Gun Control: Should A Christian Carry?

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Cain and Abel [Wikimedia Commons]

Many of my fellow Christians are also vociferous defenders of so-called “gun rights.” They believe that an armed society is a safe society, and that the founding fathers intended an armed populace to be the last line of defense against tyranny. But sometimes our public debates can keep us from asking tough “in-house” questions. Lost in the debate over whether citizens can bear arms is the important question of whether Christians should bear arms. I am not talking about owning weapons for hunting or sport. I am talking about actually carrying a concealed weapon. Is “packing heat” consistent with a Christian witness? I think the most exemplary witnesses of the church – the martyrs – would say, “No.”

Eighty-six years I have served [Christ], and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?

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St. Polycarp [Wikimedia Commons]

St. Polycarp asked the above question to the man who was about to burn him alive. The year was 156 C.E. A crowd had gathered at the arena to watch Roman justice in action. (For Rome, jurisprudence was a bloodsport designed to demonstrate the power of the empire.) The audience had already seen one Christian martyred and another renounce his faith, but they demanded more. They wanted the local bishop, Polycarp.

When news reached Polycarp that there was a warrant for his arrest, his congregation persuaded him to flee the city. The flock needed its shepherd. So Polycarp relented, and made his way to a farmhouse in the countryside. But Roman soldiers were experts in “enhanced interrogation techniques.” A few days later, Polycarp lay asleep in his bed when the door of the house was kicked in by angry men, shouting his name.

The story goes that he had a chance to flee. Instead, he said, “God’s will be done.” He offered food and wine to refresh the men who had come to arrest him, “as much as they wished.” In exchange, he asked only for an hour to pray (he took two). When he was finished, he returned to his sated, sleepy captors and went with them to humiliation, torture, and certain death.

At his trial, the proconsul tried to coax Polycarp into renouncing his faith. The Roman empire preferred live citizens to dead ones. A Christian who could be cowed into cursing Christ showed the power of Rome just as much as one tossed in the air by a raging bull. “Swear by the fortune of Caesar;” the proconsul said, “change your mind; say, ‘Away with the atheists!” The proconsul called Polycarp an “atheist” because he did not believe in the Roman gods, but the saint turned the tables on the argument. Gesturing toward the crowd, he looked up to heaven and shouted, “Away with the atheists!” That was the end. The proconsul ordered Polycarp to be stripped naked and burned alive, much to the delight of the crowd.

Martyrdom of St. Stephen, courtesy Art in the Christian Tradition: Vanderbilt University

St. Stephen [Art in the Christian Tradition: Vanderbilt University]

But much to the dismay of the crowd, the fire did not touch him. Instead of burning flesh, the smell of incense wafted through the air. The proconsul wanted a screaming victim to show the might of the empire. Instead, they got a dignified saint. Polycarp just stood there, a paragon of the virtues Roman parents tried to pass on to their children – bravery and an unflinching commitment to one’s superior. Polycarp stubbornly refused to scream in anguish; refused to try to escape; refused to die.

Defeated by the faith of the old bishop, the proconsul ordered him stabbed, and so much blood flowed from his side that it extinguished the fire that refused to lick his feet (John 19:34).

When I teach my students about the early church’s admiration for the martyrs, I explain to them that Polycarp was not special because he was martyred. He was martyred because he was special. To the bishop’s flock, it was obvious that he was chosen by God to put to shame the Devil’s proxy – Rome – which unjustly killed Christians, just as Rome had killed their Lord. True, the bishop fled the first time, but this was out of obligation to his church. Though he could have fled the second time, he let himself be caught. He knew that he had been chosen to die like the same one who said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). The soldiers had found him; “God’s will be done.”

