But Jesus told him, “Put your sword away! Anyone who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 26:52
Jesus said this to Peter just after Peter had drawn his sword and struck Malcus severing the high priest’s servant’s ear. Jesus had just been identified by Judas to a mob bent on snatching him away for harsh treatment. Peter had the best weapon available to him, and he was intent on protecting himself and others, especially Jesus, from criminal assault and the heavy hand of tyranny.
Every gun enthusiast I know can relate to Peter’s action. I never envisioned Peter to be such an accomplished swordsman that he could have taken a foil and expertly lopped off an ear. Rather, I imagine Peter taking a wild swing with a heavy sword, and I believe if Malcus had not ducked he would have lost his head. In such a hostile setting he was lucky to lose just an ear, and Peter was lucky to have survived the response of the crowd intent on arresting Jesus. The crowd was well-armed for their day, with swords and clubs, the Scripture says, and Peter’s resisting of arrest was a potentially deadly mistake.
Imagine that scene had it occurred in a town on the Western American frontier in the 1880s when every man was armed with a Colt revolver, the six-shooter as common as boots and hats. That was the gun that Texas historian, T.R. Fehrenbach, describes in his book, Comanches: The Destruction of a People, as the weapon Texas Rangers adopted as soon as it was invented and marketed by the gun manufacturers of the 19th century. Comanches prior to that time had held a superior weapon, the bow and arrow. The Comanches would wait until a Ranger fired his weapon and was reloading the single-shot pistol and then charge in on horseback and shoot several arrows from under the neck of a galloping pony with speed and accuracy. With the six-shot revolver, the Rangers acquired such superior firepower that it was only a matter of time until the Comanches were virtually destroyed.
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So, picture the arrest of Jesus in a setting where all the men were armed with a Colt. When Peter drew his, would he have survived? How many people could have been shot and killed before Jesus had the chance to say, “Put your gun away!” No wonder that the great lawman of the 19th century, Wyatt Earp, required every man to check his guns when he entered town. Earp knew how dangerous a well-armed citizenry was, and how volatile the human psyche, how prone to violence. Wyatt Earp would use his own gun to crack a man’s skull to subdue him, and permitted no more violence than could be carried out with fists and boots. No guns allowed. Peter may have survived in Earp’s town when the arresting mob came for Jesus. But what of the towns where gun control was not in effect?
Now, imagine the arrest of Jesus taking place in American society today, in a setting where people have ready access to powerful guns with rapid fire capabilities, a huge number of bullets ready for use, so powerful that bodies explode upon impact. Instead of swords and clubs, or even six-shooters, an angry mob would be armed to the hilt just like pirates in Somalia or warlords in the Congo or drug gangs on the Texas-Mexico border, and Peter’s unwise action to protect Jesus could result in a shoot-out of epic proportions.
Hear Jesus say, “Put your AKs and Bushmasters and Glocks away….”
I raise this scenario, readers of Red Letter Christians, for us to consider the extent to which the gun control debate today is relevant for us. I have been around guns — guns held by both good guys and bad guys — all my life. I like the feel and smell of a gun. I have a healthy respect for what guns can do. But today, guns scare me more than they used to. Too many unstable people have them. Too much careless talk and casual gun-toting suggests a frightening specter of armed school teachers, college students packing heat in class, anybody with a pulse and cash able to purchase an armory, more guns rather than fewer in our culture. It is like Wyatt Earp, instead of requiring people to check their weapons as they came to town, handing out guns to all comers. The carnage resulting from modern firearms and other weaponry is well known to all of us.
I cannot picture Jesus carrying a gun — even, or most especially, for self-protection. I am not sure how Peter managed to strap on a sword on the night of the arrest or whether any other followers of Jesus were similarly armed. But I do hear the words of Jesus when the weaponry was drawn. And I think those words can also help us sort out and give context to the “Right to Bear Arms” in 21st Century America.
I, for one, have put my guns away for good. But there is more we could do.
Professor Zachary Elkins of the University of Texas recommended recently in the New York Times a constitutional amendment to settle the debate in America regarding what the Constitution says about guns. He correctly predicts a basic consensus exists among Americans about guns in society. The argument for more robust gun control revolves around the first clause of the Second Amendment, which says “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”, a clause which has been irrelevant for most of our history. When those words were penned American had no standing army, no national guard, no airmen or marines or sailors.
The argument for absolute freedom to bear arms revolves around the second clause of the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. The gun-rights people rally behind interpretations of that amendment beginning in the 1980s which expand gun rights for self-defense, an individual right.
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Professor Elkins suggests the disagreement is between those who do not understand “well-regulated militia” and those who do not understand “shall not be infringed.” A large majority of Americans recognize the need for a modern understanding of guns. A re-written gun amendment suitable for the modern era would replace an antique law with one which adapts to modern technological and cultural developments. The professor is right. As he says, Americans “who propose responsible limits, like background checks, would welcome constitutional support for common-sense safeguards. Those who worry about the slippery slope of encroachments on gun rights would find comfort in an explicit reassertion and reinforcement of the general right to bear arms.”
Perhaps here is a place Christian ethicists can help connect the dots between “put your sword away” and “the right to bear arms.” Rather than waiting for a divided Supreme Court to settle the issue, a new gun-rights amendment could articulate the basic consensus which seems to exist between gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates.
In the 1980s a student at the University of Texas wrote a term paper, received a C, and then embarked on a campaign that resulted 10 years later in the ratification of the 27th Amendment. If that can happen on an issue like compensation of Senators and Representatives, why can we not successfully embark on a campaign to replace the archaic 2nd Amendment with a new and relevant constitutional provision, and in the process perhaps avert more deadly violence?
Patrick Anderson is editor of Christian Ethics Today and lives in Cedar Key, FL and Beech Mountain, NC.