Beating Guns Into Plowshares

gun show
Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“And they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning knives.” –Isaiah 2:4 (NASB)

I realize that after my three previous blog posts, all dealing with abortion and the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v Wade, some people might say “You support saving babies in the womb but what about kids in school?”

It’s a common comparison and one that cannot be ignored. With the recent murder of 19 school children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, once again everyone’s attention is turned to gun control and what could have been done to prevent this tragedy.

There is also a refrain from Leftist politics that suggests Republicans and Christians (the two are almost always lumped together) are complicit in such deaths as long as they/we (I’m a believer but not a Republican) uphold the second amendment or, to quote former President Barack Obama, “…cling to guns or religion…”

Is it true that all American Christians “cling” to our pro-life values only up until a child is born and then “cling” to our love of firearms thereafter, leaving school children and other innocents at risk?

First of all, Christianity in the U.S. isn’t a single, monolithic belief. There are many different Christian denominations and churches, and not all of them see eye to eye.

But let’s first consider Christians outside the U.S. relative to the issue of firearms.

At the U.K. website (which explains the British spelling in the quotes below) Think Theology, Christian and British thought go hand in hand.

You all know the statistics, I’m sure. America is a striking outlier amongst rich countries when it comes to gun deaths, and indeed homicide rates in general. Over 100 people are shot and killed every day in this country. 25 times as many people are murdered with firearms than in other rich countries, and 28 times as many women. Guns appear to substantially increase the total number of homicides: last year, there were as many murders in Philadelphia as in England, despite the population of England being thirty times the size. These deaths are disproportionately clustered amongst poor communities and African Americans, with black Americans ten times more likely to be shot dead than white Americans. One million American women have been shot at by a domestic partner. Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children. And so on.

According to the article, the U.S. and Australia share a number of cultural traits, which makes this next quote more interesting.

Australia faced that question in 1996. After thirty-five people were killed in a mass shooting in Tasmania, the government took robust action, banning all semi-automatic and automatic weapons, imposing longer and stricter waiting periods and more rigorous licensing and storage restrictions, and requiring a “genuine reason” to own a gun (which included hunting and target shooting, but did not include self-defence). Since then the government has bought back one million semi-automatic weapons, halving the total number of gun-owning households in the country. The number of gun homicides has dramatically reduced in that time, and the overall homicide rate has halved.

So far, none of that is a particularly Christian point of view. However…

Christians should oppose the use of deadly weapons on principle, because we are committed to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the practice of nonviolence. Followers of Jesus should oppose the use of AR-15s or machine guns in self-defence for the same reason that we should oppose land mines, drone strikes, capital punishment and abortion: Christians should never kill people.

As an aside, notice that he also said “and abortion,” but I won’t belabor the  point.

But depending on who you ask, Christians aren’t necessarily called upon to be total pacifists. According to the Desiring God website:

The main part of the answer, however, lies in remembering that Jesus is speaking primarily to individuals. He is not mainly addressing governments here, but is primarily speaking at the personal level. This text, then, shows that an individual’s primary response to evil should be to “turn the other cheek,” while the other texts we have seen (e.g., Romans 13:3-4) show that government’s God-given responsibility is to punish those who commit civil crimes (murder, terrorism, acts of war, etc.). While it is sometimes appropriate even for individuals to use self-defense, it is never appropriate for individuals to seek to punish others. But it is right, however, for governments both to take measures of self-defense and to execute retribution.

The U.K. site disagrees saying:

He teaches his followers to live the same way, not resisting evil, and turning the other cheek (Matt 5; Luke 6). Every time a disciple tries or threatens to use violence in the gospel, even in defence of the innocent, Christ rebukes them (Luke 9, 22; John 19). The apostles regularly present Jesus’s suffering as an example for believers to follow (Rom 12; Phil 2; 1 Pet 2). Disciples are commended for joyfully accepting the plunder of their property (Heb 10). Our struggle is not with worldly enemies or worldly weapons (Eph 6). Christians conquer not by killing but by dying: by the blood of the Lamb, the word of our testimony, and not loving our lives even to death (Rev 12). And every church father before Constantine who addressed the subject—Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Athenagoras—agreed that killing image-bearers of God is always wrong.

