In the wake of the racist massacre in South Carolina, many in Americanized Christianity are calling on churches and pastors to begin arming themselves with guns. An NRA board member is blaming one of the victims instead of the shooter, stating that this wouldn’t have happened had he voted differently on concealed carry laws. And then of course we have Fox News promoting the idea that churches need to begin arming themselves. It’s not a new discussion, and sadly won’t be the last time we have it.
The entire discussion obviously brings up tension since Jesus– the founder of Christianity– taught that his followers were never to respond to evil with violence (Matthew 5:39) and that instead we are to respond with love to those who have an irreconcilable desire to cause us harm (Matthew 5:44), and thus become the children of God (v45). Jesus of course went on to perfectly live out what he taught in this regard, choosing to rebuke his best friends when they tried to use violence in his self defense (Matthew 26:52) and even went as far as healing the victim of his disciple’s violence before they led him to his death (Luke 22:51).
One need not be a biblical scholar to see that gun-toting preachers don’t look like Jesus, and that Jesus doesn’t look like a gun-toting preacher. Yet, we’re having the discussion anyway.
The question becomes, why?
The answer to this question lies in the current cultural context we find ourselves in. We live in a time and place where Christianity has been blended with the American story to the point where much of it has become a civil, nationalistic religion instead of the message of Jesus. We are fed this national narrative consistently from a very young age to the point that we can’t even see or recognize it around ourselves. Unfortunately, the narrative of Jesus and the narrative of America are hopelessly irreconcilable– they are competing narratives. They are opposing forces. They cannot be reconciled.
As Jesus followers, we must choose one or the other– but we cannot choose both– because they cannot exist in harmony with one another.
You see, there’s one chief thing the Americanized version of Christianity either forgot, or more probably, simply rejected when it comes to the message of Jesus: the invitation of martyrdom. Jesus warned his disciples and would-be followers that actually following him would be a sacrificial decision. At summer camp we were told about this growing up, but it was usually explained as, “Your friends are going to leave you when you get home and they find out you no longer listen to Motley Crue” when in reality, Jesus had something far more radical and costly in mind.
Jesus told one person that following would cost him all of his earthly wealth (Matthew 19:21). He told still others that following him would result in becoming homeless (Matthew 8:20), and to some he warned that actually following him would cause division in family relationships (Matthew 10:34-35). Finally, the ultimate requirement Jesus says his followers must accept is the invitation to deny ourselves, reject self-preservation, and become willing to die (Matthew 16:24).
And this brings us to the point where the message of Jesus and the message of America are enemies of the other. The message of America is: “protect your rights and defend yourself!” but the message of Jesus is: “be willing to sacrifice everything you have, even your own life!” One could not think of two more radically opposite philosophies.
The question of Jesus isn’t even open for consideration in the American narrative. Dying? Martyrdom? There’s simply no place in America’s story for that, unless one dies in the process of killing- and then such a person becomes a hero.
But the narrative of Jesus is different. This is a narrative where we are told those who try to save their lives will ultimately lose them, but those who are willing to die will actually find life (Matthew 16:25). This of course is utter foolishness to those who reject the message of Jesus in favor of an alternative story, like America’s (1 Corinthians 1:18). Instead of what Jesus taught, the American narrative teaches us the precise opposite: the fool is the one who refuses to take life in order to save their own. And this is why the two narratives will never reconcile or coexist with one another: they teach us opposite things.
And thus, in the American version of Christianity we reject Jesus’s invitation of martyrdom– because it’s a fools invitation, or so we think.
Since America is unlikely to repent of its drunkenness on guns anytime soon, we will probably be having this gun discussion over and over again as more mass shootings appear in our daily newsfeeds. Part of that discussion will certainly be wrestling with the question of appropriate Christian responses to a violent culture.
However, as we have this discussion, may we remember that the wisdom of America is hopelessly at odds with the invitation of Jesus. May we remember that “self preservation” is an American value, but it is not a Jesus value.
More than anything, may we remember that when it comes to following Jesus, the possibility of getting killed is part of the deal. As with the original followers, we should probably come to terms with this and embrace it, before we call ourselves disciples as well.