Guns, Jesus and Gandhi: Why arming ourselves to the teeth won’t make us safer

The capture of Christ (detail)

The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If St. Peter were alive today, would he be a member of the NRA?

Probably not, but at one point in his life, the former fisherman wasn’t afraid to use his weapon in defense of a friend.

It’s a fascinating side story to the Passion of Christ, found in the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Judas, as you may recall, leads a group of soldiers and religious officials to Jesus. As the officials are about to seize Jesus, the Peter springs into action.

According to John’s account: “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’ Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.”

To that account, the gospel of Matthew adds this detail about Jesus’ response to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Jesus, as we know, was famously against violence and retribution. In Matthew 5:38-40 we have this famous passage: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

He’s not called the “Prince of Peace” for nothing. So, why — given all that Jesus tried to teach his disciples about peace — do so many of his modern-day followers conveniently ignore those teachings when it comes to guns?

Plenty of gun-loving Christian theologians seem to embrace the notion that Jesus wasn’t actually telling his followers to forsake violence.

As David P. Kopel of the Independence Institute writes:

Having been through the Bible several times, I still can’t find the parts where God (or even a minor prophet) endorses a handgun waiting period, one-gun-a-month, or any other item in the litany of the anti-gun lobbies and the religious groups that endorse them. (Nor, of course, is there anything in the Bible implying that there is anything immoral with any of these proposals.)

But the idea that pacifism in the face of violent attack against one’s family or oneself is some kind of moral imperative that should be enforced by the state is not only missing, it is contrary to common sense and the Western religious tradition. Making it illegal for citizens to own firearms for defense of home and family may or may not be a good idea from a criminological viewpoint–but it is certainly not God’s work.

Another way to view this question comes from Jeff Quinn on his blog,

Can God protect us from those who would do us harm? Absolutely. However, just as he has given us [car] brakes to save us from the mountain, he has also given to us the tools necessary to defend ourselves, and those whom God has given to us. As Christian men, God not only allows us to protect our families, but he expects us to protect those whom he has placed in our care. This may seem contrary to the mandate for us to “turn the other cheek”, and I too have pondered over this. It takes great strength to turn the other cheek as Jesus intended. That is not a commandment to be weak. Jesus did not operate from a position of weakness. In fact, nothing ever happened to him that he did not allow.

Yet another perspective from a pastor, identified only as “lcarver44,” on the website of the Pratt (Kansas) Tribune:

Lately, I heard someone say that Jesus would be in favor of a ban on guns. I have found in over 40 years of ordained ministry that people who say they know what Jesus would do, don’t know Jesus. Jesus cared for people but he wasn’t a big fan of laws. Following the law, or at least finding a way around it, was the goal of the Pharisees. And every time they had the chance they tried to catch Jesus on the law. And every time they made an attempt to catch Jesus on some aspect of the law he turned it around on them showing that the law wasn’t important, it was what was in a person’s heart. Jesus wanted to change the hearts of people. It was the Pharisees that wanted laws. Making guns illegal will not change the hearts of those individuals who are crazy enough to massacre people.

Interesting perspectives all, and who can really declare with absolute authority what Jesus might say about every situation that calls for self-defense or heroic actions in the face of violence? We do know, based on the gospels, that Jesus believed in helping others. After all, he gave us the story of the good Samaritan, right?

But, while there are plenty of Christian teachers today who make passionate and persuasive arguments about their scriptural rights to protect themselves and their families with guns, there is another line of thought and practice inspired by the teachings of Jesus, but embraced and exhibited in the 20th Century by Gandhi and, later, by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a speech in 1925, Gandhi explained:

But let us not talk of that perfection of non-violence. It requires greater heroism than of brave soldiers, but it is better to fight the man you hate than do nothing but whimper and whine for fear of death at his hands. Cowardice and brother-hood go ill together. The world does not accept today the idea of loving the enemy. Even in Christian Europe the principle of non-violence is ridiculed. While somebody writes to me from there : “Will you explain more clearly this your principle of non-violence ?’ Someone else tells me : “You can safely talk of non-violence, because you are ensconced in India. You can’t think of it in Europe.” And there are others who affirm; “Christianity has become a pretense at present. Christians do not understand the message of Jesus. It is necessary to deliver it over again in the way we can understand.”