But while American Evangelicals support carrying firearms in church for protection, a Jewish point of view is more engaged in keeping schools safe as a matter of internal security. Of course Jews also have viewpoints on gun violence. Both are matters of concern in Judaism because historically, Jews have always been the target for societal and cultural violence and hate.

Christian schools aren’t unmindful of gun violence and also have safety plans for their institutions.

So far that’s not much help.

As the New Yorker article God, Guns, and Country: The Evangelical Fight Over Firearms illustrates, the issue of Christianity and gun control is not that clear cut. It’s a long article and I can’t quote enough of it here to make a complete thought, but here are a few excerpts:

Soon after the vigil at the shop, (Shane) Claiborne (a thirty-five-year-old evangelical activist) had decided to take on the issue of guns full-time. In March, with his friend Michael Martin, a bearded Mennonite and amateur blacksmith, Claiborne published a book called “Beating Guns,” which discusses the role that white evangelicals play in promoting gun culture. “Forty-one per cent of white evangelicals have guns,” he told me. “The same people who worship the Prince of Peace are packing heat.” Claiborne was planning to drive across the country, along with his wife, Katie Jo, and Martin, in a decommissioned school bus that Katie Jo has refitted into a tiny home with saffron curtains, a composting toilet, and solar panels. They would hold vigils in places riven by mass shootings or drug-related violence, during which they would collect guns and melt them down in a mobile forge. They would invite survivors to help beat the molten metal into hoes and spades—an enactment of a passage from the Book of Isaiah, which advises believers to “beat their swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”

And…

Claiborne believes that race plays a larger role than religion in influencing white evangelicals’ fondness for guns. According to a Pew study, fifty-seven per cent of white evangelical gun owners cite “protection” as the main reason that they carry firearms; they envision themselves defending their families against criminals, who are often rendered as black or brown inner-city men. According to Claiborne, many evangelicals imagine Jesus in their own image, “as a white, middle-class Republican” who shares their interests and fears. They have bumper stickers that read, “Jesus would still be alive if he’d had an AR-15.” In fact, gun violence disproportionately affects people of color, and white Americans are largely insulated from its day-to-day toll, though this may be changing as school shootings affect suburban communities.

beating
A gun is sawed in half during the “Beating Guns” tour. Photograph by Rex Harsin

I looked it up and there really is a Beating Guns program as a Christian vision of ending gun violence.

I wish I had a better conclusion for you, but depending on what church you go to and how you interpret the teachings of Jesus, you may or may not advocate for firearm ownership under many, few, or no restrictions in the U.S. It’s complicated.

In fact a Washington Post opinion piece reveals the unique nature of firearms ownership laws and history in the U.S. that makes “common sense gun control laws” anything but easy.

The debate will have to continue because there is no one Christian viewpoint on gun control and school safety.

Before leaving, I just want to touch on the issue of how Christians don’t care about children once they’re born. This is a total fallacy and one born out of stereotypes and bigotry against people of faith.

I often quote my blog post Choose Life which I wrote over a year ago. I’ve also seen a meme posted mainly by Catholics in response to such accusations.

catholic
Screenshot of meme from Facebook.

Those who tend toward being anti-Christian (and possibly anti-Jewish) based on their beliefs that Christians hate woman enough to control their wombs and love AR-15s more than the lives of school children aren’t going to understand let alone agree with anything I’ve said. Yet, I feel it necessary to open the conversation up to a wider perspective. At least once this is read, no one can say they were never told that Christians aren’t just two-dimensional cardboard cutouts “clinging” to semi-automatic weapons and their faith.

