Christians, arm yourselves.
That, in a nutshell, is what Liberty University students heard from Jerry Falwell Jr., in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino in December. Falwell — president of the evangelical Christian college and son of the late Moral Majority founder — told students, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” Adding that he was carrying a weapon in his pocket, he encouraged students to take Liberty’s concealed-carry training course.
Falwell’s remarks came just weeks after a Tennessee gun store made national news when it began offering discounts for Christians. The store ad featured the state’s lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, encouraging his fellow Christians to think about arming themselves.
Yet when it comes to linking lethal weapons to the “gospel of peace,” Falwell and Ramsey have nothing on Texas.
One pastor’s message to attendees of a 2012 Keller church conference went well beyond the suggestion that Christians consider gun ownership. “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t own a gun,” pastor Dr. Gary Cass told attendees at the Deliver Us From Evil Conference. “How can you protect yourself, your family, or your neighbor if you don’t have a gun? If I’m supposed to love my neighbor, and I can’t protect him, what good am I?” While Cass told me recently that there is some hyperbole in these statements — in that gun ownership alone is not sufficient to guarantee salvation — he does believe that self-defense “is a God-given right and duty.”
Cass’ DefendChristians.org is based in California, but several Christian ministers here in the Lone Star State are singing from the same hymnal. Huntsville-area preacher Terry Holcomb Sr. is known for carrying his AR-15 Bushmaster rifle into local businesses as part of his campaign for open carry. Likewise, the Rev. James McAbee, pastor at Beaumont’s Lighthouse Worship Center, has earned the moniker “the pistol-packin’ preacher” for carrying his Glock in church and for offering teachers free handgun training. Last summer, McAbee told KLST-TV that “it’s very important that every church, pastor and all, have a gun.” And yet, as he explained to the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t want to hurt anybody. I believe the Bible teaches peace. But that doesn’t mean I should let them hurt me.”
The notion of pastors packing heat and encouraging their flocks to do likewise strikes many Texas Christians, myself included, as peculiar — even, well, un-Christian. After all, the core teachings of Jesus himself suggest a very different message. Although his country was under oppressive Roman occupation, Jesus taught nonviolence — “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” — which is not exactly a forceful call to arms. Jesus also instructed his followers to love their enemies.
But, of course, the Bible is a big and complicated book. Some Christian gun advocates cite a puzzling passage in which Jesus tells his disciples that if they don’t have a sword, they should sell their cloak and buy one. In an email to me, Cass even cited this passage as evidence of a biblical right to self-defense. However, many biblical commentators, including the evangelical InterVarsity Press, interpret Jesus as referring to spiritual “swords,” not physical ones. Even when Jesus was arrested, and the disciples asked him if they should defend him with their (physical) swords, he told them no. Based on my studies as both a scholar and a Christian, I believe that if Jesus taught us anything, he taught us that the godly life is one of peace, nonviolence, and love.
But while early Christians were known for nonviolence in the face of persecution — many chose death rather than deny their faith or fight back against pagan authorities — later generations of Christians (think of the Crusades, or European colonization in general) were no strangers to the commission of violence. And more modern Christians have long been willing to take up not just swords but firearms.
Yet the principled nonviolence of Jesus and the early martyrs still stands as a potent reminder for Christians today. Several mainline denominations — including the United Methodist Church and my own Episcopal Church — have responded to recent mass shootings by calling for stricter gun controls. Pope Francis recently went even further, saying that those who call themselves Christians but also manufacture weapons or invest in weapons industries are hypocrites. (We’re not likely to see that on an NRA bumper sticker.)
Texas church leaders are now wrestling with these issues as they try to determine how to respond to the state’s new open carry law.
But whatever more mainstream denominations may decide, the gun-toting Texans who subscribe to Christian Americanism — a deeply questionable bit of fringe theology based on the belief that America’s founding documents were explicitly based on the Bible — are seeking to link the Bible to guns via the Constitution.
According to this way of thinking, the Second Amendment enshrines what Aledo Christian conservative David Barton has called “the biblical right of self-defense.” The Second Amendment’s “ultimate goal,” Barton contends, “is to make sure you can defend yourself against any kind of illegal force that comes against you,” whether from a neighbor, an outsider, or “your own government.” However doubtful it is that the Founders wanted to allow rebellion against the very government they were creating, this “insurrectionist idea” is very popular in Christian Americanist circles.
The Rev. Stephen Broden, pastor at Fair Park Bible Fellowship in Dallas (and one-time GOP candidate for the U.S. House), has made similar arguments in his opposition to gun control. In January 2013, he joined others to protest a gun buyback in Dallas. (The buyback, ironically enough, was sponsored by that city’s First Presbyterian Church).
Standing in the bed of a pickup, Broden warned of the dangers of gun control by appealing to the insurrectionist idea. “The moment they disarm us,” he told his audience, “we move in the direction of a tyrannical government who will rob us of our liberties.”
What, then, of Jesus’ warning against those “who take the sword”? Broden told me that this refers to using weapons for reasons other than self-defense. Like Cass, he bases this argument on love. “To defend is simply making a provision of safety for my family and loved ones,” he told me. “A man must provide for his family or he’s less than an infidel.”
Efforts to link God and guns could not come at a worse time: The United States saw 372 mass shootings in 2015. It’s a time when one GOP presidential candidate has made wild claims of Obama “waging war against Christians” and another is stoking fears of a “war on faith”. A time when Islamophobia, often expressed in violent acts against Muslim Americans, is “spiraling out of control.”
At times like these, followers of the prince of peace should be calming the waters, not roiling them. Christians, along with other people of faith, should appeal to our national conscience and remind us that violence is rarely the best solution. Calls for Christians to arm themselves, even in the name of self-defense, send a very different and dangerous signal — especially when linked to notions of insurrection.
One thing is certain, though: The God-and-guns platform continues to shape the political conversation here in the Lone Star State. Nothing shows this more plainly than a 2013 political ad for then-Attorney General and now-Governor Greg Abbott, which proclaimed that there are “two things every American should know how to use… neither of which are taught in schools.”
The ad pictured a handgun and a Bible.