Friday, April 19, 2013

a question for the Church


At what point in the gun-control legislation conversation do Christians ask one another out loud whether killing another person, even in self-defense, is faithful to the God of the cross - regardless of whatever rights the government decides to give us or not give us? How would it change the public conversation if it was simply a given that Christians would rather die than kill? Realizing that such a conviction is not a consensus position among Christians, I ask the questions honestly and openly.

I worry that progressives and conservatives alike essentially agree that gun control is an issue to be meted out in the houses of the State and so therefore forget that Christians are free to renounce legislative freedoms incompatible with the freedom Christ won for us on the cross. That is, the Church punts hard questions of Christian discipleship to the State at her soul's peril. Moreover, for the Church to expect to live her convictions without cost is an evasion of the Gospel.

19 comments:

  1. Personally, I would find it extremely difficult to kill another human being. However, if the threat was not only to me, but also to my children, could I pull the trigger? Definitely!

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    1. I appreciate the comment and the sentiment. I cannot imagine the anguish of such a situation; I cannot predict with certainty how I would act, either. How does the faith of Jesus inform your response to pull the trigger? How do you see a lethal response as informed by faith in Jesus? This is not a rhetorical question, in that it is asked from a position of sincere interest.

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  2. I think God expects us to be human. We aspire to do his will, but should we aspire to actually be God? Does God expect us to lie down and die whenever there is a threat to our lives? As a human being, with all my human emotions and thoughts so gutteral and basic, I can say that I would not, could not, kill another person. But if my life or that of another human being were at stake, I hope I would have the courage to defend, and not cower. Obviously I am not talking about killing someone for stealing a TV or car. In real life-or-death struggles something stimulates us to run or fight. And if the fight involves someone dying, would God not forgive us for defending ourselves?

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I confess that I do not see the connection between Christian non-violence and the aspiration to be God. Indeed, it's an ironic question in that it is the question someone committed to Christian non-violence might ask of those who use violence to sustain illusions of god-like control in their lives. It is not an accident that political and military rulers have historically claimed divinity with regularity. The Christin pacifist's answer to the unlikely question is that Christian non-violence is only imaginable because of the once-for-all (as in, wholly unique) salvation made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

      Like you, I cannot say what I would do with certainty in the situation you describe, either. These are hard things to consider as people, as Christians. Your question as to whether God would not forgive us seems to imply that we are agreed that killing in self-defense would be a sin, which I take as common ground for continuing the conversation. I do wonder if you really believe this, though - the comment about courage vs. cowardice seems to suggest not. As with Anonymous, I would be interested to hear how you see faith in Jesus informing the conversation.

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    2. My faith in Jesus gives me courage to live in this crazy world. And 'gun control' has nothing to do with my faith. Owning a gun does not make a person a murderer, nor does it make a person violent or less Christian. As stated above, God made us 'human' and with our human-ness we struggle to make decisions of this magnitude (kill or be killed decisions). I have faith that God knows I am merely human.

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    3. I appreciate the honest comment. I find myself agreeing with you again on your point about gun ownership not equalling violence or a Christian's unfaithfulness. (I want to suggest the above questions as a conversation for the Church, within the Church, to replace the partisan conversation over gun ownership.) And I appreciate the need for God's grace you keep at the forefront of the conversation. That my next sin will not be my first is a reminder I keep daily before me. Where I disagree is that the inevitability of my next sin somehow renders considerations of Christian holiness moot.

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  3. I'm curious why "defend" always seems to mean "kill"? Can we not defend our families without killing? I pray that if I was ever faced with the awful choice of taking someone's life over my own safety that God would guide me to defend my family without taking the life of someone else.
    My fear about choosing my life over someone else's, for any reason, is the barrier it would put between me and my God. How awkward would it be to tell God I didn't trust him enough to protect me so I broke one of His commandments?
    Don’t get me wrong, I would protect/defend my family to the ends of the earth but I just don’t think that means I have to kill another human being…

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Defense v. killing is a helpful distinction. Wondering what other distinctions worth making would be - torture, for example. Also wondering what resources of the faith you find helpful in making those distinctions.

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    2. Not sure what you mean by "resouces of the faith" but I think my answer would simply be God's commandments for us... and Jesus' example in dealing with those that wished to cause Him harm...

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    3. Thanks, Anonymous. Grateful for your witness to the difficult commitment to take seriously the example of Jesus.

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  4. "...but not a hair of your head will perish." (Lk 21:18) This portion of scripture (note all of the no-fun things Christ says might happen to us and our hairs in the verses shortly before this one), seems to imply that when we are in the will of God, nothing can be taken away from us which cannot be restored. If "all things" work together for the good of those who love God and live according to His will, then the question for a Christian is not one of determining capability (or culpability) in a situation which might necessitate killing in self-defense, but really and truly: what is God's will? Killing and dying should not be fearful things for the faithful who trust in God's power and love. Now... how to determine *exactly* God's will in these situations... that I don't know. I assume the base line is to die rather than kill in self defense, but when others are involved (mother protecting kids, etc.)stuff gets blurry. Of course one ought to try to incapacitate first. But that's a really good question: is it ever in God's will to take the life of another human being? (Capital punishment??)

