The slaughter of 20 innocent children and six staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012, left America reeling in shock and sharpened the passionate debate across the nation about gun control. Opinions are expressed as feverishly today as they were then, and the rhetoric continues to be forceful.
Sharon Miller has remarked that “in our nation, the individuals most affected by gun violence are those that we as Christians are commanded to serve: the poor, the abused, and the young.”1
For some, a “culture of violence” promoted by the media industry bears blame for some of this. Ruth Graham agrees: “We have a culture of violence. We wean our children on violent and graphic video games.”2 Media reporting of guns and violence is also blamed for creating a “culture of fear.”3
Others blame nihilism and fatalism that leave God out of the equation, while the nation goes in an “opposite direction from its biblical roots toward a godless secular view.”4 Factors identified as predisposing Christians in America to purchase and own guns include fear of attack, a sense of insecurity, a feeling of powerlessness, the need for self-defense, and the assertion of personal liberty.
Living in fear is reported to increase risk factors for heart disease.5 Citing a survey conducted after September 11, John Tierney demonstrated that the fear of terrorism had physical and social consequences because people were more afraid of gathering in private places that are turned into fortified zones where civil liberties erode and mistrust grows.
Echoing similar thoughts, Frank Furedi stated, “In contemporary times, fear migrates freely from one problem to the next without there being a necessity for causal or logical connection.”6
Tierney sees the media, as well as public officials, security officials, and politicians as contributing to a current epidemic of fear.7
Insecurity, closely related to pervasive feelings of fear, often motivates people to purchase a gun. One effect immediately observable after the Sandy Hook massacre was a rush by many parents to purchase handguns. Some schools decided to require staff to be trained in the use of guns, and in some cases they armed certain staff for extra protection.
A sense of powerlessness is pervasive in the wake of mass killings: a single individual wielding a firearm does so much harm, while those who are unarmed feel impotent and defenseless. Gun purchases provide for some a sense of control instead of inadequacy.
The gun lobby’s National Rifle Association (NRA) argues that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Guns for self-defense is their reasoning.
Gun owners, including many who decry the intrusion of government into their lives, also claim gun ownership as a constitutional right. To the Christians among them I wonder aloud:
How consistent with biblical Christianity are our reasons for gun ownership?
In Gethsemane, as the mob led by Judas came to arrest Him, Christ invalidated the need for His followers to bear arms. Peter, armed with a sword, drew it and struck off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Jesus’ response was unequivocal: “Put your sword back!” (Matt. 26:52; see also John 18:11). Christ’s position was that His security lay with His Father, not with His weaponry. A legion of angels was at His disposal if necessary. God, if He wills, is able to protect His own.
Jesus teaches explicitly in this episode that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Firearms and force seem to stand firmly over against His message. The use of force can trigger an irreversible cycle that eventually consumes much more than ever contemplated, whether of initiators or their original targets, including women and youth.
Our discussions may not consider sufficiently the nature of Christ’s kingdom. His is, unambiguously, a spiritual kingdom, independent of human agencies or devices. He says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). And the nature of Christ’s kingdom determines the weapons of Christ’s kingdom.
The apostle Paul declared, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. . . . They have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). Too often in history Christ’s followers have fought to establish His kingdom while employing the weapons of the enemy, stripping the gospel of its disruptive countercultural power.
Faith in God is fear’s great antidote. God’s people have defied death and witnessed for Him in perilous moments because they recognize His ability to protect and deliver from every form of evil. Jesus foresaw that destitution of faith would characterize the age before His return (see Luke 18:8). If faith is to grow the biblical narratives need to be retold anew in ways that will be relevant, to lead to conviction and reconversion—for faith does come by hearing (Rom. 10:17).
Even as Christians deprive gospel preaching of its transformative power and church membership declines, there is an upsurge in people turning to New Age and spiritual movements. Entertainment industries exploit these moves, churning out blockbuster films and television series that thrive on belief in the existence of the supernatural and paranormal. Perhaps it is time again for the church to do as the apostles did when forbidden to preach in Jesus’ name: they prayed for signs and wonders and God answered immediately (Acts 4:18-21). Perhaps the time has come again for the world to witness the power of the gospel. After all, the greatest desire of secularists and animists is the desire for power.8
Modern living typically lacks a sense of community. Many urban dwellers live insulated, private lives, with limited opportunity for socialization with neighbors. Major factors include individualism, changes in the nature of work, and the media—especially television.9 Loss of community breeds distrust, suspicion, and fear, which inexorably lead to the purchase of guns.
The gun debate in the United States presents a quagmire as treacherous as any that the church must face today.
The message of the gospel is supra- and countercultural. Every culture’s good aspects should be affirmed; cultural vices, wherever found, need to be transformed through the power of the gospel. The church has a duty to teach members to be citizens of another country, a heavenly country. Our allegiance ought to be to the One who died on Calvary to purchase for us the right of citizenship in His kingdom. As pilgrims and strangers therefore, we shall live by the principles of heaven’s constitution, where our minds should be constantly fixed (Heb. 11:12-14; 1 Peter 2:11; Col. 3:1-3). As citizens of another kingdom we learn to live in the world and yet not be of the world (John 17:15, 16; 1 John 2:15, 16). In other words, we should live as “resident aliens.”10
The church that witnesses for God to the world will inevitably come up against the evils that inhabit all of earth’s cultures. Discharging this prophetic function, the church will correct the erring and convert the broken communities of the world from fallen standards to lofty ideals unattainable through human effort alone. But to the extent that the church surrenders its prophetic voice it deprives itself of the authority to act as a moral guide for society.
The gun debate in the United States presents a quagmire as treacherous as any that the church must face today. Will it follow the uncompromising way of Christ, or travel the world’s highway? Should it respond to the grave need for vital Christian spirituality (Heb. 11:12-14; 1 Peter 2:11), or propose some flaccid option for the sake of avoiding offense?
One thing is clear: just as the “foolishness of the cross” (see 1 Cor. 1:18) prevailed over the imperial might of the Roman forces, Christ’s way can prevail today. As debates over self-protection continue, the church may recognize the moment for what it truly is: a call for God-inspired action, to (1) repair the social breaches that have led to fear and faith in arms, and (2) lead in proclaiming the word of faith—faith in the wisdom of divine providence instead of the will to survive at whatever expense.
God grant us again the primitive faith that trusts in the weapons of God’s kingdom, and not in our own carnal weaponry.
Kelvin Onongha teaches missiology at the Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.