After some controversial remarks made by Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell, Jr. during a chapel service last month, John Piper was compelled to respond with an article asking if Christians should be encouraged to arm themselves. Falwell encouraged students to get gun permits and take a free course, in order to “teach [the Muslim terrorists] a lesson if they come here.” After contacting Falwell directly for clarification, Piper published his response. His piece created some unusual allies and some surprising foes in the debate over non-violence and gun ownership. Those hailing from a more Anabaptist tradition surprisingly praised his article, while those typically allied with Piper’s theological bent were highly critical.
Issues of peace and non-violence are among the most heated topics for Christians to engage in America today. The rights of self defense and to gun-ownership are tightly woven into the fabric of the American ethos, as are commitments to defending these rights.
What do Christian libertarians believe? Few Christians would reject the notion that followers of Jesus should embrace an ethic of peace, but reaching agreement on what that looks like in practice is extremely difficult. No libertarian would stand against the right of individuals to bear arms. The right to self-defense is grounded on natural law and is affirmed in the U.S. Constitution: responsive force is permissible in the face of an aggressor. I believe this deep conviction and its strong defense originates as much as or more so from our heritage in the American revolution than it does from our Christian faith. I say this not to reject biblical texts which affirm the right to self-protection. Rather, I wish to keep two distinct rationales in their proper places and to clarify that the passion with which we defend our rights does not always derive from our Bible-thumping impulses, but often from our natural instincts.
Does our permission or prerogative to use legal force in self-defense obligate us to do it? We are free to choose our own limits when it comes to self-defense. Libertarians (and even many Christians) affirm the freedom of conscience. Individual autonomy requires that we afford others viewpoints with which we disagree. From pacifist to gunslinger, we live and let live.
Yes, live and let live! Like it or not, the libertarian’s commitment to peaceful relations looks and acts a lot like a Christian pacifist’s commitment to non-violence. The difference is that the libertarian has a caveat – self-defense – that most pacifists reject.
My thesis is simple: I believe it is possible to embrace an ethic of non-violence without compromising a commitment to a right to self-defense or protection of others in harm’s way. In many respects, John Piper’s recent article on gun-ownership captures the essence of my position. By offering both praise and critique of his stated position, I think we can come to an integrated stance on the issue of Christian gun-ownership and the ethic of non-violence. Not all libertarian Christians will agree, but I hope my remarks will encourage those on both sides to consider how to have an amicable debate over this issue.
The term “pacifist” is used here as a matter of convenience. It is true that not all pacifists are the same. One can also be a pacifist without being a Christian. One can be a pacifist in personal matters but think violence by the state is justifiable. One can be a pacifist in all personal and societal matters. For the purpose of this essay, we are really speaking about Christians who believe that followers of Jesus ought to emulate his life in part with a commitment to non-violent action against injustice. Minimally, these Christians believe we should passionately pursue non-violent alternatives to fighting injustice while reluctantly permitted violent ones in the meantime. Whether or not you think that is a “pacifist” position is immaterial, so we will stick to these operating terms.
Those unfamiliar with John Piper should know that he is recognized and beloved for his unambiguous exegesis of Scripture and absolutism on almost everything worth having an opinion about. In his article, however, he writes with an ambiguity and honesty that raised the ire of even his most admired followers. It is likely that his article roused so much passionate antagonism not for what he wrote but for its absence of clear, precise, and absolute conclusions to which they are so accustomed. He even received praise from the most unlikely of sources (Anabaptist-leaning bloggers and pastors), though I would attribute their caveat-laden praise more on Piper’s refreshingly honest and subtle stance against the status quo than on their shared commitment to non-violence (though of course they were quite happy with that as well).
Because context matters, let us consider the original context of Piper’s article: a written response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s remarks during a Liberty University chapel service. No reasonable person would deny Falwell the right to decide how to protect the students, faculty, and staff of a very large institution under his care. He is simply anticipating a possible threat to their well-being. But Falwell’s remarks raised the ire of Piper, not as much for its content but rather for its tenor.
What happened first? Piper sought clarity by reaching out to Falwell, even speaking on the phone. What a fantastic first step! Piper attempted to listen to his opponent before publicly speaking out against his position. How many of Piper’s critics reached out to ask him for clarity before responding? After all, one of their major critiques is his lack of clarity.
What happened next, of course, was Piper’s article, which has received much praise and much critique. I could not read every critique, of course, and my familiarity with and inclination toward the Anabaptist non-violence position (now my cards are all on the table for you!) afforded me the benefit of knowing why Piper received praise from such unlikely sources without needing to read precisely why.
If Piper is clear about anything in his article, it was stated up front (emphasis mine):
My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.
The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.
Piper is clear that it is posture rather than preservation that he is asking us to consider before we start arming ourselves. Perhaps the key to understanding his concern is right there in the title: “be encourage to.” He is cautioning us against the missiological ramifications for being quick to arm ourselves as followers of the Prince of Peace. He is asking his readers to consider their mindset, disposition, heart-attitude.
