Culture At Large

Christian ethics at the National Review and The Dish

Marta Layton

Two mainstream media outlets – the National Review Online and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish – recently applied Christian ethics to the gun-violence debate, to very different results.

Over at the National Review, David French argues that we have an obligation to protect things like human life - even if we have to act violently. He points to one of God's first commands to Noah after the Flood: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man." This verse, French points out, isn't directed to the police or some nation-state, but to individuals.

He also pointed to Exodus 22:2-3, which allows you to kill a thief breaking into your home at night without penalty, as well as cases from Nehemiah and Esther where the Israelites defended themselves against violent aggressors. And in the New Testament, French argues, Jesus restricted vengeance to God and the state, but people still had every right to protect themselves. As French puts it, "The idea that one is required to surrender his life - or the lives of his family, neighbors or even strangers - in the face of armed attack is alien to Scripture."

Andrew Sullivan takes a different approach. The Easter story "requires absolute nonviolence in the face of even immense injustice," he writes at The Dish. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus cuts off the soldier's ear, Jesus heals the servant and rebukes Peter, telling us "those who live by the sword will die by it." In the Sermon on the Mount, He calls on us to turn the other cheek and turns many of the Old Testament legal prohibitions that French invokes on their head. In Sullivan's words, "To use Jesus as an advocate of armed self-defense is almost comical if it were not so despicable."

We have more ways to prevent violence than the ancient Israelites did, and our responses to threats and injustice should change with this.

To be clear, Sullivan isn't calling people to be pacifists. Secular philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, he says, make good cases for violent self-defense. We can make a case for violence in certain circumstances within the Christian tradition, as well. "In a fallen world," Sullivan wrote, "there is also a case for just war (but one that Aquinas had to come up with, for Jesus was uninterested)." Violence may sometimes be necessary, even good - but when it is celebrated, Sullivan thinks that's contrary to Christ's example.

Who's right here? As with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I agree with French that we are commanded to protect certain things, most especially human life. This is a struggle I face regularly as a pacifist. Aren't I putting my own moral purity over the safety of others because I'm afraid to get my hands dirty by using a gun? But French also bases his argument largely on historical examples taken from a more violent age. God's law is permanent, of course, but our application of it may not be. We have more ways to prevent violence than the ancient Israelites did, and our responses to threats and injustice should change with this.

Sullivan suffers from a different spin on the same problem. In Gethsemane, Jesus was not trying to avoid an injustice; He realized He had to be captured and eventually die. This is almost never the case historically. And while Jesus didn't lead an army in the Gospels, His words have often been interpreted as pointing to a Second Coming when He will take on a more military role. The Jesus of the Gospels didn't have the political power to overthrow the Romans or the Sadducees and so He submitted. Would He have told Peter to put away his sword if He could have accomplished His goal through fighting? That's a much more complicated question.

When it comes to guns, neither extreme has it exactly right. Christians are commanded to protect the weak and downtrodden, and in some rare cases this may require gun violence. We should be careful, though: guns are dangerous, and we must use them for the right reasons if we're going to use them at all. Does someone face a bigger risk from handguns (due to shooting accidents) than they face from criminals? Are we more concerned with our rights and our personal safety than whether guns help us do good? Or, from the other side: does not owning a gun keep us from protecting our families and neighbors when required?

French was right about one thing: we serve a God who loves life and calls us to protect the weak. But what does that mean in practical terms? Must we carry guns and be prepared to use them? If so, when?

Editor's note: This post was part of a March Synchroblog challenge on the topic of Guns & God. You can find links to other posts in the series here.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Media, Justice