The virtue Polycarp displayed in the flames only looked like courage. It was actually something deeper. The Christians who left us the story of Polycarp also mentioned another man who had volunteered to be a martyr. This man was certain of his courage, but when he was actually confronted with a gruesome death before the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd, he relented. He took a pinch of incense between his thumb and forefinger, sprinkled it on the altar in the name of Caesar, and cursed the name of Christ. Christians believed that a person could not choose to be a martyr. She had to be chosen. Courage will not get a person through the flames because courage comes from within. Courage and pride are not far from each other.

[Wikimedia Commons]

[Wikimedia Commons]

Polycarp was something different. Polycarp did not have an abundance of courage, but he did have an abundance of faith. He trusted himself completely to the will of God, and only by doing that was he able to pass the test. Only faith is capable of the kind of trust that looks to the undiscerning eye like courage.

The church does not record and pass on stories of martyrs to entertain or distract us. We tell stories of martyrs so that we can learn to be like Jesus. The word martyr means “witness.” In evangelical vernacular, that word is a synonym for “proselytize.” It means handing out tracts. But for the early church, to witness to Jesus meant to die. Their tracts were written in buckets of blood.

Luke adds the word “daily” to Mark’s verse about taking up our cross. Daily take up your cross. Daily die. The church is the school of martyrdom. We pray, we fast, we give alms, so that we may put others before ourselves, even to the point of death. The church is our gladiatorial gymnasium, and every day we train to die.

[Wikimedia Commons]

[Wikimedia Commons]

When I picture Polycarp, I have a hard time seeing him with a gun in his hands. “God’s will be done,” after all. I do not question the faith of my sisters and brothers who believe in their right to bear arms. (I own three guns myself.) God knows, I am a sinner with my own problems! Still, if they feel obliged to carry a weapon with them “for protection,” I invite them to consider if they are preparing for the right kind of combat. I am not a pacifist. I do not know how far “turning the other cheek” should go, practically speaking. But even if letting a person strike us is only an ideal, is not carrying a loaded gun tantamount to denying the ideal from the get go? It seems like giving up any chance of death, first thing in the morning. If we believe God’s will should be done, then I do not think we have any business carrying weapons. After all, Polycarp would not have been a martyr if he had died in a shootout with the Roman military. Killing is never a good witness, and if being a Christian means learning to be a martyr, then a follower of Jesus should always be more prepared to die than kill.

The preceding has been adapted from an upcoming broadcast for Things Not Seen radio.

23 Comments

  1. Michael Kent March 8, 2013 4:39 pm  Reply

    Does the moral/theological argument that Christians are called to be pacifists, even martyrs, support the argument that the government should outlaw, and even (by force if necessary) confiscate, all weapons?

    Professor Dunn implies that, but fails — completely — to make the linkage.

    • David J Dunn March 9, 2013 6:37 am  Reply

      No. It does not. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Allen Mirse February 15, 2013 1:08 am  Reply

    Paul had a sword and used it to defend Christ. How many of the other apostles were armed that night? Apparently the Lord did not prohibit the disciples from carrying weapons. If going armed was acceptable for the apostles, then modern Christians should be able to carry without condemnation if they so choose.

    • David J Dunn February 15, 2013 11:37 am  Reply

      Do you mean, Peter? If so, you are right. On the night Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples to take up arms, explicitly contradicting his previous instructions when he sent the seventy out to preach in the Judean countryside. Possibly, he wanted to appear to be leading an armed rebellion to secure his arrest. That would explain why he told Peter to put his sword away. Once again, the disciples did not get it. Thus Cyril of Alexandria writes that, "The blessed disciples, wounded with the prodding of divine love, drew their swords to repel the attack. Christ would not permit this, but he rebuked Peter, saying, "Put your sword into its sheath; for all who have taken swords shall die by swords." In this, he gave us a pattern of the way in which we must hold on by our love for him and of the extent to which the burning zeal of our piety may proceed. He does not want us to use swords to resist our enemies, He would rather have us use love and prudence…"

  3. Peter James Gustafson February 14, 2013 5:41 pm  Reply

    It seems that too many people are fixated on owning guns and the paranoia of being attacked. There are many reasons for this in society. I am not a Christian, but if I were, I would try to emulate Christ as much as possible and not the so called Saints. As to the, idea of 'defending the homeland', too many of our 'wars' are not that way at all. They are about power. I am still shocked at how much so many avowed Christians can support violence. Preach peace and leave the gun debate to the heathens. You have larger fish to fry in my opinion.

