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In Matthew 10:34, Jesus declares, provocatively, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” So far as I know, however, this is not a scripture that white evangelicals appeal to when justifying their opposition to gun control.

As Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller observed last Friday, evangelicals (like most other Christians) regard Jesus as taking the turn-the-other-cheek approach to threats of violence. They justify armed self-defense by appealing to Nature. Wade Burleson, my favorite conservative Baptist blogger, put it this way last month in the wake of Newtown:

As a Christian, I may choose not to bear arms, to turn the other cheek, and to live like Jesus Christ lived. But as an American, I will resist any effort by the state to take weapons from her citizens.

Natural Law demands this of me.

I must say I am puzzled not only by a Southern Baptist pastor splitting his moral identity into Christian and American halves, but also by his setting Natural Law up against the Gospel. But I suspec that what really counts here is devotion not to Natural Law but to the historical misconception that the Second Amendment was put in place to guarantee a right of revolt.

Anxious to provide security for the new republic but wary of standing armies, the federal government both approved the right to bear arms in order to be able to have on hand “well-regulated” state militias, and, in 1792, passed the Militia Acts in order to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania–a populist anti-tax revolt that, as was widely noted a couple of years ago, represents the best historical precedent for the Tea Party movement. It was George Washington who, as president, led the state militias that sent the Whiskey rebels packing.

In other words, and Burleson et al. notwithstanding, the Second Amendment was designed to strengthen government military authority over the citizenry, not the other way around.  It is a memorial to federal authority. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” says Jesus in Mark 12:17. Perhaps he would have approved.

Categories: Politics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

5 Comments

  1. Margaret Davis

    I can’t imagine Jesus taking a gun in hand. He even told Peter to put up his sword when Peter sliced an ear off one of the soldiers. Then Jesus healed the man. This was Jesus’ time to be taken prisoner for our sake. Peter was not allowed to defend Jesus. Jesus died so we may live for all eternity. Don’t even think about using Jesus to justify disarming Americans. The term Nature’s God refers to the one and only God there is who made heaven and earth. Christians call Him “Father God” or God, our father as Jesus taught us: Our Father.

  2. Mark, I offer a corrective to your take on the history of the second amendment. One of the main concerns of the framers was that individuals have the right to protect themselves against a tyrannical federal government. Both federalists and anti-federalists were in agreement. David E. Vandercoy (Valparasio University)wrote an excellent article on the history of the second amendment several years ago.

  3. The Second Amendment was not about strengthening government power over citizens, quite the contrary. It was part of the checks and balances of The Constitution, in this case, a counterbalance against the potential Tyrany of a federal government posessed of a “standing army”.

    “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate Governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple Government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the Governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
    James Madison, Federalist No. 46 (1788).

    “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”
    George Mason — delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention and co-father of the Bill of Rights, along with James Madison

    “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe.”
    Noah Webster, Examination into the the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (1787) in Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States

    Separately, you envoked the Militia Acts (1792). Interestingly, the second Act was very specific in specifying exactly how the militia was to equip themselves. And the arms required were not hunting nor sporting guns. They were military grade weapons – on oar with those of the regular army. The ‘assault rifles’ of their day.

  4. Mr Silk writes: “As Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller observed last Friday, evangelicals (like most other Christians) regard Jesus as taking the turn-the-other-cheek approach to threats of violence. They justify armed self-defense by appealing to Nature”

    My question would be how does this appeal to “Nature” square with beliefs of Christ as the ultimate nature. I thought Christians were anti-nature as ultimate guiding force (flesh and the natural world being inherently evil)–Christ being ultimately ascendent both literally and figuratively.

    I have always been deeply puzzled by what seems to be such anti-life pro-violence stances next to the words of Jesus. I wonder how this happens in the mind exactly.

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