The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Monday's Washington Post featured a PostEverything commentary titled, "I'm an evangelical preacher. You can't be pro-life and pro-gun." The subhead is "The American obsession with guns just doesn't square with biblical teaching." The author is Rob Schenck, an influential evangelical minister. Although the commentary promises to use "biblical teaching" to prove its thesis, his cited texts demonstrate the opposite.
Previously, explains Schenck, "I believed that we had a God-given right to defend ourselves." He acknowledges that most evangelicals share this belief, and he aims to explain why his former belief is incorrect. Thus, he is arguing that pacifism is the only legitimate Christian position. (Or at least the only legitimate position for evangelicals, who rely on the Bible as an inerrant source of authority.)
Pacifism has always had a role in Christianity, and has never been the sole view of Christians. For example, among the Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) was not a pacifist, while Justin Martyr (approx. 100-165) was. Justin's tradition was carried forward by eminent Christians such as St. Martin of Tours (approx. 316-397), Menno Simons (early 16th-century Anabaptist) and George Fox (17th-century founder of the Quakers). Today, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is that pacifism can be a legitimate choice for a Christian, but it is not mandatory, and that choosing not to be a pacifist is equally legitimate. The enduring presence in Christianity of pacifism and of non-pacifism is one of the subjects of my forthcoming book "The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition" (Praeger, 2016).
Schenck, however, goes much further and argues that Christians "can't" disagree with his anti-gun pacifist mandate. Within the evangelical framework, he has to prove his theory by using the Bible. So what is his biblical argument?
"At no time did Jesus use deadly force," writes Schenck. This is true, but doesn't prove much. Jesus did not marry, yet only a few eccentric sects have extrapolated Jesus's behavior into a rule that no one should marry. Few people argue that Christians are morally compelled to imitate Christ by not marrying, by having no possessions or by not having any natural children. Lifetime celibacy might be considered a characteristic of people with a special vocation (for example, priests and nuns) but is not a requirement for all conscientious believers. Jesus was carpenter and a rabbi, but that does not mean it is un-Christian to be an accountant, a plumber or an aviator.
Schenck continues: "Although he once allowed his disciples to defend themselves with 'a sword,' that permission came with a limitation on the number of weapons they could possess." The sentence on its face refutes the notion that Jesus opposed his disciples defending themselves with deadly weapons.
Here is the context of Jesus's sword instruction: Early in Jesus's ministry, he told the disciples, "I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road." (Luke 10:3-4, English Standard Version.) At the Last Supper, Jesus gave his final instructions to the apostles, and revoked the previous order about not carrying useful items. He asked, "When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?"
"Nothing," the apostles replied. Jesus continued:
"But now, let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was numbered with the transgressors. For what is written about me has its fulfillment."
The apostles responded, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." Jesus said to them, "It is enough." (Luke 22:35-38).
Jesus was not setting up a rule that every apostle must carry a sword (or a purse or a bag). For the 11, two swords were "enough." The broader point being made by Jesus was that the apostles would, after Jesus was gone, have to take care of their own worldly needs to some degree. The moneybag, the knapsack (generally used to carry clothing and food), and the sword (generally used for protection against the robbers who preyed on travelers, including missionaries, in the open country between towns) are all examples of tools used to take care of such needs.
The passage indicates that two of the apostles carried swords while they were following Jesus. Significantly, the disciples may have been violating the sword control laws, as many of the earliest readers of Luke would have known. Roman law forbade the Jews and other subject people to carry swords. See Edwin R. Goodenough, The Jurisprudence of the Jewish Courts of Egypt: Legal Administration by the Jews under the Early Roman Empire as Described by Philo Judeaus (Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2002; 1st pub. 1929), p. 151, citing L. Mitteis & U. Wilcken, Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde (Fundamentals and Collection of Papyrus Knowledge), vol. 1, part 2 (Leipzig, Germany: 1912), no. 19. The weapons prohibition was enacted sometime between 35 B.C.E. and 5 C.E. One disciple, Matthew, was a tax collector, so his sword carrying might have been lawful.
But let's grant Schenck's point that Jesus's statement about what was "enough" (two swords for 11 people) was a form of arms rationing, perhaps an early version of one-handgun-per-month purchase rules. If we're going to read the Two Swords passage as a mandate, it seems to mandate owning and carrying a sufficient quantity of arms for legitimate defense. (Some pacifists argue that Jesus revoked the sword mandate a few hours later, when he told Peter to put his sword back in its sheath and to not resist the Roman soldiers who had come to arrest Jesus. Schenck prudently does not make this argument; after all, putting a sword in its sheath, like putting a handgun in its holster, is not the same as being permanently disarmed.)
Schenck states, "Numerous Bible passages, such as Exodus 22:2-3, strictly limit the use of deadly force." Again, the passage that Schenck cites as proof that pacifism is a universal mandate demonstrates the opposite. After all, if there are strict limits on the use of deadly force, then deadly force is sometimes permissible.