  4. FrThaddaeus Hardenbrook February 14, 2013 6:29 am  Reply

    Very important topic for discussion, however your introductory paragraph too quickly (erroneously?) deduces / infers that defense of the 2nd Amendment inherently includes a desire to carry a concealed firearm in order to shoot another person; which is a sweeping generalization.

    Another interesting discussion might be: "According to the theology of the Church regarding free will (an aspect of man being created in the image of God), should a Christian be free to carry a concealed firearm simply because he so desires?" Or, "Is the presence of a concealed firearm inherently evil?"

    • davidjdunn February 14, 2013 8:42 am  Reply

      Really? That is what my introductory paragraph implies? I don’t think that at all. I know many defenders of the second amendment who do not even own a gun.

      I do not think carrying a gun is inherently evil. Nor do I believe the presence of a desire permits acting upon it. I don’t think you do either. Really, I just worry what the decision to carry says about the way one views the world and the will of God. For me to leave the house equipped to kill (intent or desire is irrelevant) would feel like an act of unfaith. Of course, I do not want to make sweeping generalizations, only to raise the consideration. I do not think carrying a gun, as a private citizen, is evil, per se. But it may be spiritually unhealthy. That is all.

      • Abe kerns February 14, 2013 6:57 pm  Reply

        If carrying a gun is not inherrently evil than you would agree that a gun can be used for good just as easilly as for evil. You seem to be fixated on the idea that being armed is to kill not defend. An individual may decide that it would be spiritually hurtfull for them to carry a gun, however you are suggesting that i would be wrong for all christians to carry a gun.

    • David J Dunn February 20, 2013 2:05 pm  Reply

      I responded in the comments section, but you might not have seen it. Here it is:

      Really? That is what my introductory paragraph implies? I don’t think that at all. I know many defenders of the second amendment who do not even own a gun.

      I do not think carrying a gun is inherently evil. Nor do I believe the presence of a desire permits acting upon it. I don’t think you do either. Really, I just worry what the decision to carry says about the way one views the world and the will of God. For me to leave the house equipped to kill (intent or desire is irrelevant) would feel like an act of unfaith. Of course, I do not want to make sweeping generalizations, only to raise the consideration. I do not think carrying a gun, as a private citizen, is evil, per se. But it may be spiritually unhealthy. That is all.

  5. FrJohn Filipovich February 12, 2013 7:09 pm  Reply

    What about carrying a weapon to defend the lives of others? It would seem somehow un-Christian to allow innocents to perish because I refuse to defend them.

    • Brian Justinian Burnett February 12, 2013 7:11 pm  Reply

      Absolutely, Father John! The extreme pacifist contingent will not acknowledge that the basis of all lawful use of arms (from "personal" defense to participation in the military) in the Christian tradition is John 15:13 – "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

      • davidjdunn February 12, 2013 5:44 pm  Reply

        I will respond more when I have more time, but what gave you the impression that I belong to the “extreme pacifist contingent”?

    • FrJohn Filipovich February 12, 2013 7:37 pm  Reply

      While the Orthodox Church has no concept of 'Justified War' The Commandment is: Thou shalt not do MURDER and distinguishes murder from killing. The Old Testament Law allows for killing in self-defense, the defense of innocents, defense of property and apparently even in war in defense of the homeland. The Church does not condemn any of these things and we pray for soldiers going off to war and for those who are fallen in battle. Interestingly, abortion does not fall into any of the above mentioned categories except for murder.