All the three are right from their own angles. But I must say that so long as we do not accept the principle of loving the enemy, all talk of world brotherhood is an airy nothing. Many men and women ask me, “Is it ever possible for the weak human flesh to rise above the inborn desire to avenge one’s wrongs?” I say, “Yes. It is because we are not fully conscious of our manhood, that we cannot shed hatred and enmity.” Darwin says man is descended from the monkey. If that is true, we have not yet attained the stage of man. Dr. Anna Kingsford writes, “I have seen lions, tigers, wolves, and serpents roaming in the streets of Paris in human form.”

In order to shed that beastliness, man has got to shed fear. Only the awakening of a spiritual power lying dormant within us can make us fearless; and not our equipment with arms. The Mahabharata has called forgiveness a hero’s ornament or quality. There is a statue of General Gordon which represents him with a stick, not a sword, to show how brave he was. Were I a sculptor and asked to make his statue, I would have shown him inscribed the following words as his utterance : “Do what you may. Without fear, without malice, and without return, I stand like a rock to receive all your blows.” That is my ideal of a hero.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King talked about what he gleaned from Gandhi’s teachings about non-violence:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight . . . while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent . . . The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil . . . We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,” Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister . . . does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’”

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love . . .

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship.

Before you scoff that Gandhi and King were impractical dreamers, it’s useful to recall that both achieved their goals – the independence of India from the British and civil rights for black Americans – through stunningly non-violent means. (King’s non-violent tactics in Birmingham in 1963 were particularly effective and are a textbook case of effective, creative non-violence.)

But, while I tend to think the overwhelming body of Jesus’ teaching and his actions suggest that he would strongly condemn our gun-addicted society, I don’t scoff at those who argue otherwise or who decide to ignore that part of Jesus’ teaching as esoteric, impractical or dangerous. And I acknowledge there are those who struggle mightily with these questions, even leading Catholic priests like Father James Martin. Writing recently in the Huffington Post, Martin pondered:

Was Jesus naïve? I wonder about that. I often marvel how some Christians can say that in one breath, and proclaim him as the Son of God in the next. Apparently, some believe that the Second Person of the Trinity didn’t know what he was talking about. But Jesus lived in a violent time himself, under the heel of Roman rule in an occupied land, when human life was seen as cheap. Jesus witnessed violence and was himself the victim of violence–the most famous person to suffer the death penalty. It was not only divine inspiration but also human experience that led him to say: Blessed are the peacemakers.

But back to Peter and the sword.

Jesus clearly didn’t condone Peter’s actions, because it violated everything he stood for and had taught. Moreover, Jesus undoubtedly knew that one man with a sword again a group of Roman soldiers was not likely to prevail. He was just as likely to be killed on the spot.

But Peter clearly reacted as many of us would. And he would likely have found solidarity with Arizona state Rep. Jack Harper who spoke about the need for more citizens to arm themselves after the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

“When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim,” Harper said. “The socialists of today are only one gun confiscation away from being the communists of tomorrow.”

More practically stated were the sentiments of Ashlyn Lucero, a political science student at Arizona State University, who told the New York Times last year, “If I’m going out to eat somewhere, I usually have a gun with me always. It’s just one of those things that you never know what’s going to happen.”

Maybe Harper and Lucero are right. Perhaps a theater full of armed moviegoers would deter almost everyone who might think about shooting up a noon matinée. That’s the argument I’ve heard many times in the days since the tragic events in Aurora, Colorado. In the bizarre world of the NRA, more guns equal less violence.

Maybe. But who honestly thinks that a violent, mentally ill person would be deterred by knowing that everyone in the room was packing heat?

In truth, by arming ourselves, deterrence is really not what we’re expecting, is it?

It’s certainly not what Rep. Harper had in mind. He doesn’t think a violent person will change his mind before he shoots. He and those like him want a roomful of armed theater patrons so that when the shooting commences, someone will spring into action, draw his pistol and take out the shooter before he can kill more people.

In fact, as many law enforcement officers will tell you, it rarely works that way and it might get you and others killed.

Now, if you’re not the type to take life lessons from the Bible, consider another authority — a retired Chicago police officer, Michael B. Black, writing on July 25 in the New York Times.

Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, recently suggested that if this incident [in Aurora] had occurred in his state, where many citizens carry concealed weapons, the crazed shooter could have been quickly terminated. I wonder if the congressman considered the confusion and terror that occurs in a real-life firefight? . . .

I’ve faced people with guns many times and arrested violent, armed offenders for such crimes as robbery and homicide. Although my gun often left its holster on those occasions, I am grateful that I never had to shoot anyone. I never lost sight of the responsibility of carrying a weapon. Despite what many people think, it’s not something to be taken lightly. . . .

