When Jesus is about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers pulls out a sword and tries to defend Jesus with the weapon. “Put away your sword,” Jesus commands, “for those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Today, more Americans need to be confronted with the faith message that ‘a society that lives by the gun, dies by the gun.’ This needs to be our Holy Week message.
Recently, some religious leaders are spoke out about the danger of the rash of new laws called “Stand Your Ground,” versions of which have passed in 23 states. These religious leaders demonstrated at the offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a “secretive group of right-wing lobbyists” that pushes the so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, along with the National Rifle Association. These laws are being held up to much greater scrutiny because of the apparent role of such a law in Florida in Trayvon Martin’s shooting death at the hand of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch “volunteer” who was carrying a legal concealed weapon.
Jesus’ refusal to let a follower use a weapon to defend him from threatened violence needs to be the message for Christians today. It is an immediate and concrete teaching:
Put away your guns.
What’s especially immoral about these new laws is the broadened definition of “self-defense, as in the Florida law, passed in 2005. In these laws, “self-defense” now includes the right to use deadly force if a person, per the Florida statute, “is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be.” The person “attacked…has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force…” In Florida, the net effect has been an increase in “justifiable homicide.”
But while some religious leaders are speaking out against these “Stand Your Ground” gun laws and calling attention to the agenda of the lobbyists pushing them, other Christians have been supporting the passage of these same laws. Indeed, those who would otherwise claim to be “pro-life” tend, in fact, to be those supporting them.
‘What’s Christian about that?’ was a question recently raised by Matthew Dowd, President George W. Bush’s former chief strategist. On ABC’s “This Week,” Dowd pointed out that the same conservative state legislatures that champion “Christian values” issues like prayer in school also push for these gun laws. Dowd also connected the biblical dots, observing, “To me, there is such an irony here, that we want to be a Christian nation and we want to act in a Christian manner, but oh, by the way, we don’t believe in the turn your other cheek and we don’t believe in love your enemy. We believe in loading citizens and basically giving them an opportunity to shoot people.”
Holy Week is an excellent time to place the “Stand Your Ground” gun laws next to the teachings by Jesus of Nazareth to love your enemy and not return violence for violence. What is revealed is that instead of the specific teachings of Jesus about putting down your weapons being at the core of conservative Christian values in the public square, what we see is an increasing tendency of these conservative Christian Americans to put their trust in guns instead of in God and neighbor.
Here’s what the Bible says. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus of Nazareth walked the walk of his own teaching on loving your enemy, and refusing to return violence with violence. When confronted by a mob, carrying swords and clubs, he is clearly physically threatened. Yet, he refuses to have someone use a weapon to protect him. From the text in Matthew, it is not at all clear that this “large crowd armed with swords and clubs” has much civil authority at all. We need to ask, in fact, if they are instead part of a group of “volunteers” who form a mob of vigilantes who come in the dead of night. Why, Jesus notes, didn’t they come to arrest him properly in the light of day when he was peacefully teaching at the Temple? (Matthew 26:55)
And yet, even in the face of this deadly threat, Jesus refuses to trust in weapons to defend him. And he tells his followers to do the same.
Another young man, killed for preaching non-violence in the face of violence, taught the same. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, in his 1967 classic, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (p. 67)
There’s a choice to be made as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Do you choose the way of returning violence for violence, only multiplying it? Or do you choose the way of love, driving out hate?
That is the most important question that should confront Christians during Holy Week. After all, what is resurrection but the triumph of love over hate and violence?