      The list is Saints is full of Christian soldier-martyrs who, from what we know, were exemplary soldiers even in the (pagan) army of the Roman Empire who were martyred for not offering sacrifice to the emperor; not for being bad soldiers or refusing to engage (kill) the enemies of the Empire.

      And then you have the likes of St. Alexander Nevsky who fought bravely, with the blessing of the Church, to defend the Russian land from foreign invasion and then spent the end of his life in repentance in a monastery… while at the same time we see the many examples of the likes of Polycarp and of Tsar Nicholas II, who, while it seems he had the possibility of recruiting military assistance, chose instead the path of Passion-Bearer.

      While priests are to set an example by not shedding blood, we have plenty of venerable priests & monks who have served in the military; some even in combat who are good and faithful examples of Christian virtue.

      So, it seems that one path may not be more exalted over another as each path has given us a multitude of saints.

      • davidjdunn February 12, 2013 8:53 pm  Reply

        Thanks for your candor, Father. Like I said, I am not a pacifist. I recognize that Orthodoxy recognizes the legitimate use of force in defense of others, particularly in the case of soldiers. That said, I am reluctant to put killing in the name of the homeland in the same category as dying in the name of Jesus. For one, there is no indication that the church thought that in the time of persecution. Furthermore, technically soldiers who kill in battle are still supposed to be excommunicated for a number of years (I think ten), according to the canons of St. Basil. This is hardly ever enforced, but I think the principle is very important. St. Basil viewed even “justified” killing in the same category as murder, though perhaps judging it with less severity. It is more like manslaughter.

        Back to the point, though, I think your comments about soldiers illustrates the very thing I find so unnerving about the idea of Christians carrying weapons. Namely, it means that we perceive the world around us as an imminent threat to are wellbeing. I just have a hard time with the idea that we should look at the world as a threat to our wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.

        Maybe I would feel differently if I lived in a place where civil society was so broken that I probably would need to kill in defense of others, but Jesus loves criminals and gang-bangers. They bear the image of God, as St. Basil rightly said. So killing them is always sinful. Even when it is unavoidable, the death of an attacker is nothing but tragic.

    • Daryl Basil Biberdorf February 12, 2013 7:41 pm  Reply

      Why does anyone listen to David Dunn?

      O Holy Martyr Nestor pray to God for us.

      • davidjdunn February 12, 2013 8:53 pm  Reply

        Did you have something more constructive to say, Daryl?

      • Sad February 12, 2013 11:28 pm  Reply

        And, what is your answer to that question….

    • FrThaddaeus Hardenbrook February 14, 2013 6:06 am  Reply

      No single example of a life of a saint can explain the mysteries of life and death. However, some food for thought, a close reading of the martyrdom of St. Nestor reveals that he was blessed by St. Demetrios, explicitly, to fight and kill Lyaios.

    • David J Dunn February 15, 2013 11:38 am  Reply

      Brian Justinian Burnett – I asked this question earlier, but it may not have shown up. I am curious about which words in my post gave you the impression that I was a pacifist?

  6. Andrew February 12, 2013 10:22 am  Reply

    Interesting article. I have never owned a gun and have never hunted either. Just never felt the desire. I do see a difference between Polycarp and the average person who decides to carry a weapon.

    You said martyrs are chosen. So first, not every person out there is in a place to be martyred. They may feel they need a weapon. But second, there is a large difference between laying down your life for the faith and succumbing to the advances of a criminal. Is it martyrdom if I decided to allow a criminal to have his fill of violence with my family because I want to turn the other cheek? Will I receive glory for watching violence done to my wife and children because I had a sense of piety in refraining from violence toward a perpetrator? Am I numbered with the saints if i lay down my life for a thief when I have a choice thus leaving a wife and four children at homewirh no father? Of course these are extreme cases, and I do not personally worry about this happening. But some do. I also do not live in a place where I have to worry about this. My godfather does, living in Flint, MI- a murder capital. He chooses to carry a weapon. I’m sure he takes it off for Divine Liturgy though.

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