Polycarp, Ignatius, and the NRA

The martyrs have been on my mind lately. The other morning I turned to the letter St. Ignatius wrote to the church in Rome, before he was executed. I read the following words,

I am corresponding with all the churches and bidding them all to realize that I am voluntarily dying for God – if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts–that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ. I would rather that you fawn on the beasts so that they may be my tomb and no scrap of my body be left. Thus, when I have fallen asleep, I shall be a burden to no one. Then I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more. Pray Christ for me that by these means I may become God’s sacrifice.

The early Christians understood martyrdom to be a privilege. Martyrs were chosen by God. That is why they went willingly to their deaths. Consider the example of St. Polycarp. At the urging of his church, he fled to a country farm during a time of persecution. This was not uncommon for bishops to do. When he was discovered by Roman soldiers, he could have fled again, but instead he gave himself over to them, saying, “God’s will be done.”

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I have been thinking of the martyrs because of Sandy Hook. The NRA advises schools to hire armed guards because they think the best way to prevent gun violence is the threat of more gun violence. The peace is preserved by fear of retaliation. But to me, that feels like giving up. It feels like apostasy – the loss of faith in Christ and his kingdom.

Fear is thoroughly inconsistent with the Christian vision for a just society. The kingdom of God is a reign of peace preserved by love. Thus I cannot imagine St. Ignatius taking up arms or St. Polycarp packing heat. Rather, they took seriously Jesus’ command not to resist an evil person (Matt 5:39). I do not know whether that means we should turn the cheek in every situation or not, but it does suggest that the false peace of mutual threat (the peace of the NRA) is a far cry from the kind of peace to which we are called.

That is why (even though I own guns), I cannot understand the logic of the NRA. I guess it would make sense if the kingdom of God did not exist. Maybe then there would be something to the idea of universal deterrent. But accepting that we can only have peace if we all carry guns feels like an act of unbelief. It feels like giving up.


4 thoughts on “Polycarp, Ignatius, and the NRA”

  1. David, I believe you've raised a question that haunts many of us. I have been wondering myself about what happened at Sandy Hook elementary, specifically in the case of the young woman who died hiding a few children in the closet. What astounds me was her utter bravery sans gun, bravery that looks like the way I picture Perpetua. That young woman and Perpetua make me wonder if we (speaking on behalf of my fellow Texans, here) want these guns on our bodies because we are actually scared we wouldn't have that kind of courage. I don't know- but I do see what you are saying here and I don't think you've equated martyrdom to these children. What I do hear you saying however, is that gun for gun is fueled by fear, rather than bravery, and I believe that point deserves a lot more unpacking.

    1. It's true, St. Ignatius and Polycarp were both killed for being Christians. The Sandy Hook children and teachers were killed because… well, we don't really know. That doesn't sound like a cause worth dying for.

    2. I see your point Allen and John; I was not trying to compare the children of Sandy Hook to martyrs. I was talking about the manner in which the saints of the church (our exemplars) conducted themselves in every moment of their lives. Like I said, I do not know how far to take "Do not resist an evil person" in every possible situation, but I am pretty sure it means not preparing to use deadly force against evil every time I walk out the door. I would rather conduct myself in faith and hope. Maybe that is naive, but I prefer naivete to what, from my perspective, looks like a kind of acquiescence to evil. I think a Christian should be more prepared to die than to kill.


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