Toward A Theology Of Guns: A Christian's Perspective, Pt. 3

In the third part of this series, which is titled "Toward A Theology Of Guns: A Christian's Perspective," I want to address a specific claim that is often used to help build a case that Christians can use violence. Honestly, in my view, this argument is completely absurd and completely disconnects the Bible from exegesis, reality, and theology. I am not surprised, however, that many American Christians use it to attempt to justify their violent ends; we are after all, a culture of violence and death and have been greatly influenced in this regard. You can see this argument used in the comment section of my previous post in this series HERE, as well as in another comment section of a post I wrote on guns HERE.

The argument goes like this: In the temple, Jesus flipped over tables and used a whip. Thus, Jesus used violence against people. Therefore, since we are Jesus' followers, there are times when it is advantageous to use violence. In modern times, we do not use whips but guns. Since Jesus was okay with the weapons of his day, he would be okay with us using the weapons of our day, that is, guns.

Right out of the gate, we need to know that, in terms of logic, there are two fallacies here. The first is what we call the "Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle" and the second is a "False Analogy Fallacy." Since I have already discussed the false analogy in the previous post of this series (click HERE to read it) in relation to guns, in this post I'll simply deal with the undistributed middle. Following this, I'll offer some exegetical points on this story of Jesus in the temple.

When it comes to the fallacy of the undistributed middle, we need to know how it works. The underlying presupposition of this fallacy is as follows: We can assume that since two things share a certain property, that then makes them the same thing. (I trust that you can see how this also relates to the false analogy fallacy.) In terms of logic, we might break it down this way:

X has property 1.
Y has property 1.
Therefore, X = Y.

The problems with such reasoning are quite easy to recognize. Let's use real objects in this equation where "X" represents a banana and "Y" represents a school bus:

The banana has the property of yellow.
The school bus has the property of yellow.
Therefore, the banana equals the school bus.

Now, we can all immediately see how absurd this line of reasoning is! Just because these two properties share the property yellow does not make them the same thing. A school bus is not edible, but a banana is. Just as well, the fruit we know as a banana does not have an engine, steering wheel, etc. The two objects are completely different despite sharing one property or characteristic. Now, let me show you how this is precisely the logical fallacy used when people speak of Jesus and the temple event. In the following equation,"X" represents Jesus and "Y" represents the Christian of today:

Jesus has the properties of violence and weapons in the temple event.
I have the properties of violence and weapons when I carry a gun.
Therefore, Jesus is just like me or I am just like Jesus when I am violent and carry weapons.

Or, the argument is nuanced and put forth this way:

Jesus' whip in the temple has the property of violence.
My gun today has the property of violence.
Therefore, the whip Jesus used and my gun are the same thing.

Some major problems with such lines of reasoning are that they wrongly equate two things which seem to share a property. In short, just because a person shares one characteristic or trait with Jesus, that does not put them on par with Jesus. Just as well, just because a gun and a whip can be used as weapons, that does not make them equal. There is simply no way that a whip can accomplish the same things as a gun, especially in the same amount of time. But there are other issues here that we have to address too. In fact, there are a couple more logical fallacies to point out.

For example, here we have the fallacy of making the exception the rule. That is, we take one of Jesus' actions on one occasion and make it the rule for how to live like him or follow him. This one act must be kept in proper perspective and seen in the broader scope of his life and ministry; in short, it must be kept in check and balance with the other things he said and did. This actually leads us into the matter of intentions. Was Jesus being violent? Did Jesus harm anyone or any animal? Did Jesus intend to harm anyone or any animal? What is the context of Jesus' actions? We will deal with these questions below.