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  5. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kathia. It does follow for me that capital punishment is out for Christians. To the sentence "Killing and dying should not be fearful things for the faithful who trust in God's power and love," it is a real question, I think, as to whether killing isn't a refusal to trust God's power and love. For the opposite of this - the desire to kill/destroy but surrendering the action God - see the Psalms.

    I appreciate the reminder that God works all things together. One of the hazards I risk by asking if a thing is wrong is that we can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as people who might become stained by sin by such and such future act (as if we aren't already). God is about the business of redeeming. The question is how we align our lives with that redemption as a witness in and to a violent world.

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  6. Kathia got me thinking about this. I see your points; I'm sympathetic and you've really made me think. Jesus killed no one while he was here; why should we? And the martyrs of the early church did exactly this: refused to defend themselves and their families in the face of persecution from Rome, and it didn't take long before Rome became synonymous with Christian.

    But a Christian would take this too far to apply the principle to gun control.

    (The following is not an argument against gun control, only a specific argument that a personal choice for non-violence cannot cause us to favor gun control.)

    If one allows a personal decision for non-violence to cause him to side with gun control, then he overlays his sacrifice onto people who have not made the same decision. It is not a sacrifice for a Christian to remove another man's means of defense. It would be more intellectually honest to ignore the debate as immaterial than to actually favor gun control.

    It's one thing to sacrifice ourselves or even our families, but to sacrifice a stranger who is not a Christian is a) not our prerogative and b) not a sacrifice; and I'll go so far as to add c) therefore not going to work out God's power.

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    1. Jon, I appreciate the post and largely agree with what you say. Though I can see the muddiness of it, mine is not an argument for gun control - but for a consideration of the role of killing in the Christian life, which might inform how Christians utilize or don't utilize gun freedoms they are given by the State. Such a position does not finally escape your last point, though, because - even though we're not talking about taking away a stranger's right to a gun - it could be argued that a Christian pacifist position would almost certainly result in the deaths of strangers, if only by the non-violent Christian's unwillingness to protect the strangers by violent means. Christian pacifism almost certainly means that innocent people suffer for the Christian's convictions.

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    2. I find it interesting that you jumped to the part that I left out (for brevity's sake): Christian pacifism does raise the real possibility of harm to non-Christian strangers. Here are the examples I thought about:

      1. Should 100% of police officers be non-christian? If yes, then you leave the institution of law enforcement in secular hands. If no, then you have to allow that there are cases where a Christian might have to use violence; or perhaps even say that a Christian might have to use violence daily.
      2. World War II and the holocaust: should a Christian stand aside and let that happen?

      And now that I'm really going, I want to ask you what your opinion is of the conquest of Canaan. I figured you might consider that the domain of the old covenant, but I don't think that's good enough. If God preferred that the Canaanites be converted rather than killed, and if God preferred the sacrifice of his followers to violence, then he'd have left them in Egypt. He had the perfect chance to leave his followers in exactly the kind of position where they continually self-sacrifice.

      If you admit that in that circumstance God willed for humans to kill other humans - and not only willed it, but directly supported it through his moment-to-moment divine providence - then you have to admit that it's at least possible for a follower of God to be called to kill.

      We have the example of Canaan to show that God may choose to have his followers kill; and we have the example of the martyrs of the early church to show that God may choose to have his people suffer and die to testify to him. Jesus himself, by his own words, did only what the Father told him to do [presumably on a moment to moment basis], and this sometimes included breaking the Ten Commandments (honor the Sabbath).

      All you can take away from this is that God's will is complex and that we as humans can't pre-suppose what it is, and the best choice is to seek God's guidance, moment to moment if we're able to hear it that completely.

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    4. Jon,

      Great questions. I can't pretend to do them justice here, but I'll try to at least make things interesting.

      1) This conversation can be taken deeper, but on the surface level, in general, what's the problem with Christians abstaining from certain professions for reasons of faith?

      2) Pacifism should not be mistaken for passivity ("standing aside"). The Mennonites have a better imagination than most of us in this, and we should learn from them.

      Additionally, and notably, just war theory would not have dropped the bombs, b/c it's better (in a just war) to kill a thousand troops than a single civilian. Conservative casualty estimates from Nagasaki and Hiroshima were upwards of 200,000 people. The question becomes if we're not arguing for just war, for what are we arguing? The appeal to WWII leaves one wondering if opposers of Christian pacifism have anything concrete in mind beyond, "Whatever it takes." And on what grounds as Christians? This question is especially germane because, according to Christian ethicist David Gushee, the highest percentage in the US who support torture is consistently evangelical Christians. Pacifist or not, how can this be possible?

      3) The appeal to Canaan conflates (in this case) the United States with the People of God. In any case, the overarching narrative of even those battles was "trust that God will fight for you." And if we read Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's vocation, it is hard to simply write off "Love your enemies" and "Father, forgive them," by appeal to these earlier battles. When Christians "break the 10 commandments" it is often by appeal to the example of Jesus: "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." But the example of Jesus affords us no warrant for war.

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  7. This blog post, and yesterday's by The Rev. Amy McCreath, rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Watertown, MA, make up the bones of this morning's sermon.

    Thank you for this, Jonathan

    Martha Berger

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  8. You're welcome, Martha. Glad if it can be a helpful word in this particular season. Thank you for the note.

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