While many of the talking heads in the media are beginning to call for more "conversations" about guns and gun control these days, as a Christian, I believe it is time for those who consider themselves followers of Jesus to stop hiding behind secular governmental laws and institutions and to start working towards a "theology of guns." Indeed, the all-too-frequent appeals made by those who supposedly align themselves with Jesus to the American Constitution rather than the Bible, should raise some red flags. When it is not Scripture that is being held as the gold standard of how we should think and live and conduct ourselves in this world but rather, a secular document, then we have a problem. The Constitution is not the Christian’s benchmark but rather, Scripture is.
Yet, the fact is, Scripture can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. In many cases, the Bible is not all that easy to understand. Even more, sometimes, what we think we can simply take at face value, upon a second, third, fourth, fifth look, etc., cannot really be understood with such naiveté. This, in my view, is particularly true of the passages in the Bible where God and violence seem to go hand-in-hand. What I want to do in this new series then, is to focus on many of the arguments that Christians use in the debates about gun arguments. Some of these, of course, will be directly related to the Bible. That is, some of the posts in this series will deal with passages that people have used or cited in the course of discussions about guns and gun laws in the modern world and particularly America. Some of the posts in this series, however, will deal with arguments that are loosely related to the Bible or perhaps, not at all. Yet, the fact that it is Christians who are making such comments gives me the green light on addressing such issues from a Christian theological perspective.
In this initial post I want to show how the common appeal to Lk 22:35-36 is often used by Christians in discussions about guns. We shall have occasion to gain a fuller understanding of this passage by situating it in its ancient context and discerning its ancient implications. This, then, will allow us to understand the passage’s implications in our modern world. Here’s what Lk 22:35-36 says (followed by my translation):
(35) καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ὅτε ἀπέστειλα ὑμᾶς ἄτερ βαλλαντίου καὶ πήρας καὶ ὑποδημάτων, μή τινος ὑστερήσατε; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν· οὐθενός. (36) εἶπεν δὲ αὐτοῖς· ἀλλά νῦν ὁ ἔχων βαλλάντιον ἀράτω, ὁμοίως καὶ πήραν, καὶ ὁ μὴ ἔχων πωλησάτω τὸ ἱμάτιον αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀγορασάτω μάχαιραν.
(35) “And he said to them: ‘When I sent you without a purse and a travel bag and shoes, did you all not need anything?’ And they said: ‘Nothing.’ (36) And he said to them: ‘But now the one having a purse, take it, and likewise a bag, and the one not having, he is expected to sell his cloak and buy a sword.”
Now, on first glance this passage seems pretty straightforward. Verse 35 seems to point to the fact that earlier, when Jesus had sent his disciples out with very little, they found themselves not in need of anything. Verse 36, however, appears to presuppose a different or changed context. On the surface, it appears that Jesus is contrasting this new situation with the previous one. What is disturbing about this is not that Jesus sanctions the taking of a purse or travel bag, but rather, the purchasing and carrying of a sword. Swords, of course, were used in situations of violence, whether in a defense or offensive manner.
For many, it stands to reason. then, that Jesus is sanctioning the carrying of arms or weapons for self-protection, self-defense, and use in violent situations. In what is the typical response of many commentators, we find the following by T.C. Butler [Luke (HBC; Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2000), 371] who says, “The present situation was quite different. Take whatever supplies and resources you have, Jesus told them. You will especially need a weapon for self-defense. Go sell whatever is necessary to get one. Satan had come after Jesus and his followers in full force. The persecution and arrests were about to begin. They must be ready to protect themselves.”
Unfortunately, there are two factors that commentators such as Butler miss in their exegesis and interpretation of this passage, which are very significant. One of those elements is historical-contextual and the other is literary-contextual. Put different, those who take Butlers view either overlook or ignore one very important social dynamic and one incredibly significant literary element. In what follows, I want to draw attention to these two items, which will then put us in a much better position to interpret this passage with more clarity and understanding. I should say at the start that what I do not believe is that either Jesus or Luke are simply speaking symbolically or metaphorically here.
On a historical and social-cultural level, what readers such as Butler often miss is an Israelite tradition that Luke—and Jesus within Luke’s narrative—were drawing on. This has been called by K.L. Moore [Why Two Swords Were Enough: Israelite Tradition History Behind Luke 22:35-38 (Ph.D. diss., University of Denver, 2009).] the “Two-Sword Traditum.” Here, I will simply refer to this as the “Two-Sword Tradition.” Drawing on Moore’s work, we see that this tradition may have its origins in Gen 34:25-26. Here, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, each take their sword (μάχαιραν) and attack and kill many men, including Hamor and Schechem. This act essentially has four aspects to it that need to be realized: 1) Wielding the sword to preserve family identity and honor is acceptable; 2) Using the sword to vindicate an honored one is acceptable; 3) Putting to use the sword to preserve national identity and honor is acceptable; 4) Swords can be used in cases where vengeance is justified.
