13 December 2015

Please don't think I'm weak/I didn't turn the other cheek

The Albany newspaper published a point-counterpoint piece on its Saturday religion page on December 12, inspired by a recommendation by the president of Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian college, that his students acquire open-carry handgun permits and take a free gun course now offered on campus. Christians feel more besieged than ever lately, due both to Muslim terror attacks and incidents like the recent Oregon amoklauf in which a secular shooter taunted Christians before killing them. Needless to say, this news horrified many professed Christians, represented in the newspaper by Shane Claiborne. To him, Christianity is self-evidently a non-violent religion. His antagonist, Daniel Howell, strives to refute his faith's pacifist reputation. His unusual position is that Christian pacifism is based on a selective, inaccurate reading of Scripture. He seems particularly annoyed that this reading of Christianity is used to "lambast self-defense in general and gun ownership in particular." Howell is determined to correct any misperception that "Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching." Jesus is going to kick ass at the Second Coming, he reminds us, and Christians should emulate this badass future Christ as much as the "meek and mild" First Coming Christ. "In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength," Howell argues, while Claiborne worships the merciful Jesus who "encouraged responding to evil not with more evil, but with love."

Both writers describe a crucial Gospel episode presumed definitive of Christian attitudes toward violence and self-defense. Bible readers will recall that Peter fought with the Romans who arrested Jesus and cut one's ear off, only to be rebuked by Jesus, who healed the ear. Here's how Claiborne interprets the story:

Early Christians understood that act as the final deathblow to weapons, believing Jesus' words to Peter were meant to disarm every Christian. No longer could any Christian justify violence toward anyone — even enemies. Early Christians insisted that for Christ we can die, but we cannot kill. We can die on behalf of others, but we cannot kill for them. Why? Because Christ has abolished the sword once and for all.

This common interpretation makes no sense to Howell, since Jesus himself told Peter and the other disciples to buy swords in  Luke 22:36. While Claiborne implies that Jesus's subsequent behavior abrogates the earlier episode, here's how Howell sees it:

Jesus rebuked Peter, and this is offered as proof that Christians should not use weapons. (despite the fact that Jesus just told them to acquire them). However, Peter was rebuked not for using a sword in self-defense but for interfering with God's plan of redemption. We know this because Jesus said it plainly: "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" (John 18:11).
Going further, Howell repeats an argument I've heard before that makes a convenient distinction between retribution and self-defense. Basically, any quote that can be interpreted as arguing against violent or lethal self-defense is, according to Howell, actually only an argument against retaliation or revenge."God is not urging his followers to put themselves or others in harm's way or to be bullied or mistreated at the hands of evil men," he writes, completely contradicting what Claiborne writes. The most Christianity recommends, in this reading, is that you don't go after your attacker after you've chased him off or gotten away.

Howell's attitude (he teaches at Liberty, by the way) must seem counterfactual to many Christians and outside observers, especially at a time when contrasting attitudes toward violence are often used to establish Christianity's moral superiority to Islam. As the conventional formula goes, Christians martyrs die for their faith while Muslim martyrs kill for theirs. As far as we know, Christians did not form a militia to protect themselves from persecution by the Roman Empire; we are told often that they welcomed opportunities to die as witnesses for their religion. Christian martyrs have long been models for passive resistance, but Howell ignores that heritage and implicitly urges Christians to forget it.

It's none of my business to say what Christianity or any religion really is, but it does seem like those who urge Christians to take up the gun are changing how Christians see themselves in the world and in history. The traditional ideal of martyrdom allowed Christians to think that they'd won whether they lived in peace or died by violence, since their faith counted more than their lives. Faith, after all, would be cashed in later for a bigger reward than this world could offer. It was easy for Christians to believe that they were winning even as they were persecuted, even when they were in danger of getting wiped out. I suppose Christians can still tell themselves they're winning when they're outgunned or gunned down, but it looks as if they're giving up a certain certainty that came with passive martyrdom while taking their chances in trials by combat. As for the rest of us, another militant faith convinced of its need to defend itself with armed force from both other faiths and secular enemies is all we need....

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Kenny Rogers lyrics, Sam? Since when did you go country?

"Coward of the County" would sound good with some folks these days.