Greg Garrett: Jesus Hates Guns

The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr is President Barack Obama's favorite theologian-favorite philosopher, he has told the press, because "theologian" is a suspect category, as I know better than most. In his Nobel Prize speech, Mr. Obama channeled Mr. Niebuhr's philosophy that politics was about taking action, however imperfect that action might be. But in the face of one of the most powerful political organizations in America, the National Rifle Association, he and his presidential opponent Mitt Romney have become suddenly mute in the face of the problem of easy access to guns, ammo, and magazines that have made the violent rampages of many recent mass-murderers possible.

Although they have the chance to speak out for justice and to save the lives of future victims of mass shootings, although both have previously supported what Mr. Obama calls "common-sense restrictions" on people's ability to kill, apparently neither of our presidential candidates will now speak hard political words about guns into this sinful world.

As Joe Klein noted in TIME's cover story "How the Gun Won," President Obama responded to a horrific shooting spree a year and a half ago with a call for reform:

"We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence," President Barack Obama said in January 2011, after a deranged gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, killing six. "We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future." He called for a "national conversation" about "everything from the merits of gun-safety laws to the adequacy of our mental-health system," and he asked that it be conducted with civility. It was a terrific speech, perhaps the best of his presidency. And then . . . nothing.

As TIME notes, we're still not having a public debate about gun safety, about whether guns, ammo, and drum magazines like the one the alleged Aurora shooter James Holmes employed in that movie theater are a good thing or a bad thing. For the most part, except for partisans on the far side of each issue, we're not talking about guns at all.

The National Rifle Association is arguing that in the wake of this anomalous shooting, gun ownership is more at risk than ever, and people throughout the country have been snapping up guns in the past week, not to protect themselves against the next James Holmes, but, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, because the NRA's rhetoric convinces them that the government will use this tragedy and the next one as an excuse to clamp down on gun ownership.

President Obama has been sold to conservative voters as the most anti-gun president in history, despite the fact that he shows no inclination to push for gun and ammo restrictions, and has actually loosened laws restricting guns in national parks and elsewhere. Fox News reports that the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has given President Obama an "F" "for failing to push even the gun restrictions he supported while campaigning." As David Horsey points out, there is actually no correlation between the Obama Administration's policies and their vilification by the NRA, but it certainly helps the gun lobby solidify their position and raise funds.

I wonder about the fact that we don't even have the conversation about who ought to have guns, what kinds of guns they ought to have, and if there is truly any need for anyone to have weapons and ammo delivery systems that seem to have no practical use except to shoot a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Why don't we talk about guns?

Part of the problem is that whenever we start to speak, our arguments are couched in freedom language, the favorite form of American discourse: "I have rights and freedoms." But as I argue throughout [Faithful Citizenship](, American Christians who primarily use rights and freedoms language when they make political arguments are neglecting to argue from the core of their faith. While God has made human beings free to make choices, and that has implications in how we live and how we govern ourselves, Christianity is not simply-or even primarily-about freedom.

Christianity is even more interested in how we restrain our selfish impulses and take on responsibility for our neighbors, all of them, wherever they may be. So after sifting the scriptures and the Christian tradition, I cannot conclude other than this: Jesus hates guns.

Here is the theological reasoning about guns and violence from Faithful Citizenship that underlies my conclusion:

Jesus called us to rise above our worst impulses, above our fear and anger, as he did.

Jesus reframed the traditional teachings of Hebrew justice, an eye for an eye. He argued against the natural human response to hate those who were outside the tribe. In his teachings, he preached love, mercy, and compassion, and he reached out to include those who were reviled and hated by other Jews-Roman collaborators like tax collectors, prostitutes, and notorious offenders against the Jewish piety codes-"sinners" of all sorts.

More importantly, Jesus lived a life of peace, even when faced with the ultimate challenge-acting in self-defense to save his own life. Although the Just War theory developed hundreds of years later would have authorized force to protect innocents, Jesus instructed his disciple to put away his sword when the authorities came to arrest him, saying that violence was not the answer. In the account of his arrest in Matthew 26, Jesus even spoke of the legions of angels he could call from Heaven if he chose-a number so substantial that it would have overwhelmed the legions of Rome, and not only saved Jesus, but rescued the Jewish people from outside domination, which many of his followers prayed their Messiah would do.

I don't know that I read this passage about armed angels as literally true, but it is most certainly a spiritual truth: Jesus was saying that he did not have to subject himself to indignity, violence, and death.

And yet he was choosing to reject violence and coercion for the better-and harder-way of love.

The example of Jesus' life is that we should trust God and not fear violence, as counter-cultural as that example remains, as counter-intuitive as it may be. I do believe that, as Dr. King said, violence is a dead end, and that it should not be celebrated, even when it makes me less afraid, even if some part of me believes it is deserved.

The Christian tradition presents three possibilities, at least one of which suggests a legitimacy to resist violence with violence in some cases. One question remains: Does the tradition suggest that guns be widely available in America, as those arguing an absolute right to bear arms suggest?

I don't think so. Using the "I am third" rubric that models Augustine's Two-Fold Commandment for us, there seems to be no warrant for so many guns to be available to so many. Bob Herbert, who says we live in an "insanely violent society," cites the disturbing statistic that in the years since 9/11, 150,000 people have been killed by gun violence in America-the equivalent in murders of a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl or the atomic destruction of a small city. We've suffered more than a million American murders since 1968, that horrible year when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were just the most high-profile victims.

Love for our neighbors suggests that we may-and should-accept restrictions on some absolute right to bear arms in order to protect our neighbors. The NRA and its allies are fond of the slippery slope fallacy-the argument that banning, say, assault rifles, or enormous ammo clips such as Jared Loughner is accused of having employed in the Tucson shootings, will lead to Americans losing their hunting rifles or target pistols. It's called a fallacy for a reason: controlling armaments that have, as the New York Times put it, "no legitimate purpose outside of military or law enforcement use" does nothing to prevent Texans or Tennesseans from hunting deer.

I come from a ranching family in Oklahoma. I have shot targets-and animals. I know card-carrying members of the NRA, and love some of them. And I believe they are simply wrong about this slippery slope, which is a freedoms argument, not a faith argument, in any case.

That's what I concluded in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, and nothing since has changed my mind. If anything, I believe it even more strongly.

Maybe we could not have stopped James Holmes from killing people. Maybe. But I defy anyone to find a passage from the Gospels that suggests to anyone that Jesus would advocate the availability of weapons whose only purpose is to kill other people.

The Prince of Peace, the innocent victim of violence and torture, is not down with 100-bullet ammo drums, AR-15 assault rifles, or any of the other legal paraphernalia of mass shootings that are selling out in the wake of the Aurora massacre.

Jesus hates guns.

And our politicians ought to do something to impose even a little more justice in this sinful world.

Originally posted on, used by permission.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal of Subscribe via email or RSS.