Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Staring Down the Barrel

A recent Gospel Coalition “Good Faith Debate” included comments from a pastor who says using a firearm to stop an attempted massacre in a church is as erroneous as Peter’s attempt to prevent Christ’s arrest.

Uh, say what?

Such opinions naturally stir the pot. This responsive post entitled “The Neutered Evangelical Man” provides a great starting point for a discussion on whether Jesus really taught universal pacifism, and it prompted me to pull together a series of thoughts on the subject I have expressed in this space over the years.

Let’s start with a bang.

On responding appropriately to spree killers who target churches:

Yesterday I watched a few seconds of video from the recent attempted mass shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas. It’s all up there on YouTube, of course. The church was livestreaming its service when the incident occurred.

Lots of things might be said about such an appalling act, but the most obvious in this instance is that the shooter chose his target poorly. Unlike the Sutherland Springs shooting in 2017, where 26 Baptist churchgoers were killed and 20 more injured, this killing spree was terminated rather abruptly. A retired FBI agent and member of the congregation standing fifteen yards away put the shooter down with a single headshot before he was able to get off his third shot. (Sadly, both shots the spree-killer did fire were ultimately fatal.) But what is most remarkable to see is that when the shooter pulled his gun, no fewer than six congregants pulled theirs in response. That’s Texas for you.

In the video, it is impossible to miss the fact that all six individuals running toward the conflict are males. The church’s womenfolk — and rightly so, I might add — can be seen hiding in the pews or pulled to the floor and covered by husbands and fathers.

Notwithstanding the immense societal impact of feminism, Christians see nothing weird about drawing hard lines between gender roles in times of crisis. Nor, for the most part, do the unsaved, at least when lives are at stake. Even the national media prudently allowed the egregious lack of proportional feminine representation among the armed responders at West Freeway Church to pass without comment.

Sometimes the patriarchy isn’t so awful after all.

On the difference between individuals responding to aggression and a nation’s foreign policy:

At the individual level and up to a certain point, pacifism is a reasonable response to normal Christian beliefs. If you want to stand still and take a schoolyard beating as a testimony to your faith in Christ, by all means carry on. You’re not hurting anyone, and at least you’re acting out of conviction. I don’t personally believe that the Lord Jesus requires his followers to refuse to defend themselves when in danger of genuine physical harm from people with wicked intentions, but I recognize that each of us stands or falls to his own Master, and I respect the consciences of those who disagree on the issue.

But I do not believe the scriptures anywhere address how a non-theocratic nation should respond to a direct attack on its people dwelling peacefully at home. You will search in vain for the parts of the Bible that give us instruction on that. And in the absence of commands or even examples to follow, attempting to get foreign policy direction from verses intended for the consciences of individual believers is simply a category error.

On the question of whether the Sermon on the Mount teaches universal pacifism in the face of aggression:

Based in part on the teaching of this subsection of the Sermon, Plow Creek Mennonite Church takes a stand for pacifism so comprehensive it would not permit Christians to defend their country in time of war. Jim Foxvog would have you turn not just your own cheek, but the cheeks of your wife, children, neighbors, friends and fellow citizens. Taking such a stand would involve me in giving to God things that are not mine to give.

Moreover, John Piper cites this subsection of the Sermon as evidence it is immoral to bear arms. He quotes Luther’s “Let goods and kindred go / This mortal life also” by way of explanation. Hey, I’m fine with the goods, but I’m fairly certain leaving your kindred to face whatever’s coming their way without father or husband to stand up for them is not the sort of “letting go” Luther had in mind. Violating a wife or child’s reasonable expectation of protection to pursue an ideology of personal pacifism has a whiff of Corban about it — not to mention cowardice.

I dislike arguments from silence, but I cannot help but notice that, like almost every word in the Sermon, this passage has to do with the responsibilities of the individual subject of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, a kingdom which will be inaugurated in blood. Thus we cannot consistently and reasonably pretend that Jesus advocated passivity as a general principle of discipleship or in the pursuit of Christ-likeness. It might be more accurate to say he requires unusual personal restraint and generosity as a testimony to his name in very specific sorts of situations.

On the application of the Corban Principle (“You can’t give God what belongs to somebody else”) to the teaching of Matthew 5:38-41:

Note further that it is your cheek you turn, your tunic and cloak you hand over, you that walks the extra mile and your wallet that you open to give or lend. To try to extend this passage beyond a very personal response to the unfair impositions of the world — to make it, for instance, about how Christian police officers should respond to criminals firing guns at them, or how the government of a country should treat an act of war, or about how Christian parents should respond to a home invasion or the rape of their daughter — is not only a very Corban-like copout, it also involves saying things Jesus simply didn’t say.

The Lord here invites his followers to be patient, selfless, a good testimony and not to insist on the personal rights they enjoyed under the Law of Moses. He does not suggest they do it in a way that passes on to others the real-world cost of their virtuous behavior.

On the reasonable limits of Christian passivity:

The words “Do not resist the one who is evil” are qualified by the examples that immediately follow: insulting slaps, the loss of a coat, the contents of one’s pockets and a long walk. That’s the scope of what the Lord is commanding. He is not spurring his audience toward martyrdom or penury, but rather generosity, grace, moderation and self-control.

The sons of the kingdom are not obligated to allow themselves to be murdered by criminals or injured so severely that they are no longer able to provide for their families. If Jesus intended such extreme self-sacrifice in the face of life-threatening assault, what did he mean by telling his disciples “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one”?

Furthermore, such an interpretation puts followers of Christ in the position of offering something they have no right to offer. A husband’s body is under the authority of his wife, and vice versa. It cannot be given away unilaterally — well, not morally at least.

On the “two swords” of Luke 22:

In those days there was nothing unusual about carrying a sword in Judea even if you were not a Roman citizen. There do not appear to have been “sword-free zones” in Jewish universities and concealed carry permits were not required. In the upper room, when the Lord made his remark about buying a sword, twelve disciples promptly produced two, suggesting that walking the streets of Jerusalem well equipped for self-defense was far from a rare occurrence.

It also suggests there was nothing in the three years of teaching the Twelve had just experienced that would lead them to understand the Lord’s command to buy a sword as an allegory, or to be embarrassed at the thought of defending themselves in appropriate circumstances.

In summary:

Are Christians in danger of failing to make the necessary application of the Lord’s words in [Matthew 5:38-41] to our own lives? Perhaps. But the number of internet commentators who follow John Piper’s view of this passage suggests that on the whole Christendom is probably in greater danger of mass virtue-signaling its willingness to be assaulted than of demanding justice for those who are genuinely and unjustly afflicted.

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