Something else we need to keep in mind is that there is a difference between something that is prescriptive and something that is descriptive. Here I must ask: Just because we read a narrative in the Bible does that mean we should take the same course of action? Should we try to hang ourselves like Judas? Should we try to lie like Ananias and Sapphira? Of course not! Well, what about Jesus, should we try to do everything he did? Well, clearly, we humans are not able to die and bring people salvation. Neither can we sit at the right hand of the Father. Neither can we have the property of divinity that Jesus has. The list could go on and on...you get the point. There are some things that Jesus can be and do that we can't. Just because we read a descriptive account of Jesus doing something doesn't mean it we are prescribed to do the same thing. Don't get me wrong, sometimes that is the case, surely it is, but sometimes it is not.

We also have a fallacy here of making part of Jesus stand for the whole of Jesus. This is known as the Compositional Fallacy. Thus, it does not stand to reason, even if Jesus was violent on this one occasion, that Jesus was a violent person. As you can see, this is related to the "exception as the rule" fallacy. There is clearly much more to Jesus than this one event. But this does lead us into the matter of exegesis, a place where we must deal with intentions and meaning. What were Jesus' intentions in the temple? What did this act mean or signify?

One thing that is interesting about the interpretation of the temple passage (let's use Jn 2:13-25 here) is that up until Augustine in the 5th century CE, interpreters had viewed this by and large as a passage of non-violence. Andy Alexis-Baker ("Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15," Biblical Interpretation 20 [2012]: 73-96) has shown that early readings of this passage from Origen, Cosmas Indicopleustes, and Barhadbesabba (relating a story about Theodore of Mopsuestia) all understood this event as nonviolent. Augustine, however, was the first to take this story in a violent way. For him, it was a template for how to treat heretics, particularly the Donatists of his day. In his Contra litteras Petiliani (2.10.24; 2.81.178), Augustine says of this passage that it proves "Christ [is] a persecutor" and that "Christ even bodily persecuted those whom he expelled from the temple with whippings."

It was this reading that would influence many interpreters who would come after Augustine. In fact, Michael Gorman ("The Oldest Epitome of Augustine's Tractatus in Euangelium Ioannis and Commentaries on the Gospel of John in the Early Middle Ages," Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes 43 [1997]: 74) notes that "nearly all commentaries on John compiled in this period tend to be indistinguishable from reworkings of Augustine's treatise, a masterpiece which dominated studies of the fourth Gospel for centuries." Without citing all of the Medieval interpreters here, we can see even in Bernard of Clairvaux (De laude novae militia, 5) that the Knights Templars used this passage in such a way so as to give their crusades some biblical basis. In the Reformation era, Calvin followed this track and used this passage as a model for how to deal with heretics. It was Calvin who even defended having Michael Servetus burned at the stake (Defensio Orthdoxae Fidei). Many modern readers also follow this reading. However, does the text bear the weight of such conclusions?

One thing that we must make clear from context is that within the ancient world, weapons were not allowed in the temple; they were effectively banned from the temple. Thus, it is erroneous to see the comment in Jn 2:15 which says καὶ ποιήσας φραγέλλιον ἐκ σχοινίων (And he made a whip out of cords) in terms of Jesus fashioning a weapon. This is completely different from the "flogging" (φραγελλόω - Mt 27:26; Mk 15:15) that happens to Jesus in the passion narratives. Indeed, when Josephus (Antiquities 8.385) uses the phrase ἐκ σχοινίων (out of cords), he actually refers to taking the threads out of a sackcloth garment. In Acts 27:32 this same terminology is used for a rope attached to the anchor of a ship. Raymond Brown (The Gospel According to John, 115) has asserted that Jesus made the makeshift whip from the "rushes used as bedding for the animals" while Ernst Haenchen (Das Johannesevangelium, 200) has contended that Jesus made a "kind of whip" (here the variant reading which contains ὡς φραγέλλιοιν is used) "out of the ropes with which the animals had been tied up. He did not use it against people, but drove out the animals with it." As Alexis-Baker asserts, "If Jesus had used the kind of weapon that Romans used to punish people, the temple guards and Roman garrison stationed nearby would have acted swiftly" (88).