Interestingly, following this narrative, we see this tradition develop over the course of Israelite thought and in Israelite literature. This tradition can also be discerned in Moses’ call in Ex 32:25-29, Phineas’s judgment on sexual immorality in Num 25:1-18, Judith’s beheading of Holofernes in Jdt. 8:1-16:25, Levi’s violent but celebrated actions in Test. Levi 2:2, 5:3, 6:4-8 and 7:3, and the conduct of Simeon and Levi when they defend Aseneth during an ambush in Jos. Asen. 23:1-28:8. In each of these stories and contexts, the “Two-Sword Tradition” is at work as are the four aspects mentioned above (i.e. vindication of honor, preserving national identity and honor, etc.). The carrying and use of “two swords” then became a narrative that shaped Israelite/Jewish thought. Following Moore, I contend that this mentality is also at work in the Gospel of Luke and particularly Lk 22:35-36. Initially, arguing that this tradition is present would seem to bolster the claims that Jesus (and Luke) are adherents to and proponents of this tradition. That, however, is a surface reading and it acknowledges only the social and historical aspect while overlooking an important narrative or literary aspect. To be honest interpreters, both of these things must be held together. In short, a socio-literary or socio-historico-literary reading is necessary.
Literarily speaking, it matters that we consider both the broad sweep of the Gospel of Luke when thinking about Lk 22:35-36 as well as the immediate literary context, that is, the passion narrative and so-called Farewell Address. We being with the former. At the very start of Luke’s account, he introduces his auditors to one of his major themes: peace. For example, in Lk 1:78-79, John the Baptizer is hailed as the one who will “guide our feet into the way of peace (εἰρήνη).” An important question to ask here is: What sort of peace? Further, we might ask, How will he guide persons to peace? Lk 2:14 holds the answer: Jesus. There we hear the angels proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace (εἰρήνη) among those whom he favors.”
When Simeon later sees Jesus in 2:29, he leaves the boy and departs from him in peace (εἰρήνη) for he has seen God’s salvation, who is a light for revelation to the Gentiles. In 7:50, when Jesus heals a woman, he tells her to go in peace (εἰρήνη) and in 8:48, he says essentially the same thing when he heals a female. In sending out his disciples in 10:5-6, his command to them is to enter the house and pray peace (εἰρήνη) upon it. In 19:38 and 42 Jesus also refers to peace and in 24:36 his parting words are “peace (εἰρήνη) be with you.” Basically, the theme of peace and being peacemakers forms something of an inclusion for Luke’s Gospel account; it is one of the brackets that holds together his entire narrative about Jesus.
However, there are points where this theme of peace seems to be interrupted. For example, in 11:21, we read of how a strong man with a weapon feels at peace about his belongings. Further, in 12:51 Jesus comments that he did not come to bring “peace” (εἰρήνη) but “division.” The question is: How do we square comments like this last one with the overall thrust of Luke’s story? Here, Moore’s exegesis shows us—exegesis which is quite indisputable in my view—that this is all part of Luke’s literary mastery. Let me explain. I liken it to the fact that nobody likes to be told what to do. For example, if I step into the pulpit and start issuing orders, it is going to turn people off and likely tick people off. However, if I desire for congregants to take a certain course of action, I need to be tactful about it; to do that, I’ll need to be persuasive. That’s precisely what Luke is doing. Luke is drawing his hearers into the story, finding common ground with their beliefs (and even egos) and then trying to persuade them. In large part, he is doing this with those who are part of the ancient tradition that advances a “Two Sword” mentality.
But here’s where we must ask, “Might there have been persons in antiquity, particularly those who held to the ‘Two-Sword Tradition,’ who would have heard passages like those just mentioned differently?” Our answer here is in the affirmative. But again, we must understand Luke’s literary mastery. Luke starts with peace and ends with peace. But at the same time, he wants to draw those who believe in violence, into Jesus’ story. Luke’s task is this: How can he draw people who hold to a violent tradition, in to the peaceable life and story of Jesus so that they might ultimately change their views and practices?
