This topic has been a hot one this past month with all that is going on in the world. First Rev. Falwell touched on it at a speech at Liberty University, and then of course came the secular media response. Sometime later came the response from other leaders within the Christian community. Particularly, John Piper over at Desiring God. And then, of course, there were the responses to him from other Christians. The topic is one that has been niggling for me for quite some time. But, when the automatic response to Piper’s article was “I’ve had a lot of respect for him, but I’m going to have to rethink that” from many of those I know, it caused me to pause.
The things that make us automatically discount someone’s discourse that we have respected in all other areas should always cause us to first rethink our own position. After pondering for a few days, and reading John Piper’s article, I find myself in much the same space, with the same niggling question as I have had for a while now. It has to do with some of the Scripture he, and many others use, in their rejection of civilian defense. It also has to do with what Dr. Joel McDurmon, over at The American Vision had to say in response. There is more to Scripture than the New Testament. There is more to what Christ said to the world than what we call the Gospels.
So, first a clarification. I was pleased that Piper didn’t simply proof text one or two Scriptures, but actually took the time to lay out his case. I also don’t think his article was particularly bad theology. I just happen to disagree with his eventual conclusion, at least in part. Second, this isn’t really a response to that article, nor the other, but more of a look at the issue of God and guns from a slightly different perspective on that passage in all of the Gospels that describes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is one of the most used arguments in the anti-gun arguments of many average Christians. They seize on this stirring scene of Christ rebuking Peter to put up his sword after he strikes off the ear of one of the men who had come to arrest him.
So, let us paint that picture for just a moment. In all four Gospels we have the story of Jesus heading up to pray on what he knew to be the eve of his torture and execution. He takes his disciples with him, and according to Matthew, takes Peter, James and John a little further on, where he becomes sorrowful. He then moves off a little way by himself after charging them with keeping watch and prays earnestly to his father that the cup of torture and crucifixion might pass from him. When he returns, his disciples are sleeping, and he cries out to them, then goes off to pray a little more. His prayer ends with acquiescence to the will of his Father in heaven, acceptance of what it about to happen.
While he is still telling his disciples that the hour is at hand for his betrayal, the garden where they stand is filled with armed men and Judas the betrayer of Christ. Jesus speaks to them, rebuking their skulking about in the night to take him when they refused to face him in public in the light of all who listened to him speak each day. In other words, they came after him when he was vulnerable, unprotected by a crowd of men and women. In the midst of this, Peter draws his sword and chops off the ear of a Malchus, a servant of the high priest.
Now, it is at this point that most Christians who oppose carrying weapons point to Scripture and say “See, Jesus said not to defend yourself, even in the face of death.” But, a reading of all four accounts of this scene tells us that isn’t actually what Christ said to his disciples in this space. Christ was very specific about why he was telling Peter to put up his sword. He stated that it was time, and that they should not go against the will of God. He also stated that this was so that prophecy could be fulfilled, including the prophecy that he would not lose one of this disciples, except the one who had betrayed him. He pointed out as well, that should he desire, he could call upon the host of heaven to do battle for him, but the Scripture had to be fulfilled.
In plain reading of the context of these four accounts, the line “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” seems pretty straightforward, and pretty specific to that moment in time. In that moment, for any of the disciples to avail themselves of their sword would have meant their death. Their death would have messed with the fulfillment of Scripture. Put your sword away, Peter, now is not the time. But, this is where it raises another question for me.
Imagine again this scene, in the context of the whole of the Gospel story. Peter stands beside his Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. He left his nets more than three years before to follow this Christ. He has witnessed miracles and wonders. He has seen this man heal the sick and even raise a dead man from the grave. He has been told that he will be the rock upon which Christ will build his church. This Simon Peter is a man who has devoted himself in every way to following Christ the Lord, even to stepping out onto storm tossed waves and being one of only two men in history to walk on water.
This Peter is standing beside Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and… he has a sword.
Think about that for a moment. Peter has a sword. He is carrying it on his hip. He has it to hand, and is familiar enough with its use to in a moment draw it and lop off the ear of a man in the midst of a group of armed soldiers. Peter, the saint. He carried a sword. And Christ did not tell him to throw away his sword, or to drop his sword, or to surrender his sword. According to Luke, Christ simply said enough of this. According to Mark, Christ did not address this use of the sword at all. According to Matthew and John, the two who would actually have been present there, he simply told Peter to put his sword back in its place, or its sheath.
Does that sound like Christ asked his disciples and those who would follow him to disarm themselves?
I understand Piper’s point that the thrust of the New Testament is toward reconciliation. But even in the book of Romans, which he first uses to point to this pacifist perspective on self-defense, it does not say simply live in peace with all men. It says live in peace with all men, as much as it depends on you. It also doesn’t say don’t defend yourself. It says don’t AVENGE yourself. And yes, there are uncomfortable Scriptures of Christ’s directives to turn the other cheek and such that in all truth, make me squirm a little bit as to what may be right in a given situation. That cause me to pray that if I am ever faced with a situation where I would need to defend myself, or even more importantly, someone else, that I will be granted God’s very own wisdom and discernment as to the correct action to take in that moment.
And unlike Dr. McDurmon and Rev. Falwell, I am not certain we should be sending a message that in all circumstances it is okay to react with lethal force to a threat. I believe there will be moments in each of our lives that call for us to suppress the desire to use physical defense in service of a greater purpose God has for a situation. Not unlike Christ’s need to not eat during his 40 days in the wilderness, not because eating itself is bad, but because sometimes God requires us to refrain from something normal and essential to our survival in service of His greater purpose and plan. That takes regular prayer and regular obedience to His will for us to know when those times are and respond to His will.
In the end, Scripture tells us that we are each called to a different task and a different journey for God. It also tells us that in the end a battle will be coming, and the descriptions of battle in Revelation are not simply battles of prayer and spiritual weapons. Scripture tells us we are to value life, which requires defending it sometimes. Scripture tells us, from the lips of Christ, to read the times we live in and prepare accordingly. I pray that each of us contemplating the issue of carrying a weapon will seek God’s guidance on that decision for us, and will act according to His will and desire for us. If that for you, as it is for many of the pacifist sects, means not arming, then I pray His peace for you as you face the trials to come. If for you, as it is for many others like Peter, means preparing yourself to defend against those who would do evil, then I pray He grants you His wisdom in both your preparations and the trials to come. And I pray all of us learn to seek His discernment on this issue, rather than being guided by either side of the political argument that has so infected the Biblical teachings on the subject.
Be bold and stand ready with an explanation for the hope you have.