The last shooting incident I was involved in happened at 3 in the morning on Dec. 26, 2010, my last Christmas before I retired. We responded to a report of two men arguing, one threatening to shoot the other. My radio blared, “Shots fired! Man with a gun.” When I reached one man, running in the darkness between two houses, he had already been shot by another officer. When the officer had ordered the man to stop and identify himself, the man had pointed a pistol at him. The officer ducked behind his car door and fired half the bullets in his Glock 21 before finally hitting the offender once in the left buttock. We eventually found the shooter’s silver semiautomatic deep in a snowdrift.

The suddenness and confusion of that moment points out the folly of the politician’s belief that an armed civilian could have easily taken out James Holmes. Imagine the scene: speakers blasting, larger-than-life heroes and villains on the screen, and suddenly real gunshots, a man in a gas mask firing one of three weapons — a shotgun, handgun and rifle, with extended magazines for extra ammo capacity — into the panicking crowd. Even a highly trained, armed police officer would have been caught off guard. Try adding a bunch of untrained, armed civilians into the mix — this type of intervention could have made things much worse.

In the same edition of the Times was another column, this by Andrew Jensen, a former Army infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After years of training and war, I’m left wondering: can you ever really protect people you care about?

As a veteran, should I register for a concealed-carry license and always be armed? Even then, would I, as a trained rifleman, really be able to shoot a single person through a cloud of tear gas in a movie theater full of people screaming and running? What if I started shooting and there was another person with a gun in the crowd? . . .

The reality, of course, is that we wouldn’t have tackled the shooters. Shooters aren’t tackled until their clips are empty, and by then it’s too late.

Serving in a combat zone means constant vigilance against unseen enemies. It means wearing heavy body armor, no matter what the weather is doing. It means taking weapons with you when you eat or use the restroom. It means, quite literally, never putting them down. The common argument made by gun-rights advocates is that they “don’t want to be in a one-way firefight,” which argues for not restricting the sale of things like semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and tear-gas grenades. Their contention is that the only real way to stop dedicated shooters is for there to be plenty of other shooters around.

Those who truly believe that need to be carrying a gun right now, wherever they are. They need to keep it closer than I kept my weapon in Iraq. In Iraq my fellow soldiers’ lives were on the line. Soldiers’ lives are important — but our families’ safety is even more precious.

Those who truly believe that anyone should be able to buy semiautomatic weapons will need a gun at soccer practice, at church, at “Batman” movies. That’s the only logical choice. And civilian life will feel almost like being in Iraq.

Those who believe that every adult citizen ought to be armed will likely point to Joe Zamudio, a citizen with a gun who was shopping at a Tucson, Arizona, drugstore when he heard the shootings where Rep. Giffords was meeting with constituents in January 2011. Zamudio rushed to the scene and helped tackle and hold the shooter until the police arrived. Heroic and effective, right?

There’s more to the story, as related by writer William Saletan:

But before we embrace Zamudio’s brave intervention as proof of the value of being armed, let’s hear the whole story. “I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready,” he explained on Fox and Friends. “I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this.” Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. “And that’s who I at first thought was the shooter,” Zamudio recalled. “I told him to ‘Drop it, drop it!’ “

But the man with the gun wasn’t the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter. “Had you shot that guy, it would have been a big, fat mess,” the interviewer pointed out.

Zamudio agreed: “I was very lucky. Honestly, it was a matter of seconds. Two, maybe three seconds between when I came through the doorway and when I was laying on top of [the real shooter], holding him down. So, I mean, in that short amount of time I made a lot of really big decisions really fast. . . . I was really lucky.”

Saletan concludes:

That’s what happens when you run with a firearm to a scene of bloody havoc. In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you’re dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd. It happens even among trained soldiers. Among civilians, the risk is that much greater.

We’re enormously lucky that Zamudio, without formal training, made the right split-second decisions. We can’t count on that the next time some nut job starts shooting. I hope Arizona does train lawmakers and their aides in the proper use of firearms. I hope they remember this training if they bring guns to constituent meetings. But mostly, I hope they don’t bring them.

Maybe, like me, you consider yourself a Christian and, yet, don’t fully embrace the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi and King on the need for strict non-violence. Maybe, like me, you don’t walk about armed, but you have guns and believe you would use them in defense of your home or to protect your family.

That’s a debatable, but entirely defensible position.

But take it one step further and argue that we need more citizens with weapons, going about their business – in stores, coffee shops and movie theaters – and that’s where you lose me.