He does this by appealing to their beliefs…at first. Thus, when these persons, perhaps for example, zealots, would have initially heard these words, they would have understood them as a call to protect Jesus; to use violence to establish the Kingdom and to defend themselves. In this sense, they feel affirmed and drawn into the story and life of Jesus; they see themselves as his protectors; they feel good about themselves. At several points, Luke plays to this view. However, it is at the very end of the story, at the climax, that is, the passion of Jesus, that Luke subverts or attempts to show the invalidity of this tradition for followers of Jesus. More specifically, we see this just a few verses away from our focal pericope here, that is, at Lk 22:49-52. In this story, Jesus’ disciples draw their swords (μάχαιραν). They ask permission to strike but wait for no answer and proceed to take action into their own hands. When they do, a man is struck and his ear is cut off. And finally, the crescendo has built and the climax has been reached when Jesus issues his rebuke in the form of a command/imperative: ἐᾶτε ἕως τούτου (No more of this!). In this one moment, Jesus completely subverts the “Two-Sword Tradition.” He does this first by rebuking the violent act with his words, and secondly by subverting the act of violence by healing the man. He does it in a third way by asking his followers the rhetorical question that expects the answer of an emphatic “No!” when he says, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with clubs and swords (μάχαιραν)?” This is all topped off, as was alluded to above, with Jesus’ parting words (24:36) after his resurrection, namely, the words for his true disciples—those who will walk in his ways and by his life and his traditions—to go in peace (εἰρήνη).
The ancient implications of this seem clear enough: Jesus’ way is the way of peace. Those who align themselves with him, must walk in this way. His response to violent self-defense, his response to violence at all in fact, is forbidden. The need for a sword or weapon has been overturned. His followers are called to value human life above all else and even to the point of laying down their own life for someone who might not appear to be worth it. Think about it, if there were ever a time for Jesus to be “okay” with weapons and violence, it would have been the time for him to sanction it there in the garden. Instead, what he does is subvert it and put an end to it! Enough! Indeed, enough is enough! No more can God’s people cling to a Two-Sword Tradition; the call to the “This Is Enough! Tradition” is our mandate. According to Jesus, there is no room for weapons in the hand of the Christian. He essentially tells them to have weapons on them so that he can show them the pointlessness of them and the lack of need for them.
The modern implications, unsurprisingly, are the same. In America, where toy aisles are lined with guns, grenades and violent weapons, where video games and music are latent with violence, where cartoons, television shows, and movies are steeped in gun violence and murder, where the nightly news recounts violent act after violent act, and where our military launches violent assaults on many other countries, it is fair to say that this culture has its own traditions of violence. Indeed, we start our kids out on it from day one. Then, when someone shoots up a mall or theater or school, we wonder where it all came from? How can we be so moronic and ignorant? The root of the problem today, as with those bent towards zealotry in the ancient world, is our own violent traditions. We think it is cute to give our kids toy guns, toy soldiers, toy battleships, killing video games, etc. Further, many raise their children in homes where abuse and violence are rampant. For Christians, this should all be off limits!
The resurrection is about life; resurrection is a theology of valuing life. Thus, those of us who find ourselves in a culture of murder, a culture of violence, and a culture of death, should be subversive to such ideas. We should guard the innocence of our children from this. We, of all people in this world, should teach them to respect and value life, not devalue it by playing mock-murder games. Christians need weapons of no sort. What I have shown here in this post, one of many to come, is that Lk 22:35-36 cannot, in no way, shape or form, be used to justify Christians carrying weapons. To read it this way is to ignore the evidence on purpose. To use it this way is to try to justify oneself like the zealots did. However, such readings are irresponsible and just do not fly.
In working towards a theology of guns, then, my first step is to say: Get rid of them! No responsible Christian needs to own a gun. To fear for your life and to hide behind a gun is to short-change the rich theology of resurrection. Besides, if someone is coming at you as a Christian with a gun, the truth is, that person needs Jesus more than you do. To take his or her life robs him of the potential of hearing about Jesus. The loving thing would be to give him or her that opportunity. You can’t do that by gunning them down. The first truth in working toward a theology of guns, then, is that as a believer who has full confidence in the resurrection and everlasting life, I need not be afraid. Secondly, since I am not afraid, I need not own a gun or any other weapon that I can use on people because after all, if they’re attacking me, they clearly need to know the peace of Christ and that’s something they’ll never have a chance at if I shoot them up. I conclude with this: Christians, lay down your traditions of violence and in doing so, lay down your weapons and follow the path of peace forged by our Savior, the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.