Christians around the world are remembering the birth of Jesus, the “Prince of Peace.” But this year, pictures are going viral of families standing beside their Christmas trees holding assault rifles. This is the new war on Christmas.
It comes at the end of a hectic year. 2021 began with the storming of the US Capitol, and we’ve seen many images since of armed militia marching in the streets. This year we’ve seen the historic trials of the armed vigilantes who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. Gun sales are skyrocketing again this year, just as they did in 2020, hitting around 20 million guns sold in a single year. And our gun deaths are also hitting a record high – over 100 deaths a day, nearly 40,000 lives lost in a single year.
This week also marks the 9th anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting (December 14), one of those all-too-familiar moments when our country said, “Never again”… and then let it happen again and again.
What does the birth of the baby Jesus 2,000 years ago have to offer the violent, troubled world we live in? Or what would Jesus say to the NRA?
I want to suggest — a lot. A whole lot.
Jesus entered the world from a posture of absolute vulnerability — as an unarmed, innocent child during a time of tremendous violence. The Bible speaks of a terrible massacre as Jesus was born, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land hoping to kill Jesus (which the church remembers annually as the massacre of the Holy Innocents).
Perhaps the original Christmas was marked more with agony and grief like that in Connecticut than with the glitz and glamour of the shopping malls and Christmas parades. For just as Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby, there were plenty of other moms and dads in utter agony because their kids had just been killed.
From his birth in the manger as a homeless refugee until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus was very familiar with violence. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus’s coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the suffering on earth. The fact that Christians throughout the world regularly identify with a victim of violence — and a nonviolent, grace-filled, forgiving victim — is perhaps one of the most fundamentally life-altering and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. Or it should be.
So what does that have to do with the NRA? Underneath the rhetoric of the gun-control debate is a nagging question: Are more guns the solution to our gun problem?
Everything in Jesus’s world, just as in ours, contends that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence – which is the very thing Jesus came to help us un-learn through his nonviolent life and death on the cross. Surely, we think – if God were to come to earth, he should at least come with a bodyguard … if not an entire entourage of armed soldiers and secret service folk. But Jesus comes unarmed. Surely, we think – if God were about to be killed he would bust out a can of butt-kicking wrath, but Jesus looks into the eyes of those about to kill him and says, “Father forgive them.”
The Bible goes so far to say that the wisdom of God makes no sense to the logic of this world, in fact it may even seem like “foolishness” (or at least utopian idealism).
When soldiers come to arrest and execute Jesus, one of his closest friends defensively picks up a sword to protect him. Jesus’s response is stunning – he scolds his own disciple and heals the wounded persecutor. It was a tough, and very counter-intuitive lesson: “The one who picks up the sword dies by the sword … there is another way.”
That lesson that Jesus taught his disciples is as relevant to us, and the NRA, as it was the early movement of Christians in the first century. Violence will not rid the world of violence. You do not use swords to get rid of swords or guns to get rid of guns. There is another way.
Many Christians have begun to speak of Jesus as an interruption to the “myth of redemptive violence,” the assumption that we can use violence to get rid of violence or that we can destroy a life to save a life. The myth of redemptive violence has many ugly faces. It teaches us that we can kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong. It teaches us to live by the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—a law that Jesus firmly spun on its head, saying, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth … but I tell you …” There is another way. Killing to show that killing is wrong is like trying to teach holiness by fornication. The cure is as bad as the disease.
At one point Jesus even weeps over the violent world he lived in, lamenting that “they did not know the things that would lead to peace.” The fact that Jesus carried a cross rather than a sword has something relevant and redemptive to offer our violent-possessed world. After all, the Bible has a lot to say about loving enemies, and “Thou shalt not kill,” but doesn’t even mention the right to bear arms.
So let’s imagine. What would Jesus say to our nation, where these things are true:
- Our gun deaths have hit a record high, even amid the pandemic — 40,000 deaths a year, over 100 per day.
- In the US, we have about 5% of the world’s population, but nearly half of the world’s guns (more than 42%).
- There are nearly 5 times more gun dealers than McDonald’s restaurants in the US.
- In the US, we manufacture 9,458,172 guns per year. That’s 25,912 per day. 1079 per hour… 18 per minute. 1 gun every 3 seconds.
- Guns are the #2 cause of death for children and youth, and they are the #1 cause of death for African American youth (10 times more likely to be killed by a gun than white kids)
- In my lifetime (45 years), we’ve lost more lives to guns than all the casualties of war in all of America’s wars combined throughout history.
- Gun sales have also hit a record high. Even though two-thirds of Americans live without guns, we have more guns than people in the US.
There is a reason we talk about “Peace on Earth” so much around Christmas. There is a reason why we talk about Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.” He consistently taught that we can disarm violence without mirroring it, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming the evil we abhor. So let us recommit ourselves to Peace this Christmas season and new year — in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the holy innocents.