It’s just much more difficult to argue that a well-armed citizenry will make for a safer public square. Of course, the NRA will protest and cite many examples of armed people who have used their weapons to resist and defeat their attackers. For example, the website, The Armed Citizen, catalogs nine incidents from 2011 in which armed citizens faced down or subdued attackers.

Curiously, however, there’s not one example on the website about a citizen, or group of armed citizens, who stopped a mass killer like the ones accused in the shootings in Aurora, Ft. Hood, and Virginia Tech.

Speaking of Ft. Hood, that shooting in 2009, which claimed the lives of 13 and wounded 29 more, occurred on a military base in Texas. The shooter was surrounded by soldiers trained to handle combat situations. Despite this, he shot 42 people before he was taken down by a civilian police officer, after fending off the unsuccessful attacks of four others who attempted to stop him.

If you want to fill your home with guns to protect you and your family, that’s your right (despite the appalling number of accidental shootings and suicides by guns each year). In many states, you have the right to a concealed weapons permit and can carry a gun to just about any venue.

That’s not likely to change any time soon.

But I wonder if the events in Aurora might not mark the beginning of a change in attitude toward guns – not about the need for more of them in more hands, but that they should be more difficult to obtain. (In many public opinion polls, Americans say they are willing to see laws passed making it harder to buy assault weapons.)

When someone proposes arming American citizens to the point that our cities begin to resemble the wild West, I believe we can count on the good sense of the average American.

Christian or not, most people aren’t about to pack a Glock everywhere they go. And they don’t like the idea of their fellow diners or moviegoers packing heat.

It’s not because they don’t think we have that right; it’s because we instinctively know that life doesn’t unfold like some Saturday night police drama or a scene from “Gunsmoke.”

Most of us know we wouldn’t — and couldn’t — react to a violent situation like some action movie hero. (Most real-life cops can’t, either.) We know we don’t have the experience or the reflexes necessary to do what is necessary in a difficult situation.

At the end of the day, it’s not our religious beliefs that will keep us from making a bad situation worse; it’s our innate common sense and self-awareness.

Deep inside, we know we’re not Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.” On our very best day, we know we’d be lucky to be Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” And, as everyone knows who has watched that movie, Jimmy Stewart didn’t shoot Valance. John Wayne did.

As much as we admire John Wayne, deep down we are a nation of Jimmy Stewarts.

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4 Responses to Guns, Jesus and Gandhi: Why arming ourselves to the teeth won’t make us safer

  1. Pingback: Average Americans don't need assault weapons | Not Your Mama's Rag

  2. SL says:

    When people base their argument for or against private gun ownership solely on the necessity or feasibility of using guns to defend your life, family or personal property against criminal, they are missing a crucial point.

    If guns were to be made illegal, there is no getting around the fact that the reasoning behind such a law would be that ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with them. Meanwhile, no one has a problem with the military and the police having every type of assault weapon and carrying them around in plain view. In a nutshell, agents of the government could be trusted with power while its citizens could not. This is the logic the government would have to subscribe to in order to make sense of such a law.

    In reality, there are many gun owners in Louisiana and America who are no threat to anyone, who do not use their guns to commit crimes, and who do not walk around armed all the time out of fear of crime. I am one of these. I have owned guns since I was very young. If all of a sudden the government can’t trust me to continue not using my guns to commit crimes just as I have not been doing for the past 30+ years, then I can’t very well trust them either.

    We live in a great country, and many people are quite patriotic, and we tend to give our government the benefit of the doubt. But, just because our government is American doesn’t mean they will always do good. If you subscribe to the philosophy the government seems to favor, then the only reason they are not evil is because it’s illegal and they can’t find a loophole. If they can legally maneuver around it, they are more than willing to do evil to us or anyone else in the world if it serves their interest. Their interest is not always in our best interest either. The founders were well aware of this, and thus, our constitution limits the power of government in many ways, one being that they are not allowed to disarm to population creating an imbalance of power.

    So, if local state and federal governments are serious about gun control as we discuss it these days, let them lay down their arms along with us. Otherwise, it’s a little bit like the Congress trying to pass a law revoking the President’s veto. A power struggle. Yes, many in the government would be in favor of increasing their own power, is that a surprise? They are exempt from gun control laws because they are trusted agents of the only entity that would be allowed to own guns.


  3. Pingback: Proposal: Force Citizens to Own Guns « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  4. Pingback: A Different Perspective | beenetworknews

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