Reaction to Piper
So what explains the outrage? I suspect that the strong reactions that Piper evoked in his critics could be paraphrased as, “How dare you tell me I shouldn’t own a gun!” But they’re dodging the wrong bullet, because Piper is not telling anybody they shouldn’t own a gun! Piper explicitly says he would be “very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me.” That is, in his view there is room for multiple opinions on this matter. Seriously, when is John Piper ever “slow to condemn” somebody for a different opinion?!
Then what do we make of this statement from Piper: “I live in the inner city of Minneapolis, and I would personally counsel a Christian not to have a firearm available for [circumstances of your wife being assaulted].” As one who, a decade ago, listened to a lot of John Piper sermons, I know Piper’s perspective well enough to know that this one-line response is woefully inadequate. Piper is famous for responding to missionaries’ concern over working in countries where hostility toward Christians is common, “The worst they can do is kill you.” For Piper, living in Minneapolis (near his church) was a personal decision to live as a missionary in a potentially harmful part of the neighborhood. So this statement, in context, is about individual counsel, not general rules. Even so, Piper really set himself up for some harsh critique. I would have preferred for Piper to say that his counsel would depend on the “innumerable variations of factors” (his words) which probably only sometimes means to own a gun for self-defense, but never ruling it out completely.
Piper’s arguments were weak or sometimes irrelevant to support his main concern, which left himself an easy target for even low caliber rebuttals. But Piper is no idiot, and his comments are not without some undergirding theology that he failed to articulate. Some of his undeveloped reasons have been put forth more robustly by others before him, but his critics did nothing to recognize this. Ideally, his opponents should have addressed his concerns on their best approximation of what they believe was his poorly-made argument.
In other words, they could have demonstrated a willingness to listen first, respond second. Which brings me to the next important aspect of this (or any) debate: hearing out the other side. When two persons who have developed a comprehensive and well-defended position engage in a debate over ideas, it requires diligence to truly listen to each other.
It is common for Christians who have converted to a position of non-violence from one where violence was acceptable to explain how badly they understood the non-violence position before giving it a fair hearing. A fair hearing is difficult for both sides of this argument because it requires a suspension of initial objections and what-ifs in order to genuinely listen. Proponents on both sides of this debate are guilty. One side’s objections appear overly bloodthirsty; the other side’s appears immature or naive or dangerous to others.
Consider the common retort: “So if you’re daughter is about to be raped, you’ll simply do nothing?!” The question is itself a ploy to paint the pacifist into a corner or expose hypocrisy. And while it is not merely a hypothetical question (because real people have faced such situations), I know nobody who holds even the most extreme pacifist viewpoint who has not wrestled with the above question. No, they have given the question serious consideration. Their responses might be unsatisfactory to many, but they are not ill-conceived.
Praise of Piper
Piper’s main concern as quoted above is completely compatible with the belief that Christians are indeed permitted to own guns to be used for the purpose of self-defense or to protect another person under imminent threat. What is disconcerting is that many Christians’ unquestioning acceptance and passionate defense of the right to self-defense and the duty to protect others in harm’s way is rarely tempered by the Christian ethic and commitment to non-violence. It’s as if our duty to live peaceably with all people has been forgotten.
The libertarian position in general is summed up in the phrase, “anything peaceful.” Its only exception, self-defense, is not really an exception because it is not initiatory, but reactive and justified as necessary to prevent loss of life or harm. The Christian position in general is summed up in the phrase, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The only room for exception, if there is one at all, is similar to that of the libertarian: self-defense or protecting others.
It is one thing to say that we are permitted to own and use guns. It is quite another to place one’s trust and safety solely on what’s in a holster close by. There are psychological ramifications to possessing the power to kill, and we must search our own hearts to ensure we have not misplaced our security. It is disheartening when Christians permit their gun-owning rights to become an opportunity to relish the power that comes with protection. We cannot mistake insecurity for prudence. The heart of Piper’s concern is the issue of ultimate reliance: what business do Christians have in donning the persona of arming themselves with an attitude that provokes others? As one response to Piper wrote, “An eagerness to shed blood is anti-biblical and a real temptation in our contemporary culture.” Yes. A thousand times, yes! Our impulse for protection ought to be biased toward non-violent methods, not split-second prevention tactics, necessary though it is.
Why? Because violence begets violence, which is a cycle that must be broken. Ending this cycle involves a long-term strategy that does more than stop individual murders. This is not to reject all use of force to stop a violent act. But if “the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun that shoots first” is the only comeback we have, we are simply perpetuating the cycle. We ought to recalibrate our sights to see more clearly. There are far too many examples of non-violent resistance that created better outcomes, even if those examples are imperfect.
One critique of Piper’s argument comes from CalvinistInternational.com. He quotes the Westminster Larger Catechism’s commentary on the 6th Commandment, rightly stating that it is possible for one to advocate against “intemperate passions” (i.e. the eagerness to shed blood under the veneer of self-protection) on the one hand “while allowing for just defense against violence.” In other words, Piper threw out the baby with the bathwater.