5 thoughts on “Beating Guns Into Plowshares”

  1. I had to read this essay twice to be sure that I understood what it was saying. Why did I find it so perplexing? Simply put, it reflects tremendous ignorance and false perceptions about several issues. The first fallacy that I’ll address, though this is not a reflection of any set of priorities, is the one that links the existence or presence of firearms with homicide rates, as if guns were literally jumping up off the ground or out of gun cabinets into the hands of unsuspecting humans and spitting bullets into people. Or perhaps these inanimate objects are somehow possessed of psychokinetic powers to hypnotize people into using them unwittingly. Let me emphasize that this is not so. These “swords” have a proper use in the hands of those who learn to use them as the tools that they are.

    Next, let me address pacifism as a supposed preference for biblically-affiliated disciples of the ancient Israeli rabbi Yeshua ben-Yosef. People who believe that utterly neglect the difference between a preferred respect for life, for oneself and for others, that applies in circumstances that do not threaten life, and the alternative of armed self-defense in circumstances that threaten to destroy life. Just before his arrest, he asked his disciples if they had swords. Two of them were carrying them, and his response was that this would be enough, presumably for their present circumstances. One of them became overexcited when his rabbi was about to be arrested, and cut off someone’s ear. Rav Yeshua’s response was not an instruction to throw away the sword, but rather to engage in healing after its misuse. Around this same time he reminded his disciples of their earlier ministry when they didn’t even carry their own provisions and relied on the kindness of those to whom they ministered; and then instructed them for their future in which they would be expected to carry provisions and whatever else was needed, including weapons – presumably for self-defense from brigands, bandits, and perhaps even from the soldiers of the Roman occupation. In other words, there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

    So what is the purpose of firearms and other weapons? We may extract lessons from history to identify a distinction between a defenseless population and one which is armed. The former is unable to resist either invaders from without or overzealous authoritarians and bullies from within. Both events quickly destroy any liberty previously experienced by the unarmed population, but armed resistance can restore such liberty or even prevent it from being infringed at all. Armed resistance against criminals, coupled with trial, prosecution, and punishment by incarceration and forcible rehabilitation – or in worst cases execution – is a necessary means to interdict destructive behavior. Note that the only practice that ensures enough defenders can be present or nearby where and when they are needed is one that enables everyone to participate in that defense. Further, the knowledge that everyone is prepared to interdict criminality with adequate force can deter many criminals and obviate the need to do so. Removing the firearms which empower the peaceful and law-abiding majority of citizens merely renders a general population defenseless and vulnerable. It does not prevent destructive violent law-breakers from obtaining or manufacturing firearms with which to commit mayhem. It ensures that the lawless will usurp power and the law-abiding will be powerless to interdict them. It ensures that the public is powerless to stop elected leaders from misusing the weapons that they possess, oppressing the public instead of serving them. In order for the citizenry to be the masters over their appointed or elected public servants, the citizens must have means to exert power that cannot be overridden by corrupted powerful tyrants.

    Now let me return to the notion of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This is necessary where there is a limited supply of metals which must be used for agricultural tools or weapons, whatever is needed at a given time. There are other biblical passages where a command is issued to beat plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, in preparation for an impending conflict. What sort of era do we live in now? What tools are needed, and what materials are available? Do we live in peaceful security where no weapons are needed for self-defense? Are liberties enshrined and practiced and supported by all? If so, by all means put away the weapons and focus on productive pursuits. But what I see all around are reports of conflict and mayhem, which cry out for everyone to contribute to interdicting it. I see authoritarian tyrants and bullies denying liberties of all sorts, and creating conflict rather than harmony and peace and prosperity. At such a time, those who value peace must be prepared and armed to defend it in every moment of every day in every place. Regrettably, it seems to be too late to maintain peace and prevent conflict. The conflicts are already upon us by the hands and proclamations of selfish criminals, bullies, and tyrants – and those who support and enable them – not to neglect some who seem to be utterly insane from the misuse of psychotropic chemical substances. The only recourse is to make peace by means of counterviolence against the destroyers – and to complete the unpleasant effort as quickly as possible in order to return to conditions that do not require such unpleasantness.

