Beyond events such as 9/11, the Gulf War, the War in Iraq, and the War in Afghanistan, I have witnessed in my lifetime countless other acts of violence in our world. On a more personal level, I have both seen and experienced physical violence and abuse against me and other family members.
Less than 2 years ago, during a church service, my wife, who was standing next to me during worship, was robbed by two street thugs who fled from the service with her purse. Several years before that, while in college, I along with two friends who were with me on a camping outing, was attacked by a group of men who threw a homemade bomb near us and then emerged from the woods to hold us up at gunpoint for money. In short, I have seen violence happen from a distance and on a massive scale as well as up-close on a personal level.
Some psychologists say that experiencing violence on a personal level changes someone forever; they are never quite the same. This may well be the case. I suppose it can drive people to act in two different ways, however, with one of those ways being to arm oneself and be "on-the-ready" for an attack at all times, or with one of those ways being to realize that to end violence, acting or responding in violence is not the answer. What I'm getting at here is the element of fear, which we all know can be a powerful motivator. It is fear, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, that drives many to take self-defense classes. It is fear that drives many to arm themselves with weapons. It is fear that can cause us to act irrationally and it is fear that can override common sense.
In America there certainly exists a culture of fear, which is a reaction to the culture of violence and death that has been created and is constantly celebrated. A number of researchers have shown that historically, the American government is one of the greatest fear-inducing machines in the world. It was not long after The Great Depression that then President F.D. Roosevelt proposed his "New Deal" (ca. 1933-1938), which was meant to reform the government so that another Depression would not take place. In other words, Roosevelt tapped into the fears of Americans, the fears of what might happen again, to make his case for reform. His famous statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" falls within this socio-political context.
In conjunction with this, Roosevelt began to assert that there was a direct link between economic depression and crime. His predecessor, Hoover, had also made such claims. This set them both on the path of attempting to root out big-time criminals who are now iconic, that is, persons such as Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, etc. The answer, these officials contended, was for government involvement. Government was the answer to all of America's economic problems. Government was the answer to all of America's crime problems. Government was the answer to alleviating Americans' fears.
It was in the midst of this that the concept of the police force in America really began to take off. (On an interesting side note, it was during Hoover's teen years (he was born 1874) that American police first became armed with a firearm in 1887. One has to wonder how this affected/influenced his views! By the way, if we do simple math here, we realize that the first 100 years of America's history had no policemen armed with guns!) Of course, the whole concept of policing was present prior to the campaigns launched by Hoover and Roosevelt, but it was their campaigns that, in large part, created the narrative that governmental institutions should be responsible for protecting Americans and thus, the "War on Crime" was launched. In a 1934 speech Roosevelt said, "As a component part of the large objective we include our constant struggle to safeguard ourselves against the attacks of the lawless and the criminal elements of our population." He referred to this "objective," as Johnathan Simon has shown in his book Governing Through Crime, as a "'major offensive' on crime" (48). Interestingly, Roosevelt's following of Hoover's footsteps on the "War on Crime" was interrupted by World War II, but not fully. This had set in motion the law-centered model of "governing crime" through governmental policies and institutions, especially federal policing and local police forces.
Having gone through a few wars and a few presidential campaigns centered around governmental intervention on behalf of Americans, by the 1950s the narrative that governmental force and protection were central to Americans was set in place. This was the case because Americans were afraid. It should be no surprise to us by the way, that it was during this time that the escapist theology of the rapture became so popular! People wanted to escape...and soon! But in the meantime, if they could not escape their fears, then they must trust their government to protect them. However, over the next couple of decades the tides would change.
During the 60s and 70s the mottos of "make love, not war," "peace," and other such mantras had become quite popular. After these wars and all of the violence, people were tired of it. Trust of the government was waning. This, in fact, is part of what helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. While he had previously been an advocate of "The New Deal," once in power things shifted. He sold the narrative that the government was not the solution but rather, part of the problem. This deeply resonated with many Americans. Now, the government that had formerly been appointed to protect the people could not really be fully trusted by the people. Fear of the government had become an issue. Now the storyline of protecting oneself from governmental tyranny was becoming more and more prominent.
It is no surprise that during his time in the spotlight (before, during, and after his presidency) that Reagan was a staunch pro-gun advocate. Reagan once remarked, "In my opinion, proposals to outlaw or confiscate guns are simply unrealistic panacea." He also noted, regarding the Second Amendment that, it “leaves little, if any, leeway for the gun control advocate,” and that “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.” This is right in line with Reagan's signing of the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986. Today, the flawed argument that America's founders added the Second Amendment as a last stand against governmental tyranny has a grip on many as it is rooted in fear and backed by powerful politicians such as those affiliated with the Republican party's posterboy, Ronald Reagan. To think that owning a few guns to ward off the American government in the case of tyranny is, at this point, simply unrealistic. America has the world' most powerful military and there is no chance that its citizens could defeat and overcome it with firearms. That's simply absurd! But the irony is that while the American government wants you to know that, they don't really want you to think too much about it...just enough to be a little fearful but at the same time safe, so that you must rely upon them. And it has worked, this is why people so ardently defend the right for Christians to be police offers who can own and use guns. I, however, am skeptical!