It should concern us that many Christians defend the right to use guns with enthusiasm and zeal. Is it really becoming of followers of Christ — who died at the hands of his enemies and returned bringing a message of peace — to salivate at the prospect of killing somebody who might do them harm? Is it possible that we have too easily let our freedom to own and use a firearm (which is indeed under threat) evolve into a craving for the power to wield violence? Do self-defense courses taught by churches include teachings on how to peacefully disarm a would-be assailant? Do these pastors preach gun ownership while also teaching their community techniques of non-violent resistance?
Some of Piper’s critics are concerned with the ramifications of Piper’s counsel to not arm oneself as dangerous to one’s family. Fair enough. But they should also concern themselves with their how their own enthusiasm toward gun use could exemplify a culture that bears little resemblance to the Way of Peace demonstrated and taught by Christ. Indeed, this enthusiasm for gun-ownership might backfire in the long run, as we are witnessing this month with Executive Powers being exercised in favor of cracking down on regulations for gun ownership. The “gun nut” perception does not work in our favor if those in power are keen to leverage that perception to justify their actions.
Problems with Piper
Like Piper I do not believe Christians should portray themselves as gun-toting, “Bring it on!” radicals ready to kill at the slightest violation of their property. The last thing any Christian should want to do is kill another human being, even an aggressor. Should we choose to arm ourselves in self-defense, it should be done so in reluctance and for the sake of prudence.
One of Piper’s biggest issues is confusing his categories, and this was cleared up by some of his critics’ best arguments against him. Piper views the Christian task as wholly missional, where everything we do is for the purpose of doing missions to glorify God, so it is no wonder that all Scripture dealing with non-violence fits as evidence toward his position. In context, the verses he uses as support have to do with kingdom mission and advancement more so than it does with basic daily living. As one critic pointed out, Christians in America are usually not being assaulted because of their Christian faith. They are simply being assaulted among others with the same plight.
Another thing Piper fails to distinguish is that vengeance and self-defense are not the same thing. If I shoot a person who has begun to attack me, I am not exacting vengeance, nor am I refusing to let God exact vengeance after I’m dead. The ambiguity of the many scenarios in which we may find ourselves can make it difficult to determine if somebody is acting out of vengeance or self-defense. But I would give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is defending their own life or family.
You see, all this gun-hugging culture of many Christians makes me wonder sometimes about their disposition toward others. I have difficulty discerning if their heart posture toward those who seek to do us harm mirrors the enemy-forgiving love Jesus showed toward his enemies. Obviously I cannot detect heart motives, but if “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” is any indication it’s hard not to wonder. In the end, each of us has to ask ourselves a difficult question: Does my disposition toward others who might do me harm accurately reveal Jesus living in me?
The duty to love one’s neighbor is often cited as a reason that lethal force is permissible to prevent an imminent assault on others around us. In those extremely rare but still realistic situations, it is almost silly to ask, “Should I stop this from happening?” Of course we act within our power to prevent violence! This is the response of Richard Rohr, saying there must be the option to protect the defenseless. If all you need is justification for a last-minute, “just in case” reason to use a gun, you have one from a Franciscan Priest and pacifist!
Wielding the Bible in our Zeal for Peace
There may be no accusation more prevalent in a debate over the meaning of a Bible verse than, “you’re taking this verse out of context,” followed by a reminder of the “Scripture interprets Scripture” principle, and then by a list of “plain texts” (read: the ones we favor) that help us understand texts that are less clear (read: the ones we do not favor). Every position has its so-called “problem texts.” We can cherry-pick Bible verses to support almost any position we want. The goal is not to pick and choose the parts of Scripture that defend our position but to allow the Spirit to transform us as we read it, study it, meditate upon it.
The narrative of Scripture has a telos, a goal toward which it is heading. Reading the Bible teleologically is hardly disputable. To view the entire Bible as authoritative does not automatically assume the Bible is a flat text where all parts bear equal weight and meaning. When we read the Bible teleologically, it is nearly impossible to not see the trajectory: the further we read, we find fewer options for retaliation, revenge, or justification for any sort of violence. We do find strong clues pointing us to non-violence, strong admonitions against revenge and retaliation, but we find no explicit rejection of every and all possible options for self-defense. This should be a major factor in shaping our disposition toward any sort of lethal force: not ruled out completely, but also not leading us to more of it.
Those of us who affirm the right to use lethal force in self-defense should always be reticent to exercise that right. Christians can do better than merely affirming the status quo’s “just in case” model. Thankfully, for most of us this is just a hypothetical, which means we have the time to consider how to think differently. In the meantime, our attention should be on how to live and love as Jesus taught us to in ways that do not require violence. We should cultivate a life of peace, praying fervently for all possible alternatives to violence before we are forced to make split-second reactions.
To be a disciple of Christ is to seek wisdom in practical matters that are always also spiritual matters. As we read the Scriptures, we see Jesus raising the bar on the biblical command to love our neighbor to include love for enemies, and it is our task as followers of Christ to find a way forward that promotes peace with peaceful methods. Our desire should be for non-violent solutions to injustice, not violent ones. If tomorrow has no non-violent answers, we keep looking and trying until, by the grace of God, love wins. Peace on earth comes not through violence but through people of peace living under the way of the Prince of Peace. Peace is literally the means and the ends.