The Book of Exodus absolved a homeowner who killed a burglar at night: "If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall be no blood shed for him." (Exodus 22:2, King James Version). The Modern Language Bible renders the verse: "When a burglar is caught breaking in, and is fatally beaten, there shall be no charge of manslaughter." Under the Mosaic law, the nearest relative of a person who was murdered was obliged to kill the murderer, providing blood restitution for the death of the innocent. But when a nocturnal burglar was killed in the act, there was no wrongdoing. Thus his relatives had no right of restitution against the homeowner.
The next verse states that "If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him." In other words, the relatives of the dead daytime burglar were required to kill the homeowner, because the homeowner had used excessive force under the circumstances.
Some legal systems have made a day/night distinction for use of deadly force against home invaders. Jewish legal and ethical commentary, however, have almost unanimously treated "If the sun be risen upon him" as metaphorical-with the meaning "If the burglar's intentions are plainly non-violent." Thus, if the householder is certain that the burglar will not use violence against him, then the householder may not kill the burglar—regardless of whether the time is day or night. Conversely, if the burglar is a violent threat to the household, then the burglar may be killed, no matter the hour. (For details, see my article "The Torah and Self-Defense," 109 Penn State Law Review 17 (2004).)
Whether metaphorical or literal, Exodus 22 authorizes the use of deadly force against home invaders, in situations when the invasion presents a grave danger to the people in the home. It is the opposite of a mandate for unarmed pacifism.
Another argument by Schenck comes from human nature, as that nature is described in Christian doctrine: "our belief in the basic sinfulness of humankind should make us skeptical of the NRA's slogan, 'the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.' The Bible indicates that we are all bad guys sometimes." The last sentence is certainly true, but Schenck is fighting a straw man. Nobody who advocates armed defense of self and others is claiming that armed defenders are necessarily pure and sinless or that only the perfectly pure should act to protect innocent victims.
For example, one Sunday afternoon in December 2007, Jeanne Assam was a volunteer security guard at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Shortly after the beginning of afternoon services for the enormous congregation, an armed man entered, intent on mass murder. He had just murdered two teenagers in the parking lot, and a few hours earlier had murdered two people at a Christian youth ministry in the Denver suburbs. Assam drew her semi-automatic handgun and engaged the invader. Her gunfire was disciplined and effective, and the attacker ended the losing gunfight by killing himself. According to the church's pastor, Assam saved more than a hundred lives that day. Assam's autobiography, "God, the Gunman, and Me," makes it very clear that she is aware of her own moral failings. She also looked for, and found, the good side of the young man who had attacked the church; he is discussed extensively in her autobiography, based on many hours that Assam ended up spending with the young man's parents. Being aware that every human has some mixture of good and evil is not inconsistent with forceful action to stop people who are perpetrating evil attacks.
Schenck's final argument falls back upon two general passages from the New Testament: First, "bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." (Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Luke 6). Second, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay.'" (St. Paul's letter to the Romans, ch. 12.)
Unlike the other passages cited by Schenck, these two have the advantage of not directly contradicting Schenck's theory of mandatory pacifism. Further, there are many eminent Christians who have read these passages in the same pacifist sense as Schenck does. But the very large majority of Christians over the past two millennia have not read those passages as pacifist mandates. And the majority has the better argument, in my view.
First, any biblical passage is supposed to be read in the context of the rest of the Bible. Schenck's theory that Jesus (or Paul attempting to express Jesus's views) mandated pacifism is contradicted by Jesus's own instruction for the disciples to carry swords. Eleven people with two swords is not a collection of defenseless pacifists. Rather, sword-carrying seems more like what Schenck derides as "a permanently defensive posture against others" that "includes a willingness to kill."
Second, self-defense is not inconsistent with praying for and blessing one's enemies. The late James MacDougald served as president of the Board of Trustees of the Independence Institute, where I work. Earlier, he had been a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War; entering combat, he prayed for the enemy pilots.
Finally, admonitions against "revenge" have nothing to do with self-defense or defense of others. In the American legal system, X cannot violently attack Y to exact revenge for prior wrongful injuries inflicted by Y. However, X can forcibly defend herself to prevent Y from completing an attack against X, or to thwart Y's attack on A, B and C.
If Schenck wants to be a pacifist, that is his prerogative. His commentary does not provide persuasive textual argument from the Bible about why evangelicals must agree with him. According to Schenck's interpretation of the Two Swords instruction from the Last Supper, having 18 percent of a given group of civilians (two out of 11) carrying deadly weapons is "enough." Applied to any public gathering of people (such as at a church, restaurant or theater), 18 percent armed would often be enough to thwart attackers who intend to murder without opposition until the police arrive. This is one of the reasons why in the self-defense debate, the pro-choice side is also the pro-life side.