This is a guest post written by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Secularism.
It’s one of the strangest things in our country: the most ardent Christians in America are simultaneously the folks most in favor of guns. And not just guns, per se, but super-lethal guns, like modified AR-15s that can fire rapidly and prodigiously, killing scores of people at once. Lots of kids, lots of concert goers — you name it. With such semi-automatic assault rifles, innocent men, women, and children can be mowed down with the greatest of ease.
Well, not if you are Jesus. But apparently, yes, if you are a strong, red-blooded evangelical follower of Jesus.
How is this possible? How can hardcore Jesus-lovers also be such hardcore gun lovers?
After all, the Man from Galilee was a pacifist who unambiguously denounced violence, and yet modern guns — especially semi-automatic assault rifles — are violence made manifest. They are technologically sleek death-makers that rip through organs, shatter bones, destroy tissue, shred brains, explode craniums, sever ventricles, pierce eye sockets — killing and maiming with rigor and acumen. As such, they embody everything Jesus preached against.
To be sure, speaking of Jesus as an actual historical figure is problematic; many scholars have forcefully argued that the Jesus we know of is mostly mythical, not historical. But be that as it may, we most certainly do have the popular, ever-famous, and widely-worshipped character of Jesus of the Gospel stories, and within those religious narratives, Jesus is most definitely anti-violence, with the core of his message consisting of peace, pacifism, mercy, forgiveness, and love. And even though he did express an odd articulation of viciousness here and there — for example, saying that he “did not come to Earth to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) — the vast majority of all of his sayings, declarations, parables, and preachings were about treating one another with kindness, gentleness, and, again, love.
To repeat: Jesus was a pacifist. When his disciples tried to defend him by use of violence, he told them not to do so: “Live by the sword,” he taught in Luke 22, “die by the sword.”
Jesus did not think violence was the answer — ever. He never said anything about the right to kill when necessary. In fact, he said that we should not fight against people who might harm us; “You have learnt how it was said, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,’ But I say unto you, Offer the wicked man no resistance” (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus did not teach that we should stand our ground and maim or kill those who seek to harm us. Meekness was his prescription; “If they persecute you in one town,” he taught in Matthew 10, “take refuge in the next, and if they persecute you in that, take refuge in another.”
That’s right: Jesus taught us to run away, not aim and shoot. “You must not kill,” he declared in Mark 10. In fact, Jesus never said that we have a right to bear arms or that there are some times when we need to be violent.
It was the radically peaceful, staunchly pacifist sentiments of Jesus that inspired the traditional Christian Peace churches — Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites — whose members will not take up arms, ever. And it was Jesus’s pacifism that also inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — who both saw in Jesus’s teachings and life practices an empowering ethic of love. “Don’t use force against an evil man,” Jesus preached in Matthew 5, “do not resist evil with evil.”
And yet, somehow, fervent evangelical Americans just haven’t gotten the message. No matter how often they study their Bibles, no matter how often they go to church, no matter how often Jesus appears to them in their dreams — they continue to cherish their steely killing machines and actively fight for their celebration and proliferation through America, which they constantly insist is a “Christian nation.”
A “Christian nation” awash in guns? Are you kidding? That’s like a vegetarian nation awash in veal. Or a celibate nation awash in orgies. Or a democracy without free and fair elections. To wit: any people who seek to base their nation’s laws, morality, and culture on Jesus cannot simultaneously allow for the widespread sale and distribution of guns. Just. Not. Possible.
That’s why, when pious and patriotic Americans speak of the U.S.A. as a Christian nation — while at the same time polishing their firearms — there’s good reason to believe they’re joking.
Unfortunately, they’re not. Their love of both Jesus and guns is all too real. For example, according to a 2017 Pew survey:
- White evangelicals are more likely than members of other faith groups, or the average citizen, to own a gun.
- A majority of white evangelicals who own a handgun carry it with them.
- White evangelicals are more likely than average Americans to believe most places should allow citizens to carry guns.
And when we look at the loudest, leading voices of evangelical Christianity today — both reigning politicians and popular pundits — those with a crucifix betwixt their clavicles are generally the ones most likely to support guns and denounce or mock those courageous humanitarians out there fighting for sane, humane laws restricting access to the deadliest of firearms.
Now, for those of you who don’t care for pacifism and really love guns — keep in mind that you don’t have to be a Christian. You don’t have to worship Jesus. After all, there are plenty of other religious options out there for the firearm faithful. Check out Muhammad of Islam: he advocated and instigated killing on multiple occasions, and was most definitely not a pacifist; the likes of Phil Robertson, Dana Loesch, Ted Cruz, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Marco Rubio should find him most appealing, as he’d fit right in with their weapon fetish. There’s also Kartikeya of Hinduism or Mixcoatl of the Aztecs or Bellona of the Romans — all divine beings associated with war and violence. Gun lovers from Ted Nugent to Jerry Falwell. Jr. should feel free to become their devotees.
But if you’re going to choose Jesus as your prophet, if you’re going to worship and follow the Prince of Peace, well, sorry: no guns allowed.
Unfortunately, too many white evangelicals in America — those folks who claim to love Jesus more than any other people — don’t understand this or don’t want to understand it. They just love their guns too much. And as a result, the innocent bodies just keep piling up.
Is there any hope? Absolutely. Those of us who understand the data showing that lots of guns in a society produce lots of pain and suffering — and that lots of extremely dangerous guns, such as AR-15s, produce an inordinate amount of pain and suffering — can vote the NRA-beholden politicians out of office.
And we can do what every other free, democratic society has done: pass sensible, restrictive gun laws. In this effort, Secular Humanists can join hands with those many Christians out there who take Jesus’s nonviolence seriously, along with other peaceful peoples of faith — Muslims, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, Baha’is, etc. — who care more about the right of our children to live in a world without fear of another school shooting than they do about the poor judicial rulings that have misinterpreted the obscure wording of the Second Amendment.
After all, we are — secular and religious alike — the majority. Let’s start acting like it.
(Image via Shutterstock)