The point in giving this brief glimpse into history is to show that the fear-based narratives that many Americans have bought into have deep roots in American political history. Just think of all of the "Fiscal Cliff" talk recently and its comparison to "The Great Depression." Or think just a few years back to the "Recession" and its comparison to the "The Great Depression." There is a reason that "The Great Depression" is a touchstone and it's not just because there are economic similarities, it's also because it taps into the belief that economic crises lead to tumult, chaos, and crime. And if there is crime, you need protection. On the one hand you need to defend and protect yourself, but on the other hand you need the government to defend and protect you. If you're a really good citizen, you'll do both...you'll protect yourself and defend yourself but you'll also join the government and help make this happen on either a local, national, or international level. And so, the story goes: We need police and military and guns to protect ourselves from evils that "might" happen. This, my friends, is fear of the unknown, fear of hypotheticals, and fear of possibilities. But is living in this type of fear good, healthy, or even responsible?
The Christian's answer to this should, echoing Jesus' views, be a resounding "No!" This reminds me of what Reinhold Niebuhr once said, "The whole Biblical interpretation of life and history rests upon the assumption that the created world, the world of finite, dependent and contingent existence, is not evil by reason of its finiteness.... [D]eath is no evil though it is an occasion for evil, namely the fear of death." What Niebuhr is saying here is that it is not even death that really gets us, it is fear of death. Fear! While we cannot do anything about death, fortunately we can do something about fear; we can counter it head on! We may not be able to fully eradicate it, but by the same token it need not have a grip on us. This is where good eschatology comes in.
When we have a sound eschatology, we need not be afraid. When we have a good eschatology, we need no belief in self-defense. When we have a good eschatology, fear has no rightful place in our theological repertoire. For those who are not as familiar with the concept of eschatology, you should know that it has to do with both how we think about life right now as well as life after this life. Unfortunately, many have suggested that eschatology is the study of "the end times" or "the last things." This is partly true for this Greek compound word does touch on that. However, the fact of the matter is, eschatology is concerned just as much with the here and now as it is with what comes next. The problem is, as I have alluded to, that many have overlooked the former (the here-and-now) only to focus on and emphasize the latter, that is, the "end." When people start thinking about "the end of time" or "the end of things" they tend to fall into a state of fear.
When we read Rom 12:1-2, we find that we are offered an eschatology that is robustly "here-and-now" oriented. There, Paul tells us not to be conformed to the ways of the present world, but to be renewed in our minds so that we are transformed into God's likeness. Such living proves what God's will is and exemplifies what true worship is. Interestingly, it is right after this that Paul brings up some comments about the ancient Roman Empire and its governing propaganda. For the earliest Christians who lived during this era, they heard the Roman government promise peace and salvation, protection and defense from its enemies. This meant that the Emperor was also the Savior. This "Savior" would make a better "here-and-now" which would supposedly secure a better future, a better "what-is-to-come." In short, the Empire offered its people an eschatology.
However, there was an opposing eschatology at work in the Jesus Movement. Jesus' followers were to embrace an eschatology that peace came through Jesus, hope came through Jesus, and meaningful living in "the now" came through Jesus. This meaningful living, of course, set the stage and precedent for what is to come. In short, the view was that how Christians live now should be reflective of what is ahead. In the present, God's Kingdom has arrived; Jesus initiated it and Jesus' followers are embodying it. This embodiment is evidenced by transformed minds, that is, minds conformed to Jesus' mind and lives conformed to Jesus' life. And what did Jesus' life look like? It was a life of peacemaking and not running from the fears that confronted him, but challenging them head on. This forms the heart of Christian eschatology, an eschatology that ran counter to and challenged the eschatology of the Empire.
This led folks like Paul to suggest that our true, authentic citizenship is not of this world, but of God's Kingdom, of the Kingdom of heaven. This Kingdom is established not through setting up a military like Israel had done in previous years, not in making alliances with desired military partners and foreign governments, not trust in weapons and battles, but through self-sacrifice, peace, and non-violence. Thus, the Kingdom-ethic of Jesus, the ethical implications of eschatology, are precisely those things: self-sacrifice, peace, and non-violence. These values stand against the oft-adopted values of Americans today, namely the values of fear, self-defense, and violence. Yet, as I have shown, those values are rooted in American society and socio-political history than anything else; they are certainly not rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, everyone and anyone who makes ignorant remarks such as "it is Christian to own a gun" is blasphemous, that is, it is taking what is vain and attempting to mix it with or attach it to that which is holy. And while it may not be "the unforgivable blasphemy," it is blasphemy none the less.
So, in addition to having worked through a number of New Testament passages in this series and showing that none of them offers a pro-gun or pro-violence "tip of the hat," I have also shown that some of our most central beliefs and theological ideas, for example the incarnation, evangelism, soteriology, and now eschatology run directly counter to such ideas. It is finally time for the so-called (and self-identified) Christians who live in this country to finally own up to the fact that their attempts to mix (pro-)violence with the Gospel of Jesus is more indebted to American culture than to the culture of God's Kingdom, that is, the culture that is supposed to be established by Christians living out God's reign by embodying the peace-ethic of Jesus.