    There have existed and do exist isolated insular communities that have succeeded to train their populations in the ways of peace and cooperation and coexistence. These can afford to eschew the use of anti-personnel weapons, and concentrate their attention to the use of tools as such, even while taking such precautions as needed to ensure safety from sharp objects and other equipment that can kill and destroy. Farm equipment can be quite deadly unless sufficient training and care is exercised. Likewise for manufacturing equipment, transportation equipment, building equipment, and energy production equipment. Some of these tools, like the ancient plowshares, can be turned from their ordinary peaceful function and transformed into weapons that kill. For example, an airplane that is intended to carry passengers can be turned into a flying firebomb or murderous missile. A truck can be laden with agricultural fertilizer and transformed into a massive bomb. It is harder to transform purpose-built weapons into tools for peace; but firearms can be used to guard against those who would disturb or destroy peace, and they can be used to eliminate vermin or hunt for food. They can be used for peaceful entertainment and practical familiarization that may become necessary when threats arise. But the real “weapon” that must be “beaten” into a suitable shape, whether for war or for peace, is the human mind. Without that mind to operate them, none of the dangerous tools and equipment will harm anyone. This is the notion that was missing from James’ essay. People are the source of both problems and solutions, and it is this fundamental truth that must be emphasized and repeated.

    1. Yes, the blog post was a little confusing, but I was attempting to describe the dynamic tension between different expressions of Christianity over gun control laws. I was also responding to the often cited cliché that if pro-life believers really cared about kids, we’d abolish or at least severely limit access to firearms. All of your points are quite valid, but as I recall, Israel has some very strict gun control laws, much more so than the U.S.

      1. While it’s true that Israel doesn’t feature an equivalent to the US 2nd Amendment in its Basic Laws, I’m not sure that the overall result is much stricter than the regulations and restrictions applied in the USA. In any case, armed personnel are ubiquitous and required to participate in defense at any moment the need arises. We have virtually the entire post-highschool teen population in compulsory IDF service, and all of them armed with fully-automatic rifles. We have handgun-armed civilian security personnel at virtually every public venue. We have armed police of various kinds, some with the same fully-automatic rifles as the IDF, some with handguns, some with both, some armed also with tasers and pepper spray. We have civilian security personnel accompanying school field trips, bearing automatic rifles or handguns or both. In short, we have firearms all over the place, but firearm violence is very rare except for that instigated by insurrectionistic terrorists. The mindset is very different from that prevailing in the USA or that in Europe, perhaps because the training and common experience of the citizenry is very different.

        OBTW, I should point out that a common feature of our firearms training is an emphasis on the wastefulness of fully-automatic firing as distinct from semi-automatic. Hence the capability is rarely used, in order to ensure that targets are selected very deliberately if firing is required at all. The argument so often invoked by US politicians about so-called “assault” weapons is thus pure demagoguery, because anyone using a weapon legally and responsibly — that is, the vast majority of gun owners and users — is also unlikely to waste ammunition in an impractical spray. Firearm regulations, then, benefit no one by limiting device capabilities; and criminals and the insane ignore such regulations anyway.

  2. Dear James

    The turning the other cheek has been misconstrued over the centuries. There are more than 2 cheeks on a human.

    The Greek word is ‘siagón’. Very similar to Saigon, Vietnam, originally founded on a low muddy place or bottom. Gon means bottom or side as in polygon etc. Gondola is a flat bottomed boat.

    Men will sometimes pinch ladies on the bottom in the Mediterranean countries I understand. Rather than take offense as some might, turning the other cheek would mean therefore something quite different! The man would either be embarrassed for being shown up or might then enter into a sensible conversation. No wonder the people loved Jesus, he was very witty.

    Kind regards

    Baldmichael Theresoluteprotector’sson
    Please excuse the nom-de-plume, this is as much for fun as a riddle for people to solve if they wish.

    1. The notion of pinching rather mischaracterizes the interaction addressed by haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef some two millennia ago. He talked about being “struck”, as in assaulted. It is also important to remember the context was one of interpersonal relations, as distinct from, say, international ones. One might consider, however, its application to interactions with local Roman occupation forces — not unlike another circumstance of possibly being forced to carry a soldier’s equipment for some limited distance.

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