"As I am made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life before birth, I am also made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life after birth,” writes environmentalist and poet Wendell Berry.
I believe Christians should adopt Berry’s paradigm. But in mainstream evangelicalism, it seems only the first part is accepted.
This was clearly demonstrated in Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s controversial convocation address at my school on Dec. 4, and his follow up interview on Sean Hannity’s show on Dec. 7. Falwell’s comments didn’t bring healing to a broken situation. They were tactless and politically expedient.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus is being unjustly arrested, he beseeches his disciples to avoid violence, “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
Later, Paul urges, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
Early Christians understood this. Until Constantine’s rise to power, the church was largely pacifist, as were its saints. St. Maximilian was recruited by Roman soldiers to fight, rejected the use of violence, and was executed. St. Clement taught, “Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins.” Tertullian proclaimed, “The Christian does not even hurt his enemy.”
Disturbingly, these arguments are jettisoned by most evangelical conservatives today, in favor of a penchant for violence and “self-defense.”
Since coming to Liberty University in 2011, this unholy union of gun culture and conservative evangelical faith has concerned me. Falwell’s remarks, and the upsetting student applause, has only served to solidify my dismay. It is amazing what people are willing to follow along with in the name of security.
I’m not arguing that having a gun constitutes a troubling gun culture. But this kind of gun culture, involving those who put their faith in weaponry instead of God, embodies an attitude of, “Shoot first, pray later.”
I love my school, and Liberty is not a monolithic place — there are a diversity of worldviews and backgrounds here, and not every student is happy about Falwell’s sentiments. I have met many students and faculty who have helped me develop as a Christian, an academic, and a person. And I applaud the school’s response to the families of the victims of the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Hopefully by reaching out to them, Falwell can still bring some sense of healing to the situation.
But I feel I need to speak out on this issue. I believe opportunistic pro-gun rhetoric is deeply devastating to the Christian message.
Aside from its unorthodoxy, pro-gun rhetoric actively impedes the spreading of the gospel.
Many people I talk with are quick to point to that Jesus instructed the disciples to be “shrewd as snakes” (they conveniently leave off the second half of the verse, “and as innocent as doves”). They also utilize Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”
This ignores the fact that Luke constantly uses warfare as a symbol of spiritual conflict. As usual, ripping passages out of context and rashly applying them to a modern situation does not work well.
Orthodox Christianity believes humanity is spiritually broken. One end result of this brokenness is depravity. All you have to do is read the news or a history book and you’ll find a plethora of examples of depravity and corruption, but we all carry it within us.
When people give in to depravity, tragedy follows. One purpose for Christ’s life on earth was to show us what it means to be perfect humans. The Christian call to action should center around this instruction in Matt. 22:37-38, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
When we use lethal violence on someone, whatever the circumstances, we are terminally judging a person to be beyond the reach of God. In that moment, we reject the radical notion that God can totally change someone.
It’s tedious to argue that any single piece of legislation will fix this totally (though that doesn’t preclude policy actions which would hopefully decrease rates of violence). Rejecting violence and gun culture may not be expedient.
But who said Christianity was about expediency?
In fact, discarding human life because of “convenience” is one of the main reasons evangelical Christians are so quick to criticize abortion. This very same mentality should be applied to gun culture. If we are to be pro-life, we need to be consistently pro-life. We don’t get to select when it “works for us” and when it doesn’t.
When we honestly examine our position, can we really justify being pro-life sometimes, but not others?
The call for Christians to be “in the world, not of it” needs to be taken seriously in all aspects of life. This applies especially to security and self-defense. Resorting to lethal violence and violent language places our confidence not in God, but in something far more sinister.
Instead, as Christians, we should be spreading the gospel to all. This includes those who may be intent on hurting us.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” said Jesus (Matt. 5:44). I believe he meant that.
Falwell’s comments are a cautionary tale. May this serve as a warning to all Christians: this is what can happen when we wed gun culture to the Christian faith.