But what about the interpretation of persons like John McHugh (John, International Commentary Series), who argue that Jesus used the whips on people? Well, Alexis-Baker's explanation of the Greek renders such views erroneous. Much of the debate centers on the word πάντας in the remainder of the clause πάντας ἐξέβαλεν ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ τά τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας of Jn 2:15. The term πάντας is a masculine adjective. Alexis-Baker shows that if John had used the neuter form of the adjective (πάντα) then Jesus would have only driven out the sheep. However, the sheep during this time period were sacrificial and thus, all male (Ex 12:5). Thus, the masculine term is a reference to all the sheep and cattle. Had John used the feminine form of the adjective (πᾶσας), it would refer to Jesus only driving out the doves. Nowhere does the narrative suggest that Jesus used a whip to drive out the doves or dove dealers. Instead, in Jn 2:16, Jesus commands the dove dealers saying, ἄρατε ταῦτα ἐντεῦθεν, μὴ ποιεῖτε τὸν οἶκον τοῦ πατρός μου οἶκον ἐμπορίου. ("You all remove these, you all do not make my father's house a market!"). Clearly, at this point, the vendors are still in the temple area after he has driven out the sheep and cattle. Taking this together with the fact that the there is a τε...καὶ construction in 2:15 (i.e. τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας), we know that Jesus only drove the animals out with his threaded makeshift whip. In a τε...καὶ construction we find persons, things, or ideas that are corresponding opposites. As Alexis-Baker notes, an author does this to signal a close connection between items. In short, the adjective πάντας refers to the paired sheep and cattle or put differently, the πάντας modifies the contents of the τε...καὶ construction, namely, the πρόβατα (male sheep) and τοὺς βόας (male cattle).

So what were Jesus' intentions? Well, we can say that part of his intentions were to get the animals out of the temple area. In fact, with his makeshift rope he drives them out, like any shepherd would, and in doing so, actually saved and protected the animals. As Alexis-Baker notes, "...he drove out their animals, and wanting to look after their property, they followed after the cattle and sheep" (94). To cite Alexis-Baker again, "In a real sense, the narrative does not depict Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system. The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals" (94). Further, "The fact that Jesus used a makeshift instrument to move the cattle and sheep out of the temple is logically very different from warfare and capital punishment. Jesus did not kill anybody" (95). Indeed, I would contend that if we want to use Jesus as a model here, we see him as: 1) An example of one who has righteous indignation at religious corruption, although, not a type of anger that allows for the use of religious violence or force; 2) An example of showing great concern for life, even animal life; and 3) An example of non-violence.

To be clear, Jesus was not being violent towards animals or people in this story. He was simply driving animals out (and saving them by doing so!) the way anyone who works with sheep or cattle would have. He did not have a dangerous weapon but a makeshift rope like made out of the ropes the animals were tied with. So, the contention that we can use this story as a platform for a violent Jesus and a God who would be okay with Christians being violent and carrying weapons such as guns needs to finally be put to rest. That is a gross distortion of this passage and a dishonest reading of it. Jesus' whip was not used in a violent way. Guns are meant to harm and/or kill. It is a false analogy to equate the two. To cite Alexis-Baker one last time, "To move from a little whip and overturning a table to firing machine guns, missiles and other modern weaponry is simply absurd" (95). Such a reading makes sense not only of the (Greek) text itself, but also the context. Unfortunately, vested interests often ignore such things so as to propagate and promote their causes. Hopefully, Christians will begin sooner rather than later being responsible interpreters and peacemaking citizens in this world. One can no longer say "I'm being like Jesus when I carry a gun because Jesus was violent and carried weapons too." and still maintain logical or theological credibility. In fact, that's precisely the opposite of what we learn about Jesus the peacemaker. Peace, after all, was in large part the whole aim of Jesus: To bring peace between humans and God, and peace between humans and humans. Guns and weapons are but one barrier to preventing such peace from happening. Christians, please, lay down your guns.

For other posts in this series, click the links below:
Part 1
Part 2

In the next post of this series I will look at some of the "violent" imagery in the Gospels and see how that squares with what some people refer to as the "violent God of the Bible."

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