In the United States, evangelicals are among the biggest supporters of gun rights. They are the major religious group least likely to support stricter laws. Evangelical Larry Pratt, who directs Gun Owners of America, even argues that all Christians should be armed.
For most of my adult life, I agreed. I believed that we had a God-given right to defend ourselves. I also believed that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, and that anyone should be able to obtain a gun.
Then, I saw the after-effects of gun violence firsthand. In Pennsylvania, I visited the families of five murdered Amish schoolgirls, as well as the family of the shooter. And I watched as a mass shooting unfolded at the Washington Navy Yard, across from where I lived at the time. These experiences, followed by careful theological and moral reflection, left me convinced that my family of faith is wrong on guns.
This isn’t easy for me to say. Forty-one years ago, I accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior under the preaching of an evangelical pastor. I attended an evangelical college and seminary, was ordained an evangelical minister, and now chair the Evangelical Church Alliance, one of America’s oldest associations of evangelical clergy. My Christian identity is solidly evangelical.
But I disagree with my community’s wholesale embrace of the idea that anyone should be able to buy a gun. For one thing, our commitment to the sanctity of human life demands that we err on the side of reducing threats to human life. And our belief in the basic sinfulness of humankind should make us skeptical of the NRA’s slogan, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” The Bible indicates that we are all bad guys sometimes.
Additionally, anyone using a gun for defense must be ready to kill. Such a posture is antithetical to the term “evangelical,” which refers to the “evangel,” or gospel. The gospel begins with God’s love for every human, and calls on Christians to be more Christ-like. At no time did Jesus use deadly force. Although he once allowed his disciples to defend themselves with “a sword,” that permission came with a limitation on the number of weapons they could possess. Numerous Bible passages, such as Exodus 22:2-3, strictly limit the use of deadly force.
Unfortunately, too many evangelicals ignore this. Instead, they jump on a secular bandwagon of fear mongering, contempt and bravado to gin up support for gun rights. Evangelical Sen. Ted Cruz, who I’ve prayed with several times, has said, “You don’t get rid of the bad guys by getting rid of our guns. You get rid of the bad guys by using our guns.” Sarah Palin, who I know and once supported, told an annual meeting of NRA members, “Nowadays, ammo is expensive. Don’t waste a bullet on a warning shot.” And Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University (one of the largest evangelical institutions in the world), called on his students to arm themselves in the wake of terrorist shootings. He joked about carrying a gun in his back pocket and made light of killing Muslims. (He later said he meant only Muslim terrorists, but his comments received lots of whoops and applause.)
To me, turning from Christian to secular sources on a paramount moral question indicates a failure in faith. The words of Cruz, Palin and Falwell seem to contradict those of Jesus Christ, who commands believers to “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
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The response to my public comments on this spiritual crisis has, at times, been fiercely negative. Some have accused me of “siding with the enemy” or even aiding those that are annihilating Christians in the Middle East. A former supporter suggested that I’d been “bought” by George Soros, who has never offered me money. I wouldn’t take it if he had. In fact, airing my concern has only cost my organization financial support.
Despite this criticism, I won’t be silent on this issue. The Christian gospel should quell our fears and remind us of our Christ-like obligation to love all people, even those who intend us harm. This generous view of the world calls us to demonstrate God’s love toward others, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what religion they practice. Assuming a permanently defensive posture against others, especially when it includes a willingness to kill, is inimical to a life of faith.
The impulse to protect oneself is natural, especially after terrorist attacks. But evangelicals must be careful that the noble language of self-defense is not used to cloak a more insidious lust for revenge. St. Paul wrote to persecuted Christians, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’” We must turn away from our fears, base human instincts and prejudices, and turn toward the example of Jesus in word and deed.