or, "no blood" shall be "unto him" (a); shall be imputed to him, the man that kills the thief shall not be chargeable with his blood, or suffer for shedding it; because his own life was risked, and it being at such a time, could call none to his assistance, nor easily discern the person, nor could know well where and whom he struck.
In short, the law of Moses allowed men to defend their homes, up to and including the use of deadly force.
Another passage that supports the self-defense is Luke 22:36. Here, Jesus tells the disciples to take with them a knapsack, a money bag and a sword. Some commentators, going back to at least John Calvin have argued that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here about a sword. In the opinion of this author, this is incorrect. If Jesus was speaking metaphorically about the sword, this implies that he was speaking metaphorically about taking basic provisions including money. But is it reasonable to think that the disciples were to fulfill the Great Commission and bring the Gospel to all nations without basic provisions? This hardly makes sense. And if Jesus command to take with them basic provisions was literal, why are we to consider his command to take a sword as anything but literal?
There are some who argue that Jesus saying "turn the other cheek" to the one who strikes you abrogates any notion of self-defense. John Gill's comments here are helpful.
Not but that a man may lawfully defend himself, and endeavour to secure himself from injuries; and may appear to the civil magistrate for redress of grievances; but he is not to make use of private revenge.
In other words, Gill holds that a man has the right to defend himself for the purpose of brining the offender to justice, but not for the purpose of seeking private revenge.
Other commentators hold that the "slap on the right cheek" of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:39 is a back-handed slap - for a right hander strike someone on the right cheek, he must use a back handed striking motion - meant as insult, not as a threat to one's life.
The Bible and Defense Against Tyranny
Another circumstance in which the Bible approves the use of deadly force is in the lawful defense against tyranny. This doctrine has come to be called the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate, which was famously articulated by John Calvin in Book IV, Chapter 20, Paragraph 31 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Wrote Calvin,
But whatever may be thought of the acts of the men themselves, the Lord by their means equally executed his own work, when he broke the bloody sceptres of insolent kings, and overthrew their intolerable dominations. Let princes hear and be afraid; but let us at the same time guard most carefully against spurning or violating the venerable and majestic authority of rulers, an authority which God has sanctioned by the surest edicts, although those invested with it should be most unworthy of it, and, as far as in them lies, pollute it by their iniquity. Although the Lord takes vengeance on unbridled domination, let us not therefore suppose that that vengeance is committed to us, to whom no command has been given but to obey and suffer.
I speak only of private men. For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and perhaps there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets). So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fradulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians.
Any challenge to the king, or the central government for that matter, must be made by the lesser magistrates, that is to say, those men to whom formal governing authority has been given. Rebellion is not the right of private citizens.
In history, we see examples of this such as the Elector of Saxony protecting Luther from the Emperor Charles. The American Revolution was such an event. It was not a private revolution, but was one that occurred as a last resort and declared by the elected officials of the colonies.
Missing from Calvin's argument is a specific appeal to Scripture. But it seems to this author that such examples can be found. In the 1 Samuel, we read how the Philistines ruled the Israelites, yet the Israelites rebelled against them and threw off the foreign yoke. If rebellion against unjust rule was always sinful, as some argue, then Israel's rebellion against the Philistines was likewise sinful. Yet Scripture never states explicitly or implies that there was anything sinful about the actions of Saul, Jonathan or David in driving the Philistines out of Israelite territory. They were lawful government magistrates defending the nation against the unjust oppression of a foreign power.
If the lesser magistrate is to interpose himself between the greater magistrate and the people, this implies the possible need for physical force, which implies the need for weapons. This is why tyrants always go for the gun grab at the first opportunity: They do not want the people to be able to resist their evil actions. In Scripture, there is at least one good example of this.
Government Gun Grabbing In the Bible
Worth noting in all this is that, during their occupation of Israel, the Philistines had made a policy of disarming the Israelites. In 1 Samuel 13:19-20, we read, "Now there was no blacksmith to be fund throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, 'Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.' But all the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to sharpen each man's plowshare, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle...."
Here we see that that the Philistines attempted to render the Israelites defenseless by taking away, not just their swords, but their means of producing them. It was illegal for an Israelite to work as a blacksmith under Philistine occupation.
This "gun ban" was so effective that, as 1 Samuel 13:22 notes, "So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan. But they were found with Saul and Jonathan his son."
As it happened, God, through the heroic leadership of Jonathan, still delivered a great victory to Israel that day. Yet we can see in the example of the Philistines the same sort of thing that tyrannical governments have done to people throughout history, attempt to eliminate the ability of subject people to defend themselves by removing their access to weapons of war.
In light of this example, Christians in 21st century America should be very skeptical of any government official, or wanna be government official, who seeks to use mass shootings as a reason to restrict, and to eventually eliminate, the private ownership of guns.
Crime Prevention or Crime Punishment?
One of the reasons some politicians give for attempting to limit the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is crime prevention. This assumes that it is the government's job to prevent crime. But nowhere in the Bible is the government called to do this.
Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that the civil magistrates job is to punish those who practice evil. That is to say, the job of the government is to punish criminals, not prevent crime.
Crime prevention is really another way of saying "let's punish everyone in the hope of stopping future crime." This is unjust on the face of it. If a man has done no wrong, why should he have his rights restricted in hopes of preventing someone else from doing something wrong? The Scriptures clearly teach that father are not to be put to death for their children, not are children to be put to death for their parents. Rather, each will die for his own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16). Applying this principle more broadly prohibits governments from employing punitive regulations on society, in order to prevent the wrong doing of the few.
The Biblical theory of criminal justice is one of crime punishment, not crime prevention.
When faced with obvious horrors such as what occurred in El Paso and Dayton, the knee-jerk reaction from the press and from many politicians is to cry "there ought to be a law!," when, in fact, there already are many laws on the books, none of which prevented the crime from taking place. Will placing new, more restrictive gun laws on the books stop future crimes? Apart from what was noted above, that the Christian theory of criminal justice is one of crime punishment, not crime prevention, from a practical standpoint, the answer is, not likely.
Private citizens have a God-given right to keep and bear arms, both for their own defense and for the defense of their nation's liberties. Tyrannical governments throughout history have opposed this ideas for obvious reasons.
For those who seek to use tragedies such as El Paso and Dayton to call for more restrictive gun legislation, ask yourself, what happens when government officials have a monopoly on the possession of guns? Are not government officials also sinful men, and have not government officials used their monopoly on power to oppress and even murder their own people?
In his book Death by Government, R. J. Rummel estimated that, in the 20th century alone, governments accounted for approximately 169,198,000 murders. Those who seek to strip private citizens of their right to keep and bear arms and turn over all gun ownership to the government need to explain why we should trust governments with a monopoly on deadly force. In the opinion of this author, they will find this an impossible task.
For Christians, mass shootings of the sort we've too often witnessed are a stark reminder of the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the desperate need of our unbelieving fellow citizens to hear the Gospel of Justification by Belief Alone. Jesus called us to be salt and light. Let us be about our business.